Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Save the Bonfire: Mid-City leaders organize

Posted By on Tue, Dec 23, 2008 at 5:21 PM

click to enlarge Bonfire Listening

At this morning's planning meeting to save the Mid-City Bonfire, a committee of more than a dozen Mid-City residents gathered to strategize, including ad hoc leader Virginia Blanque (in the red sweater) and Mark Folse (green sweater) of Save the Bonfire

This morning, 17 Mid-City residents and bonfire advocates met this morning at the Bean Gallery on N. Carrollton Avenue to plan their next move before afternoon meetings with Councilwoman Shelley Midura and New Orleans Fire Superintendent Charles Parent. Virginia Blanque, vice-president of the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization, led the meeting, which was far less (ahem) heated than last night's contentious community gathering at Grace Episcopal Church. "I've heard a lot of people say that they were going to do it [start a bonfire] regardless," said Blanque, "and I'd rather direct the energy."

The group agreed on a proposal for the New Orleans fire and police departments, which included the following items:

Moving the bonfire from its traditional location in the neutral ground at 4200 Orleans Avenue to a more open area near the American Can Company at 3700 Orleans Avenue. The move seems to answer two of the fire department's chief concerns: keeping the blaze farther away from houses, and putting it closer to a hydrant source.

• Erecting signage warning people not to toss fireworks or "foreign materials" into the bonfire.

• Enacting an educational campaign with the crowd, explaining to them that good behavior was essential "to save our Mid-City tradition."

• Organizing a brigade of volunteer "bonfire marshals" to work as liaisons in the crowd.

• Putting up a sign at 4200 Orleans to direct people to the new site.

• Exploring the option of closing Moss Street to assist in crowd control and safety.

• Designating a cleanup crew to take away the debris. Several people suggested approaching local sanitation services (Richard's, Metro, and SDT) to see if they would volunteer to haul away any collected garbage.

• Promising to cooperate with the NOFD should the fire department decide that the fire needs to be shut down.

Midway through the meeting, Councilmember-at-large Arnie Fielkow arrived to listen to the committee's concerns. When had he first heard of the city's plan to stop the bonfire?

"A week ago," he said. "I got an email from a constituent, and then I emailed Councilwoman [Shelley] Midura." Fielkow said his office had been flooded with email and phone calls about the bonfire, "99 percent" of which were in favor of continuing the tradition, he said. "We want to figure out how to keep it going for this year," Fielkow added, "and then have further discussion as to how to approach it for next year. But time is running out."

click to enlarge Fielkow small

Councilmember-at-large Arnie Fielkow (left) and NOFD captain Nicholas Felton listen to the crowd's concerns.

To get further perspective, Fielkow called NOFD Capt. Nicholas Felton, who came down to listen to the group's concerns ex oficio: "I'm not authorized to be here from the fire department," he said, "and I cannot speak for the NOFD." Nevertheless, he expressed his belief that "a reasonable compromise" could emerge, though he stressed "The superintendent and the police don't have a choice. They have to enforce the law." He said that he'd seen footage of previous bonfires on YouTube, and said "That was plenty, plenty, plenty, plenty fire," drawing a laugh from the crowd.

A smaller group broke off to go down to City Hall with two goals: to present the revised plan to city officials and apply for a permit (a $75 expense). In response to a crowd question, Blanque said that officials at last night's meeting said that the group would not be responsible for insurance.

The meetings with Chief Parent and Councilwoman Midura were set for late morning or early afternoon. For his part, Fielkow (who said he'd never been to the bonfire) seemed cautiously optimistic, referring to the event's "long history and tradition.

"This is reasonable people, coming to the table and trying to find a solution," he said.

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