It started with a flyer sent around the Internet Dec. 16 and dropped in mailboxes in the Mid-City neighborhood: "The bonfire held on the 4200 block of Orleans Avenue each New Year's Eve is illegal and dangerous. Join the New Orleans Police Department, the New Orleans Fire Department, and the Department of Parks & Parkways for an informational session on this illegal bonfire and how you can keep your community safe."
The reaction was swift — and fierce. Within a day, a blog had been launched (savethebonfire.blogspot.com), a petition placed online (gathering more than 1,100 signatures in less than a week), signs appeared on the neutral ground of Orleans Avenue over the weekend to rally support for the fire, and neighbors called and emailed their council representatives. Councilwoman Shelley Midura, who represents the district, made her position clear in an email: "The bonfire is against the law. I have sworn to uphold the law as an elected official. My position is clear: The Fire Department believes this situation is extremely dangerous, and it is against the law."
Of that there was no doubt; piling dry Christmas trees in the neutral ground of a residential neighborhood and setting them ablaze was a clear violation of the city's open-burning law. New Orleans, with its wood-frame houses packed tightly together, has always been particularly susceptible to fire. And in recent years, the Mid-City gathering had begun to attract larger crowds; there was talk of nudity, of severe drunkenness, of illegal fireworks tossed into the fire, of celebrants from elsewhere who respected neither the tradition nor the neighborhood. YouTube videos, broadcast on local news, showed grainy, dramatic images of a fire that seemed to rage out of control, surrounded by whooping partiers.
Supporters of the bonfire had their own arguments. In the decades of its existence, not a house had been burned. The New Orleans fire and police departments have always sent firefighters and officers to keep things under control. In a city where New Year's Eve has been scarred with falling bullets, wasn't a bonfire a safer diversion? Didn't it keep drunks out of their cars and on the streets? Didn't the police have better things to do? Since the residents cleaned up the mess themselves, what was the problem? And in a city fiercely dedicated to customs, how could such a thing be taken away without discussion or previous notice, fewer than two weeks before New Year's?
The law was clear. But so was the tradition. Regardless, the flyer landed like a match in kindling — within a week, it had gone from the subject of Internet chatter to a bemused feature in USA Today — and by week's end it wasn't clear who would be scorched.
LIKE OTHER NEW ORLEANS community gathering traditions — Mardi Gras Indian processions, second lines, the Southern Decadence parade — the Mid-City bonfire started from modest beginnings decades ago and evolved organically. No one seems to know quite when it began.
"I've been here 43 years, and it was before that," says neighbor Sylvia Pellegrini, 73, who adds the bonfire has grown "enormously" during her years on Orleans Avenue. "Mostly it was the immediate neighborhood, you know? Then they started coming from all different areas. We have an open house and we're in and out. It goes on till about 3 in the morning."
Joe Laura, 37, has attended the bonfire since he was 12 years old. "It was mostly us kids that would make sure the trees were on the neutral ground when they were supposed to be," he says. "We used to put the trees out earlier, and one year the city came and picked them up. Several years after that, we would hide the trees behind Dibert School and throw a few decoys out on the neutral ground. The city would come and pick up the decoys and then soon before midnight you would see 15 or 20 kids running across the street with trees."
Laura was among the estimated 160 residents who packed the pews at Grace Episcopal Church on Canal Street Monday night for the promised informational session. In front of the altar were representatives from the police and fire departments, including fire superintendent Charles Parent, as well as City Councilmembers Shelley Midura and Arnie Fielkow; in the back of the church, representatives of the police and fire departments stood silently. In the crowd, a child waved a sign reading "Bon means good."
Parent addressed the crowd first, saying the ban didn't come from citizen complaints, but was raised by his own department after firefighters were treated disrespectfully in recent years. "My firefighters were actually assaulted by bottle rockets, bottles, rocks. They were called names. I asked the police to protect my firefighters.
"We swear an oath to protect citizens of New Orleans," he added. "We can't idly sit by and watch this happen knowing that somebody's going to get hurt. Somebody's going to lose their house. Over the last few years, I sent fire engines to be in the neighborhood just in case something happened. But that's not proactive." His suggestion? "If you want to have a function with a band, I could see that as being a nice function. We could start a new tradition. We can have lights, a band. Alcohol if y'all want."
Derisive laughter from the crowd. Then Midura stepped up. "I'm going to support putting public safety first over anything. ... On the night of the event, the fire department has told me, there are so many people, a lot of people are drunk, it's a perfect opportunity for fighting and yelling and screaming and for things to get out of hand."
The residents groaned in unison. "Have you ever been?" yelled one man. "Have any of you ever been?"
"I'm only recounting what I've been told," Midura said.
"Why didn't we have this conversation Jan. 10?" shouted a man in the crowd.
Fielkow grinned wryly. "You have a point."
For the next hour, the meeting grew more contentious. John Gerone, a 19-year resident of Mid-City, said, "I've seen abuse and disorder. I've witnessed some fighting. Statutory ordinances for Orleans (Parish) restrict fires and fireworks. It's a matter of legality and now public safety. The loss of one life, one injury, one property, is a bigger concern to me than celebrating the New Year."
But Gerone was the only citizen speaker against the bonfire. Most sided with Gina Montana, who said, "I can't explain to you, as a single mom, how safe and secure I felt walking up Orleans at 11:30 at night. That's all I do, every single New Year's Eve for the past 14 years. We didn't have to worry about guns, bullets being shot in the air. December 2005, after the Army got us out of our house and the floodwaters of Katrina, we were gone three and a half months. That December, I walked up Orleans and there was the bonfire.
"The last year or so, it's more crowded. You see people running around the fire. It's different. But I don't think it's so different or so dangerous to stop it. I'm a Mardi Gras Indian," Montana continued. "The bonfire is one of my traditions. What I'm thinking of is a way to make it work where we can comply with the ordinances and the safety of the citizens and also allow the tradition to continue — kind of a similar analogy to what happened with the Indians. There were some laws and some fights and things, but we made it work so the tradition can live. Our tradition and culture will not die on us. Because it's important to the cultural tapestry that makes New Orleans unique and rare for what it is."
The crowd erupted in applause.
Fielkow suggested organizing a small committee to meet at City Hall to hammer out a compromise ("Let's have it now!" shouted several in the crowd) as the room fell into squabbling. "This is ridiculous!" yelled Midura, and the fire officials declared the meeting over. Quickly, Mid-City Neighborhood Association vice-president Virginia Blanque, a former aide to Fielkow, got several people to agree to meet at Midura's office the next morning.
Out on Canal Street, a man walked away from the church. "It's going to happen," he yelled over his shoulder. "People are going to show up anyway."
THINGS WERE LESS HEATED the next morning, Dec. 23, at the Bean Gallery coffeehouse on North Carrollton Avenue, where Blanque led a meeting of more than a dozen volunteers who were drafting a plan in advance of an afternoon meeting with Midura and Parent. Swiftly, they reached a consensus: relocating the bonfire to the neutral ground in front of the American Can Company (more space, fewer homes, nearby hydrants), having a citizen-led crackdown on illegal fireworks, placing volunteer monitors in the crowd, and approaching local sanitation services to see if any would donate clean-up services.
Fielkow came in, looking tired but calm, and ordered a coffee. He said the first he'd heard of the ban was a week ago from a constituent, but his office had been flooded with calls and emails since — "99 percent pro-bonfire." The councilman had never been to the event, but added, "There is some legitimate concern with public safety, but there's also a long history and tradition. But this is good: reasonable people coming to the table and finding a solution."
That afternoon, Blanque's group met with representatives of the NOFD, including Parent, in Midura's office, and came out with a compromise. The bonfire would not have to move from its traditional spot. Instead, it would be confined to a 12-foot-square area, with strict fire department controls including welders' cloth spread on the ground. Fireworks would be forbidden, a ban enforced formally by the city and informally by a citizen group of neighbors working as volunteer marshals. It was a compromise that exceeded the Mid-City group's expectations, and it seemed taken aback at the speed with which the city reversed itself.
"We had some rank and file of the fire department behind us," said Blanque's husband Charlie, who said he views the bonfire as a bonding ritual for locals: "These are the people who came back right away after Katrina, the homeowners and small business people."
By Christmas Eve — just 72 hours after the contentious meeting at Grace Episcopal — there were still some details to be worked out with the police department and the city's Department of Parks & Parkways, which required the posting of a surety bond, but the Mid-City group was already receiving donations. The bonfire seemed back on track, assuming the details could be worked out with the police department and Parks & Parkways. On Friday, the group turned in its drawings and applications to the city, and Blanque said approval was expected only to be a formality: "If it falls apart — well, the onus is on us."
"Without any rules and regulations, we're to the point where somebody could get hurt," added Charlie Blanque. "This could make it a little safer for everybody."