NOLA: Priced Out of the Parade

Rising costs, lack of protection, threaten New Orleans’ traditional second line marches

Fatima Shaik

In 1875, at the sun­set of Recon­struc­tion in New Orleans, the mem­bers of a mutu­al assis­tance soci­ety called Société d’E­conomie trav­eled togeth­er to events rang­ing from funer­als to pic­nics wear­ing dec­o­rat­ed uni­forms, car­ry­ing an Amer­i­can flag and sway­ing to a brass band. The club mem­bers want­ed to dis­play pub­licly that, despite the ero­sion of their civ­il rights, they were black men com­mit­ted to each oth­er, and still Amer­i­can citizens.

The neigh­bor­hood folk always fol­lowed in the spir­it of this march. They waved hand­ker­chiefs and some­times car­ried umbrel­las. The fol­low­ers were called the sec­ond line.” Their ges­tures and danc­ing move­ments orig­i­nat­ed in Africa, as the folk­lorist Alan Lomax showed in his film Feet Don’t Fail Me Now.

Today, this tra­di­tion of pride­ful march­ing fol­lowed by danc­ing rev­el­ers is threat­ened by high­er costs for parad­ing and no city reg­u­la­tions that pro­tect the cul­ture, accord­ing to Tama­ra Jack­son, pres­i­dent of the New Orleans Social, Aid and Plea­sure Club Task Force. The clubs recent­ly sur­vived a threat of extinc­tion brought about by high­er secu­ri­ty fees that police imposed arbi­trar­i­ly on local clubs. Fees were in some cas­es triple the pre-Kat­ri­na costs.

Accord­ing to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, one club, the Orig­i­nal Pigeon­town Step­pers, whose name des­ig­nates the neigh­bor­hood and the dance, was charged $1,200 pre-Kat­ri­na for police escorts. This year, police request­ed $7,500 before drop­ping the fee to $2,400.

Rep­re­sent­ing the task force, the ACLU chal­lenged the price ris­es for per­mit fees in U.S. Dis­trict Court. The police and the task force came to an agree­ment on April 25 that the stan­dard cost for fees in the future would be $1,985 for five hours of security.

And the court ruled that the cost could not be raised for the 21 clubs that are mem­bers of the task force. But oth­er clubs that weren’t par­ties in the suit will need to nego­ti­ate with the police on their own. A bet­ter step, she says, would be enact­ing leg­is­la­tion to pro­tect and gov­ern all neigh­bor­hood clubs sim­i­lar to rules gov­ern­ing Mar­di Gras organizations.

The sec­ond line march­es mat­ter. The parades of the black clubs in all their regalia – rang­ing from yel­low suits and car­ry­ing ostrich feath­er fans, to tuxe­dos and top hats – are among the last, ten­u­ous threads bind­ing native com­mu­ni­ties to local traditions.

Still, this year some clubs have post­poned their parades. Oth­ers were not as flam­boy­ant. Peo­ple kept it sim­ple,” Jack­son says.

The Young Men Olympians parad­ed in sim­ple black and white out­fits while the Men and Lady Buck­jumpers were blessed,” she says, because the out­fits they planned to wear in 2005, the year Kat­ri­na struck, were saved. So they wore their lime green, leather army fatigues as usual.

A sec­ond line parade is a joy­ous occa­sion. The com­mu­ni­ty lives for it,” says Jack­son. The march has tak­en on more impor­tance since Kat­ri­na since locals now feel dis­may over the pres­sures of dai­ly life, she added.

Rents are high and find­ing a place to live in the city is dif­fi­cult for many mem­bers of social clubs, which were the life-blood of the com­mu­ni­ty. Hous­ing is still an issue,” says Jack­son. A lot of club mem­bers have been dis­placed and need help in order to main­tain the future of this cul­ture.” The task force is now get­ting gov­ern­ment to work with clubs so that they are char­tered as non-profits.

The clubs are also work­ing to edu­cate the com­mu­ni­ty about their com­mon tra­di­tions. The ges­tures in the sec­ond line dances date back to Africa. In New Orleans, the dances were doc­u­ment­ed in 1819 by Ben­jamin Latrobe in Con­go Square where slaves came on Sun­days. Their gath­er­ings were shut down at var­i­ous times, notably when the city author­i­ties want­ed more con­trol. In 1893, the city renamed Con­go Square to Beau­re­gard Square in hon­or of the Con­fed­er­ate General.

But the chil­dren of slaves and free peo­ple of col­or con­tin­ued to parade in orga­nized clubs with names such as The Friends of Hope, Friends of Progress, Young Vet­er­ans and Per­se­ver­ance. When they marched into the streets of New Orleans, they sym­bol­ized African-Amer­i­can pride under duress. That demon­stra­tion is as impor­tant now.

Fati­ma Shaik is the author of five books set in Louisiana and a for­mer reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Her most recent book is the short sto­ry col­lec­tion What Went Miss­ing and What Got Found (August 2015), a love let­ter to the enter­tain­ing, unpre­dictable and flawed char­ac­ters who pop­u­lat­ed New Orleans before Hur­ri­cane Katrina.
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