By: Marisa Palmer and Robin Lindsay.
Mardi Gras looks different for New Orleans residents this year.
Back in November, Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced the cancellation of festivities. The city made a point to note that while Mardi Gras itself can't be canceled, the city won't be able to "celebrate the holiday this year as we have in the past."
So when local resident Megan Boudreaux found out there would be no parade floats this year, she did the next best thing: turn her own house into a float.
"I opened my big mouth on the internet and I said, 'Well, I'm just going decorate my house, and I'll throw things at my neighbors.' Everybody's got 200 pounds of beads and their attic from past Mardi Gras parades," she said.
The idea soon blew up. Before she knew it, people around the city were turning their homes into floats. Many are using themes from their neighborhoods to inspire ideas, like Carley Sercovich.
"We live on Bermuda street, so we chose the Bermuda Triangle as our theme," Sercovich said. She plans to use the palm trees in front of her home as decoration for tiki huts.
But the drive to turn houses into Mardi Gras floats goes beyond just keeping the holiday tradition alive. Participants are making a point to help artists who had lost their normal jobs of decorating parade floats.
One community organizer, Devin De Wulf, co-developed the Hire a Mardi Gras Artist program, which pays artists through donations to decorate a home. His team developed a website to take donations for artists who were laid off.
"As soon as the city of New Orleans canceled the parades, [it] caused a chain reaction of laying off a bunch of artists," he said. "Every time we raise another $15,000, we are able to put a whole team of people to work."
The program, and others like it, all work in the same way: Artists are paired with homeowners who choose a theme, select materials, and figure out a day to install the designs. Then the decorating begins.
Ian Darrow, co-owner of Stronghold Studios, says he's gotten some out of the ordinary requests so far.
"People call us up and they say, 'My theme is purple, green and 'Golden Girls.' I want all four Golden Girls. There's this crazy chicken in my neighborhood. I want him to be a part of it,' and then it just kind of snowballs from there," he said.
Now, artists are struggling to keep up with demand. Normally, it can take up to a year to complete a project. But artists are now doing it in two weeks.
"[We] went from no employees to, we have anywhere from six to eight employees here every single day, six days a week now," Darrow said.
"I think if I didn't sleep from now until Mardi Gras and just worked and worked and worked, it wouldn't be enough," said Mardi Gras artist Dana Beuhler.
Beuhler has been doing her job for 15 years. Normally, she'd be making paper flowers for her artistry business. But traction slowed this year because of the pandemic, so the house floats program has become a much-needed source of revenue.
"If you would've asked me in August, I would have said, there's no way Mardi Gras' going to happen in 2021," she said.
Mardi Gras hasn't been canceled in more than 40 years.
Mardi Gras is a centuries-old festival. The celebrations are rooted in Christian traditions and are meant to mark the last day of Carnival before the 40-day period of fasting leading up to Easter.
New Orleans has been holding float parades since at least the 1800s. The celebrations have made it through the most extreme weather events, like Hurricane Katrina. In fact, it's only been canceled once in the past 40 years, because of a police strike in 1979.
But 2020 was a wake-up call. An insurgence of tourists turned the holiday, known for its revelry, into a super-spreader event.
And while the city said the cancellation of Mardi Gras festivities is necessary, it's also a huge loss to the local economy. The event can bring in $500 million a year.
Like artists, local businesses have also been hit hard.
Arkesha Baquet, co-owner of one of the city's longest-running Black-owned businesses, Li'l Dizzy's Cafe, took over the business from her father-in-law over the summer after he was forced to retire due to the pandemic. She says she expects a huge loss in revenue this year, but is hopeful things will be different in 2022.
"We hope that this [is] the only time that we have to cancel Mardi Gras and we don't have to do this again next year," she said.
Alonzo Knox, who owns Backatown Coffee Parlour with his wife, Jessica Knox, said his cafe normally plans for Mardi Gras months in advance.
"It is not only our biggest day, but our biggest season," Alonzo said.
But he says more than the economic loss, it's a cultural loss.
"The cancellation of Mardi Gras this year, it's definitely like losing the soul of the city," he said.
But for local artists, the house-float trend has been a "reversal of fortune."
It's a devastating blow to a difficult year, but the city is coming together to help those hurt the most. For Coco Darrow, Ian's wife and the co-owner of Stronghold Studios, the period between March and December was almost financially impossible.
"We had that hard conversation on whether or not we should close our doors," she said. "And then the next day we got the house floats calls started coming in. So it's been a real reversal of fortune."
Programs like Hire a Mardi Gras Artist put much-needed money back in artists' pockets. Devin says he's not going to stop until Mardi Gras day on February 16.
"We've created jobs for 40 to 45 people," he said. "We raised over $200,000. We have 20 projects that are funded."
For artists like Dana, this "new normal" highlights the work of the artists, a part of Mardi Gras that she says is sometimes overlooked.
"This just gives us a unique opportunity to elevate the artist and really show people what we can do, and really appreciate how it's being made and who's making it," she said. "And so I think that's really powerful."