While no one would call the Krewe of Endymion a neighborhood krewe it has 2,450 members and 25 super-tandem floats the group does have historic ties to New Orleans' Mid-City neighborhood. Until a few years ago, Endymion wound its way right through the heart of Mid-City, rolling up Orleans Avenue to Carrollton Avenue, then to Canal Street and downtown.
When the super krewe was forced to adopt the Uptown route in 2006, it didn't sit well with the captain, krewe members or the hundreds of thousands of Endymion fans. Happily, Endymion's return this year to its traditional Mid-City route serves as a reminder that Mardi Gras is more than a celebration; it evokes a sense of place. It also reminds us that a parade can have a huge impact on the collective psyche of a neighborhood on the mend.
"The Yankees play in Yankee Stadium, the Cubs play in Wrigley Field, the Red Sox play at Fenway Park, and Endymion plays on Orleans Avenue," says krewe founder and captain Ed Muniz, who doubles as mayor of Kenner these days.
"We lost the battle, but we won the war because we got them back long term," adds Mid-City Neighborhood Organization (MCNO) Vice President Jennifer Weishaupt. "Since all the neighborhood parades have all gone away and everyone's consolidated to one route, we didn't want Katrina to be the spark to have that happen to us."
MCNO leaders and Mid-City residents hoped to get Endymion back for the 2007 Carnival season. Weishaupt, who chairs the group's economic development committee, says MCNO began lobbying City Council members in October 2006 to let Endymion return to the neighborhood. The Council unanimously supported the idea, but Police Chief Warren Riley nixed it, saying he didn't have enough officers to cover the parade. Riley said the many abandoned houses on and near the route would create an environment that would be difficult to control.
Last year Riley assured MCNO and the council that Endymion could roll in Mid-City in 2008. The Council passed a resolution noting that Endymion would return to Mid-City "in the year of 2008 and going forward into perpetuity."
Mardi Gras historian Arthur Hardy notes that the second Saturday of the parade season puts a lot of stress on NOPD in terms of logistics. Parades that day include NOMTOC, a large and popular Algiers parade that rolls in the morning, followed by Iris and Tucks on the Uptown route and finishing with Endymion's Mid-City trek.
"The fact that NOPD has the manpower to do that speaks volumes about where we are in the recovery," Hardy says. "To me it's a win, win, win, win. Mid-City wins, Endymion wins, Uptown wins and, most of all, NOPD is strong enough, even if it's not 100 percent. I never want to sound like I have rose-colored glasses but this is certainly more than a baby step back."
Muniz and his krewe also lobbied to get back to their home digs. Muniz says he understands why Riley needed to temporarily relocate Endymion, but the move did cause its own problems. Uptown was gridlocked (Muniz says it was the only day that cars were unable to exit from the I-10 to St. Charles Avenue), the massive parade had to form on the narrow streets of Tchoupitoulas, and Uptown parade crowds weren't accustomed to the camping out, all-day party style of Endymion enthusiasts.
"That's what's important about going back we made history out there with the Samedi (French for Saturday) celebration," Muniz says. 'We were the first ones, except for Mardi Gras day itself, to turn it into an all-day event. It's very special and we identify with it. When we went to Uptown, even though we were very large and had a big crowd, we were one of many."
Muniz says that the full-day Samedi Gras began because so many families were staking out their territory on Orleans Avenue many hours and sometimes days in advance of the parade. The family invasion usually arrives full force some time on Friday afternoon, with lines demarcated by blankets, tarps and lawn chairs with a couple of members guarding the familial fiefdom overnight. "The crowd at 6 a.m. was deep, deep, deep," Muniz recalls, "so we decided if they can't go anywhere, we might as well entertain them." The krewe sets up a large outdoor stage, bands are invited to play, NOPD closes off surrounding streets by 11 a.m. and instead of simply being a super parade, Endymion transforms into a family-friendly festival.
This year the festivities will kick off with the Chee-Weez playing at 11:30 a.m., followed by the Top Cats and then a full concert by local rockers Cowboy Mouth. By the time Endymion Grand Marshall Kevin Costner and the other celebrity riders, musical legends The Doobie Brothers and The Go-Gos, arrive on the scene, the crowd on Orleans Avenue won't be a sea of humanity, it'll be an ocean.
Technically, the official Samedi Gras is confined to Orleans Avenue, but the laissez faire reality is that it spreads throughout Mid-City with hundreds of people hosting individual house parties. For this community Weishaupt says that according to MCNO's most recent survey of the neighborhood, Mid-City is roughly 70 percent repopulated the parade represents another milestone in its recovery. Weishaupt and her husband host their own annual Endymion party, but this time it will include the couple's 20-month-old son, Aidan, and will be more family-focused than previous years. Plus, the party will commence a little later because for Weishaupt, the celebration now means more than just hosting a party for friends from elsewhere in the city.
"I want to be able to go out on our bicycles with my son and ride the route and visit people," she says. 'We have such a great community in Mid-City and we've really interconnected with a lot of people over the last two years."
Councilwoman Shelley Midura says Mardi Gras normally brings with it a renewed sense of enthusiasm for New Orleans there really is no other American city quite like this one and Mardi Gras is part of that distinctiveness but this year's Endymion parade means more than just a respite from winter's doldrums.
"I think it's going to be a huge shot in the arm for a neighborhood that's really tried hard to come back," Midura says. This is part of the reason that some people move to Mid-City, to be part of the parade route."
Local merchants will feel that shot in the arm as well. Before MCNO approached the City Council about Endymion in 2006, the organization compiled a survey of Mid-City businesses (bars, restaurants and grocery stores) that year asking them what kind of economic impact the Endymion parade had on them. Because the parade was rerouted due to the streetcar extension in 2003, most of the businesses surveyed (some had not reopened yet after Katrina) were able to compare a year with a parade to a year without. According to Weishaupt, the difference couldn't have been greater: the Saturday with the parade meant the most profitable day of the year and the Saturday without Endymion translated into the least profitable day. Bar and restaurant owners preferred not to release exact numbers, but they did tell MCNO that revenue increased between twofold and eightfold from that of a typical Saturday.
Kathy Anderson owns Parkview Tavern on North Carrollton, which is about two blocks off Endymion's parade route. She says she's happy to get the added boost in business as a result of the parade but adds that Endymion is helping to restore pride in the neighborhood as well.
"It validates Mid-City," Anderson says. "We lost the Krewe of Mid-City and Endymion is now a unifying part of our neighborhood. New Orleans is all about neighborhoods, and Endymion makes our neighborhood special."
Finn McCool's Irish Pub owner Stephen Patterson joined MCNO when the group addressed the City Council in 2006 because although his bar isn't in a tourist area and depends on bar regulars, the parade will bring newcomers potential regulars to his pub. Patterson goes so far as to say that Endymion was one of the reasons he reopened after the levee failures.
"We own the building, so we have invested in the neighborhood," he says. "We were closed for eight months after the storm and this is definitely one event that means a lot to us."
Patterson says that on Samedi Gras, he'll lead a mini-parade of his own to the Endymion route, just three blocks away.
"Hopefully afterwards, we'll get them back to the pub," he adds.
Bryan Block runs the Block-Keller House, a bed and breakfast on Canal Street. He says that even though his business gets more repeat bookings for Jazz Fest "no one has ever stayed there for more than one Mardi Gras the parade's return to Mid-City is something he shares with tourists who are considering visiting but are concerned about the neighborhood's recovery. Block assures them that Mid-City is revitalizing because the residents have always had a strong community bond.
"This is a neighborhood that really loves itself," Block says. "This shows that it's really healing."
When Mandina's Restaurant on Canal Street reopened its doors in February 2007, many in Mid-City viewed it as a sign of the neighborhood's recovery as well. Mandina's has been a part of the community first as a grocery store, then a pool hall and finally as a restaurant for 110 years. This year, however, is the first time the restaurant will offer a one-price package for the parade crowd that includes a buffet, open bar and, most importantly, restroom privileges. And just like trying to get a table there on a Saturday night, you will have to wait to get in on this deal a year to be exact, since the package is already sold out for 2008.
Although the Krewe of Endymion hasn't been around as long as Mandina's, it has changed dramatically in its 42-year existence. The parade first rolled in 1967 with 155 members who rode on borrowed floats, and it certainly didn't command the kind of attention it gets today from the NOPD or paradegoers. In fact, because of the parade's original starting point on DeSaix Boulevard, Endymion had to play second fiddle to the ponies at the Fair Grounds Race Course.
"It was a kick because you couldn't do this today," recalls Muniz. "The police would tell us when the Fair Grounds' traffic had cleared out on Gentilly so we could start the parade."
For that first procession, Muniz and his krewe weren't even sure they would have a crowd because there were so few people at the beginning of the parade. Even the flambeau carriers hadn't shown up. It turned out that the parade's kickoff point was published incorrectly and a good-size crowd, complete with flambeau carriers, was awaiting the krewe six blocks ahead.
This Saturday, everyone will know where the Endymion parade begins. It will start on Orleans Avenue in Mid-City. On that day, Endymion will rule Mid-City. Because on that day, Endymion is Mid-City.