There won't be Mardi Gras parades this year.
But across New Orleans, the resilience and creativity of its residents is on full display.
When the parades and festivities that mark Carnival were canceled due to COVID-19 last fall, New Orleanians found another way to celebrate.
Within weeks, hundreds had signed up to decorate their homes as elaborate house floats to replace traditional parade floats.
Now, with just two weeks until Mardi Gras day, it's hard not to walk through the city and find something to smile about, despite the ongoing pandemic and the toll it has exacted.
A life-size brontosaurus wearing a top hat and a triceratops decorate the lawn of a mansion on St. Charles Avenue. A large cutout of beloved New Orleans chef Leah Chase, complete with a steaming pot, adorns the outside of another home. Bubble machines work overtime in front of houses paying homage to New Orleans' musicians and larger-than-life bottles of champagne. Perhaps most poignant, is the sense of community as dozens of artists, who would otherwise be unemployed, are completing commissioned artwork they didn't anticipate. Neighbors swap last-minute advice on how to weatherproof decorations in online forums.
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"The houses are great. But the real beauty is people coming together and figuring out how to do this. It has given so many people energy and something to look forward to," said Ré Howse, a ceramicist who has spent days along with her neighbor Bill Tucker finishing large paper flowers for house floats.
The driveway of her Algiers neighborhood home is an assembly line for brightly-hued flowers.
Howse is among dozens of artists who have found a steady stream of income decorating homes across the city as "House Floats." The elaborate decorations will be on display for those who walk or drive by, creating a safer option for the crowds traditional parades draw.
Tucker, a beekeeper and retired chef, is helping Howse with flowers and plans on constructing a beehive and honeypot to decorate the front of his home. Another neighbor, Yvonne Milton has adorned her home with large butterflies and flowers with Howse’s help.
"This is our way to show our complete pride in our city and in our culture. New Orleans will have yet another tradition that will set us apart," Howse said.
The cancellation of parades, which draw more than 1 million visitors to New Orleans each year, was disappointing to many but not a surprise. New Orleans was one of the country’s earliest and largest hot spots for coronavirus last spring. Experts have tied the outbreak to Mardi Gras celebrations, which ended Feb. 25, 2020. The first COVID-19 case in New Orleans was confirmed on March 6.
Carnival season begins on Jan. 6 and culminates on Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras Day, which falls just before Ash Wednesday on the calendar each year.
While parades draw among the largest crowds during Mardi Gras celebrations, the season also includes a variety of other traditions such as dressing up in homemade costumes, participating in dancing troupes, walking parades, or attending formal balls. When Beau Tidwell, communications director for the City of New Orleans announced parade cancellations late last year, he was quick to point out Mardi Gras would carry on just in a different way.
With the House Floats a new and very different tradition was born.
More than 2,300 people have signed up to be part of the “Krewe of House Floats,” committing to decorate their homes like parade floats for carnival. This includes households across greater New Orleans and people who have moved out of state. On Feb.1 the organization will publish a map on its website where people can find many of the house floats that have signed up.
While many homeowners are creating their own decorations, others are hiring out-of-work float builders and designers to create custom decorations. A separate project developed by local carnival organization, Krewe of Red Beans, called “Hire a Mardi Gras Artist” aims to raise funds to hire professional float builders and artists to decorate 40 homes across the city as house floats.
“It is very hard to find a Mardi Gras artist who is still available,” said Megan Boudreaux, the admiral and founder of the Krewe of House Floats. “What started as a DIY effort has turned into people pitching in to hire artists.”
Business owner Inez Pierre, the owner of Pierre Parade Productions said at first she was worried about the cancellations and how it would impact her as an artist and entrepreneur. "But I had to remain optimistic,” she said. “What we’ve seen this month is our city opening its heart to help out artists.” So much so, Pierre now has a waiting list to design porch floats for the next two years.
Erin Ryerson commissioned artist Meghan Davis to recreate Dr. Seuss’ "The Lorax’ to decorate her home. Ryerson is going a step further to keep people safe by creating a large QR code that will be set up in front of her home so people can log in and sign up to win prizes when they stop by to view her decorations.
“This has been a way for so many of us to get beyond this raw point we are living in. Today I woke up excited,” she said.
Meanwhile, Davis is trying to make time between finishing up her own decorations, an Alice in Wonderland theme, and wrapping up commissions for decorations.
Normally she is booked throughout the season as a face and body painter. This year, the celebration will take place at home. Davis is hosting a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in her front yard with friends who are in her COVID-19 bubble on Mardi Gras morning.
“I can’t in good consciousness face or body paint in the middle of a pandemic, so it’s great that the house floats have taken off,” Davis said. “A lot of my friends are float designers and artists. To not have this single moneymaking event in the year for them would have been devastating.”
American South staff writer Todd Price contributed to this report.
Maria Clark is a general assignment reporter with The American South. Story ideas, tips, questions? Email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @MariaPClark1. Sign up for The American South newsletter. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
This article originally appeared on The American South: Mardi Gras 2021: New Orleans takes on house floats for Fat Tuesday