On Feb. 8, 2012, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) Superintendent Ronal Serpas and other city officials gathered for an annual tradition: the Mardi Gras behavior press conference.
"This event cannot work well without the complete and total cooperation of our citizens," Landrieu told the reporters in attendance. "Be civil. Be respectful. Follow the rules. Be courteous to fellow paradegoers."
"The theme is common sense, common courtesy, common safety ... ladders. This has been going on for the 30-plus years I've been a policeman and the 51 years I've lived, in part, in New Orleans," Serpas said, then made a special appeal to Krewe of Endymion attendees, who are infamous for setting up camp on Orleans Avenue and other main drags in Mid-City many days in advance of the superkrewe's parade. "Please don't bring your kitchen, your living room, your bedroom set and your next door neighbor's to the Endymion neutral ground," Serpas said.
The city's Mardi Gras parade ordinances are clear: Ladders must be placed as many feet from the curb as they are high, no fencing of public property is allowed, and no bulky furniture, structures or tents can be placed on neutral grounds. But Serpas' appeal to revelers' sense of decency was basically toothless, because — as mayoral spokesman Ryan Berni later told The Times-Picayune — enforcement of Mardi Gras laws would be "scaled back" due to budget constraints.
One week later, Gambit's Kevin Allman went to Orleans Avenue and found large tracts of grass marked off with spray paint and garden stakes. By Friday morning, 29 hours before the parade was scheduled to roll, "we find that it's not just a hardy soul or two camped out on the Krewe of Endymion route — there are people, tarps, tents, ice chests, chairs and CAUTION tape everywhere," Allman wrote.
"I think [police] do their best, it's a tough time. ... The police are spread thin," says Endymion captain Ed Muniz. But the city should do more preventive work ahead of parades, he says. "I wouldn't be in favor of them not allowing ladders, period. I'm not saying that. But they should have some sort of an investigative group look into how best to police the ladders."
Muniz adds that the proliferation of ladders and structures isn't only a safety problem. It also diminishes the parade-watching experience.
"When you go out there, and you walk along the neutral ground. It's a wall of ladders. How do you see the parade?" he says. "It's a real problem for people trying to watch the parade."
With the height of Carnival season 2013 approaching, Berni says paradegoers should expect similar enforcement this year: "It's basically the same this year as always."
But while ladder control has become a hotly debated point of etiquette on parade routes, few seem to remember the reason the law was enacted in the first place: the death of a child.
Jeffrey Bostick, who lives near the Uptown parade route and writes the blog Library Chronicles (librarychronicles.blogspot.com), took pictures of hundreds of neutral-ground violations last year. Bostick has made a yearly habit of chronicling dangerous obstructions and discourtesy along the routes. In 2011, above a picture of seven ladders placed precariously, inches away from the curb, he wrote: "Shit like this, which we see all the damn time, is wrong. This is actually wrong on both counts above, as the ladders are not only too close to the curb but they are also bound together in such a way that they form a barrier to fellow paradegoers who may wish to pass nearby."
The current laws on the city's books result, in part, from "shit like this." In 1981, 8-year-old Christian Lambert was crushed to death during the Krewe of Orleanians parade on St. Charles Avenue.
"Police said the boy was sitting on an aluminum ladder when the surging crowd knocked the ladder over, throwing the boy between the cab and trailer of Float 48," reads a report in The Times-Picayune/States-Item.
Lambert's was only one of two children who died at parades that year. Three-year-old Margaret McKenzie was also killed by a float. According to news reports, police said she was crushed after she ran under a Zulu float to retrieve a throw. McKenzie's parents later disputed that story, claiming she was knocked under the float by an unruly crowd, and sued the city, NOPD and Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club.
Responding to the deaths, then-Mayor Dutch Morial convened a Mardi Gras Task Force to make recommendations on how to improve parade safety. The report, "Mardi Gras Un-Masked," released in November 1981, called for specific improvements to float construction and standardized parade routes. It recommended that spectators "be mindful of barricades, be cautious with ladders and stay out of trees and off other climbable objects," according to the The Times-Picayune/States-Item.
The city also began publishing annual safety and courtesy guidelines in the newspaper. These evolved over time. In 1982, then-NOPD Superintendent Henry Morris warned parents to keep ladders "at least three feet back from the curb," regardless of height.
It would be about two years, however, before the New Orleans City Council would pass its first comprehensive Carnival safety ordinance based on negotiations between city government and the Mayor's Carnival Coordinating Committee, which was made up of city officials and krewe members. Passed in January 1984, that ordinance had nothing to say about spectator ladders or the fencing of public property. Erecting tents or structures along parade routes was prohibited, except with the permission of parade organizations.
In 1985, the City Council adopted what is more or less the current code, including the provisions on ladders and claiming space on neutral grounds. Setting up tents and structures would require permission from both parade organizations and the Department of Safety and Permits. Violators would be subject to a fine of $300 and up to five months in jail. (The current version of the code, most recently revised in 1999, does not set specific penalties but says violations are punishable "by such fine and/or imprisonment as are allowable by law.")
In subsequent years, however, the problems have continued.
"I think it's fair to ask if it really does get worse every year," Bostick wrote in an email to Gambit. "I think it's getting worse. But it's getting worse in the same way the Earth is warming. There may be year to year statistical aberrations caused by fluctuations in the weather, or by how early or late a Carnival we're having, or by one-time occurrences like Super Bowls or hurricanes, or 9/11s, etc.
"But the trend is toward a more crowded, territorial, unfriendly experience, and it makes me sad to think about it."
Bostick thinks it's partly the result of gradual consolidation of parade routes over the past several decades. In order to reduce the burden on police, the city whittled down the list of designated routes over the years, and some parade krewes combined or disbanded altogether.
The result, Bostick writes, is that the remaining routes are packed with spectators.
"The greater variety in routes ... spread the party out more evenly across the area," he writes. "It wasn't necessary for everyone to cram along St. Charles for every parade. And, of course, when more people could attend a parade within walking distance of or a shorter drive from their home, fewer of them were inclined to pack up their entire living rooms and haul them across town."
The other problem, Bostick adds, is what he sees as lax enforcement of longtime laws.
Mason Harrison, communications director for newly elected District B City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, who represents the district that includes most of the Uptown parade route, says Cantrell had not yet heard any concerns from constituents in advance of the parades.
"This is not actively on our radar, but of course it's a concern. Every year it's a concern," Harrison says of the ladder laws. "But we're not doing anything different this year than any other councilmember in the past."
In spite of last year's "scaled back" enforcement, the city tallied more than 1,000 neutral ground citations, according to statistics released shortly after Mardi Gras 2012. Berni says the only new issue the city encountered last year was "companies leaving out port-o-lets after the parades were over, which is a problem."
"I like that the mayor has at least made some show of voicing concerns in recent years," Bostick writes. "A little public awareness can go a long way. I've been trying for a long time in that vein. But I think they'll have to start taking a little more action out on the route.
"Maybe citations are in order in some cases, but really I'd just be happy to see officers along the route offering friendly advice to people on where to set their ladders up, or getting them to move chairs out of the intersection. NOPD is always highly visible on St. Charles, but I've never seen them say anything to anyone about this. If I see even one such conversation this year, I'll consider it a successful Carnival."