It's not that parade lovers totally abandoned the krewe, which this year will celebrate its 75th anniversary by adding new and larger floats " including its first 50-rider float. Even in the worst years, people still lined Canal Street from St. Patrick to Carrollton Avenue, but the crowd thinned significantly as the parade approached Jeff Davis Parkway. 'Then, from Jeff Davis to University Street, there were barely three people per block," Braud recalls with a note of sadness. 'We literally had more policemen per block than we had people. It was the sad realization of a trend I had seen since joining the Krewe of Mid-City in 1987 " the crowds were getting smaller every year."
Smaller crowds along the neighborhood streets and City Hall's need to concentrate police manpower where crowds were large forced Mid-City and several other krewes to give up their traditional parade routes in favor of the well-worn Uptown route along Napoleon and St. Charles avenues.
Braud sees a direct correlation between the demise of neighborhood parade routes and the rise of so-called super krewes, some of which draw hundreds of thousands of parade-goers. 'People were fighting for ladder space along the Mid-City route Friday night, waiting for the Saturday night parade," he says. 'But come Sunday morning, it was a different story."
Rather than watching the Krewe of Mid-City's colorful foil floats on Sunday (Mid-City remains unique among Carnival parades for its all-foil float decorations), crowds began heading to St. Charles Avenue in larger and larger numbers to line up for Bacchus, the original super krewe, and the two parades that precede it. 'Given a choice of watching one parade or seeing three parades, the crowds chose three," Braud says.
In 2002, the Krewe of Mid-City left its neighborhood and began tracing the traditional Uptown route long favored by City Hall and the New Orleans Police Department. 'Giving up our traditional route felt like we were losing a big piece of our identity," Braud recalls. 'But it is what it is " many people who once lived in the Mid-City neighborhood had moved out to the suburbs, the people who once came to the parade were going to see bigger parades, the children of the people who once rode in our parade were now riding in super krewes, and the new people who moved to Mid-City wouldn't accept an invitation to ride."
In recent years, several other East Bank neighborhood krewes " Carrollton, Okeanos and Thoth " have had to abandon or modify their traditional routes in response to similar pressures. On the West Bank, the all-black Krewe of NOMTOC likewise has modified its original route in response to crowd sizes and official pressures.
One thing hasn't changed, however: each of the city's oldest neighborhood krewes still maintains some form of physical and emotional tie to the part of town that gave it life more than 50 years ago. Each krewe, for example, still has its original den in the old neighborhood. Some also continue unique traditions that bind them to neighborhood institutions.
At the same time, each krewe also has evolved in response to the changing times, adding members from other parts of town " or even other parts of the country " and taking on modern Mardi Gras touches.
'While we have to face the fact that we're not the old neighborhood krewe we once were, we're optimistic about the future. We've overcome the Katrina adversities of seeing our den and all of our floats flooded," Braud says, adding with a chuckle, 'We now know that floats do float."
Like the Krewe of Mid-City, the Krewe of Carrollton once rolled right from its den onto the parade route. That changed in 1996, when Carrollton moved to the Uptown route. Carrollton still houses its own floats in its original Oak Street den, however, and each year the krewe opens its doors to members and neighbors for a float previewing party.
Wayne Lee, who has served a Carrollton's captain since 1996, was the last king to ride the traditional neighborhood route. 'We had tremendous support from all the businesses along Oak Street back then, because our parade helped revitalize Oak Street," he recalls. 'The city let us have one last ride in the old neighborhood before we had to move Uptown, and I remember being king that year and having the biggest crowds we ever had. The people were just so thankful that we were back in the neighborhood, even if it was just for one last ride."
This year's king of Carrollton, photographer Ralph Romaguera, likewise remembers the old route fondly, but he also embraces some of the changes that modern times and pressures have brought.
'I remember ending our parades at Municipal Auditorium back in the '70s and having the ball right afterwards rather than a few days before, as we do now," says Romaguera, whose daughters Carol and Liddy have previously served as queens of Carrollton. 'The auditorium provided some very dramatic settings for us and was much more evocative of the old, traditional balls. Today we use the Hilton, which is very nice and classy. As a rider, I much prefer to split the ball and the ride."
When it comes to maintaining ties to the old neighborhood, few krewes can match the efforts of NOMTOC, the African-American krewe founded in 1951 (but which didn't parade initially) by a group of friends who worked as letter carriers in Old Algiers. The club has its roots in a church fair at All Saints Catholic Church. The fair organizers later sponsored a beauty contest, which later evolved into NOMTOC " an acronym for New Orleans' Most Talked-Of Club. Membership in the club itself is exclusive " it has just 60 members " whereas the krewe has a riding membership approaching 500.
'We have really reached out to the neighborhood," says NOMTOC president Warren Green, who has led the group for 24 years. 'We adopted the elementary school next door and O.P. Walker High School. We give donations to the high school every year. We also help the local bands that play in our parade by letting two students from those schools ride in the parade for free."
Green notes that because NOMTOC parades on the Saturday before Mardi Gras, it has to compete with super krewe Endymion for crowds as well as marching bands. But NOMTOC has held its own, he says. 'Our ball got so big we had to cap the guest list at 1,800. We have 26 floats this year, the largest parade we've ever had " and we still parade in part of the old neighborhood. We go up Whitney to Mardi Gras Boulevard, to Nunez, then to Lamarque, to Teche, then to Newton. Much of that is part of the original route."
Like other neighborhood krewes, NOMTOC's original members all lived in the same area, and the club's headquarters remains in Old Algiers, on Newton Street. Today, however, NOMTOC's riding membership hails from as far away as California.
'It's the biggest thing that happens in Old Algiers," says NOMTOC's 2008 king, state Sen. Ed Murray of New Orleans. 'On the day of our parade, it's like Carnival Day itself. The crowds are really huge, and it's beginning to attract larger and larger crowds every year " from the East Bank and even the Northshore. We have a couple of double-tandem floats, but most are still on a neighborhood scale."
One neighborhood route that may never change is the portion of the Krewe of Thoth's annual ride that brings it past more than a dozen Uptown institutions serving the needs of seriously ill or handicapped persons who cannot get out to see parades. Thoth's long commitment to the notion of bringing Mardi Gras to shut-ins has made it a sentimental favorite for decades.
'We started with five floats and just 62 riders," says the Thoth captain, whose identity remains an official secret. 'Today we have 40 floats, three dens, and 1,250 riders."
Indeed, Thoth has grown from a neighborhood krewe to one of Mardi Gras' largest parading organizations. 'We didn't leave Uptown until the 1960s," the captain recalls. 'Through the 1940s and '50s, we started at the Behrmann Gym, and the entire route was Uptown."
Even today, part of Thoth's route remains 'Uptown" " that is, above Napoleon Avenue. 'We have always passed the New Orleans Home and Rehab Center on Henry Clay, and that is still one of my favorite spots on the route," says the captain. 'I truly believe our members enjoy the Henry Clay and Magazine part of our route the best. It's amazing how many people have house parties and family get-togethers Uptown on that Sunday. I know the media refer to our parade date as "Bacchus Sunday,' but try telling the people above Napoleon Avenue that!"
Thoth's ties to the old Uptown neighborhood remain strong, even though much of its route now traces St. Charles Avenue and downtown.
'On the Wednesday prior to the beginning of parade season we have the "Thoth March,'" the captain notes. 'We meet at the Buzzards Hall, where we met in the '40s and '50s, and have lunch brought over from Domilise's. Miss Dot Domilise still runs that place. We then march from place to place " Children's Hospital, Covenant Nursing Home, Lighthouse for the Blind, the Poydras Home, the New Orleans Adolescent Hospital " and we end at New Orleans Home and Rehab Center for their annual "Krewe of Angels,' ball in which we participate."
In addition, Thoth's 'Pharaoh's Club" of past kings still hosts a Christmas party and a king cake party at St. Michael's School.
The only other neighborhood krewe whose roots extend back more than 50 years is the Krewe of Okeanos, which today is the smallest such krewe. Okeanos has only 160 members, but the krewe stays true to its roots in the Upper Ninth Ward " which didn't become 'Bywater" until years after the krewe's route shifted toward Uptown.
'Our original route had us starting on Poland Avenue, and we would go up St. Claude and North Rampart," says Okeanos captain Nicholas Lapara, who has led the krewe for 14 years. He is only the third krewe leader in Okeanos' 59-year history.
'Repaving work along St. Claude Avenue is what caused us to have to move," Lapara recalls. 'When they tore up the streets on and near St. Claude, we moved to the Mid-City route of Endymion " Orleans Avenue to Carrollton Avenue. Today our route is Uptown, starting at Perrier and Napoleon, then to St. Charles and down the traditional Uptown route."
Lapara says Okeanos still has a small handful of its original members, most of whom were neighborhood business owners on or near St. Claude Avenue. The krewe's den remains in the old neighborhood " at 4525 N. Robertson St. Like Carrollton and other neighborhood parades, Okeanos opens its den to members and locals alike for a float previewing party. The krewe also likes to keep its annual parade themes 'local."
'This year's theme will be "Back to the Future,'" says Lapara. 'We chose that theme purposely after Katrina. Our floats include streetcars, which we always believed would come back, and others reflect local institutions like City Park, Audubon Park " all things we sort of lost in Katrina but which are coming back. It's going to be a very New Orleans theme that celebrates all the things we appreciated before Katrina, which we hope are coming back after the storm."
Indeed, the resurgence of the neighborhood krewes themselves could be one of Okeanos' floats in such a parade. While the pressures of rising costs and competition from super krewes will always be there, Mid-City's Braud notes an attraction that the neighborhood krewes have unto themselves.
'Many of our riders tell us that selecting a small krewe is like selecting a small, quality university, rather than enrolling in a huge college," Braud says. 'A neighborhood krewe has a feel, a style, and taste that you can't get anywhere else. It is personal and personable. It is a boutique experience."