New Orleans, Louisiana, is a city famous for its music, food and history. It is also famous for the wild celebration that comes just before Lent, the Christian season leading to the holiday of Easter. I'm Mary Tillotson. And I'm Steve Ember. Mardi Gras and New Orleans -- today on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.
(MUSIC: "WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN")
New Orleans has just celebrated Mardi Gras. This huge party takes place each March or February. The name "Mardis Gras" is French. It means "Fat Tuesday." That is the official day of the celebration. But people start almost two weeks early.
Visitors to Mardi Gras enjoy as much food and fun as they can before the Lenten season. That is when Christians traditionally are supposed to avoid pleasure.
Hundreds of thousands of people attend Mardi Gras. They eat, drink and dance. They celebrate art, drama, building design and history. They celebrate the music of New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz.
Huge crowds line the streets during Mardi Gras. Many social groups hold parades. Some of the huge moving floats carry up to two-hundred-fifty people.
Floats by designer Blaine Kern express the spirit of Mardi Gras. He has created and produced most of the two- and three-level floats in Mardi Gras parades since nineteen-forty-seven.
Mr. Kern created almost seven-hundred Mardi Gras floats this year in New Orleans. Some of the most famous show the family of King Kong, the huge gorilla of movie fame.
Mr. Kern is seventy-two years old. At age nineteen, he created a wall painting at a hospital. It showed the history of medicine. One of the hospital's doctors was organizing a Mardi Gras parade at the time. The doctor saw Mr. Kern's work and hired him to produce eleven floats for his parade. Mr. Kern received three-thousand dollars for the work.
Today a Blaine Kern float can cost thirty-thousand dollars. His company creates floats for parades and amusement parks around the world. But he says, "Mardi Gras is my life."
There are days of parades and parties during Mardi Gras. Riders on the parade floats wear colorful clothes. Bird feathers top hats that stand a meter tall. Beautiful, sometimes strange, masks cover the faces of people on the floats. These people throw cups and necklaces to the crowds of people who watch the parades. Traditionally, those who catch these objects treasure them.
During Mardi Gras, police are in the crowds in case things get too wild. Some people drink too much at parties or in the streets. Some push to get a closer look at parades.
But those who take part in the celebrations every year say there is very little fighting. One visitor to New Orleans describes most of the people at Mardi Gras as "harmless and very happy."
New Orleans history is just as filled with adventure as the Mardi Gras. Several tribes of American Indians lived in what is now New Orleans before Europeans arrived. The city was established in seventeen-eighteen. The Louisiana Territory was a French colony then. The city was named for the Duke of Orleans, the ruler of France at that time.
The city lies along the Mississippi River. The river flows past until it empties into the Gulf of Mexico, one-hundred-sixty kilometers away.
The first area settled in New Orleans was the Vieux Carre'. This is now commonly called the French Quarter. After the city was established, roads and simple houses were built quickly. Government buildings and a church were added around the Place D'Armes, now called Jackson Square.
Ships brought people from Europe, Africa and the Caribbean. They were store owners, wealthy businessmen, exiles, criminals -- and slaves. The people found low wetlands, clouds of biting mosquitoes and hard living conditions.
Survival was a struggle. Settlers had to deal with floods, disease and food shortages. But they stayed. And they developed a society that was almost a copy of French culture.
In seventeen-sixty-two, the people of New Orleans discovered that they no longer lived in a French colony. The French king had given Louisiana to his cousin, the king of Spain.
Wealthy Spaniards continued the cultural life begun by the French. French and Spanish families became linked through marriage. The sons and daughters of these unions are called Creoles.
A fire in seventeen-eighty-eight and another fire six years later left New Orleans in ashes. But the city was rebuilt. Much of it was rebuilt in the Spanish way. Earthen bricks were covered with a mixture of lime, sand and water. The new homes had flower gardens surrounded by walls. They had iron balconies on the upper level.
In eighteen-hundred, France secretly regained control of the Louisiana Territory. Then, three years later, France sold Louisiana to the United States. Most people living in New Orleans were not happy. They considered Americans to be people without culture.
Americans were not welcome in the Vieux Carre'. So they built their own New Orleans north of it. They put large, beautiful homes in what is now the Garden District.
Over time the older groups began to need the money and business skills of the Americans. The Americans wanted the warmth and life of the old city. Both groups were forced to join in a continuing battle against windstorms, floods and diseases such as yellow fever. Soon they developed a spirit of unity.
By eighteen-forty, New Orleans was the fourth largest city in America. For a time, it was the richest city in the country. It was called the "Paris of America." Rich cotton and sugarcane farmers built huge homes along the Mississippi River outside New Orleans. They also kept smaller homes in the city. They stayed there while attending the opera, the theater and festivals.
The celebration of Mardi Gras became an important social event. Through the years it got bigger and better.
High-spirited living ended with the American Civil War in the eighteen-sixties. Louisiana and the other slave-holding states of the South lost the war. New Orleans suffered as federal troops from the North controlled the city.
But, by nineteen-hundred, New Orleans was growing again. People from Ireland, Germany and Italy had arrived. They added their culture, food and traditions to the already exciting mix.
Engineers made the Mississippi River deeper so bigger ships could reach the city. New Orleans became a busy port. Engineers also pumped water out of wetlands where yellow-fever mosquitoes lived. This helped end the threat of the deadly disease.
Today about a half-million people live in New Orleans. As of the two-thousand population count, New Orleans was thirty-first among American cities. But the city had lost two-point-five percent of its population in ten years.
As in many other cities, people in New Orleans face problems. There are not enough jobs. There is not enough money for schools and roads. There is too much crime. But there has been improvement. Crime rates were a lot higher ten years ago. The city also has groups at work to deal with racial divisions. Two out of three people are black. Most of the others are white.
Citizens have fought hard to save the beauty of the past. The French Quarter is the oldest part of the city. It remains the heart of New Orleans.
The central business area has modern office buildings. It also has one of the biggest indoor sports centers in the world. Almost one-hundred-thousand people can watch events inside the Louisiana Superdome. And the city has a new museum to honor D-Day -- the Allied invasion of Normandy Beach in France during World War Two.
New Orleans is a modern international port. Yet some areas can make you feel like you are in the eighteen-hundreds. Old paddle-wheel steamboats still travel up and down the Mississippi River.
In town, old electric streetcars take visitors along Saint Charles Street. They go by the large homes of early American settlers. Nearby are the modern buildings of two universities: Tulane and Loyola.
Throughout the year, not just during Mardi Gras, the sounds of New Orleans music spill into the streets. On Bourbon Street, the music and the crowds seem like a huge celebration that never ends. The most traditional old-time jazz is played at Preservation Hall in the French Quarter. As they say in New Orleans, it is the kind of jazz that gets your blood moving.
This program was written by Jerilyn Watson and Marilyn Rice Christiano. It was produced by Paul Thompson. I'm Mary Tillotson. And I'm Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another report about life in America on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.