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New Orleans and Mardi Gras

Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Faith Lapidus. And I'm Steve Ember. Our program this week is about Mardi Gras and New Orleans.

Wild celebrations of Mardi Gras come just before the start of Lent. Lent is the Christian observance leading up to the Easter holiday. It is a serious, spiritual time.

The name "Mardi Gras" is French. It means "Fat Tuesday." This year Fat Tuesday falls on February eighth.

During Mardi Gras, huge crowds fill the streets of New Orleans, Louisiana, in the southeastern part of the United States. People come to eat, drink and dance. Police are in the crowds in case things get too wild.

Many parties and parades have already taken place by the time Fat Tuesday arrives.

Many social groups hold parades. Some of the huge floats carry up to two hundred fifty people.

Riders on the parade floats wear colorful clothes. Bird feathers top hats that stand a meter tall. Beautiful, and 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. This is a tradition.

Another tradition is to eat “King Cake." This food, similar to a sweet bread, is served at Mardi Gras parties. Inside one piece is a small plastic baby. Whoever gets the baby must promise to hold the next party. (MUSIC)

Before Europeans arrived, several tribes of American Indians lived in what is now New Orleans. 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 as well as Africa and the Caribbean. Wealthy businessmen were among the newcomers. So were exiles, criminals -- and slaves.

The people found wetlands and difficult living conditions. There were clouds of mosquitoes. The insects bit people and spread yellow fever.

Survival was a struggle. Settlers had to deal with floods, diseases 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 became known as 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. But 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. Federal troops from the North occupied New Orleans.

By nineteen hundred, the city 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. This action denied refuge to mosquitoes and helped end the threat of deadly yellow fever.

By government estimates, four hundred sixty-nine thousand people lived in greater New Orleans as of two thousand three. In the last national population count, in two thousand, New Orleans was thirty-first among cities. It lost two-point-five percent of its population during the nineteen nineties, at a time when rates of some crimes increased. Officials say people continue to leave the city. People in New Orleans face a number of problems. There are not enough jobs. There is not enough money for schools and roads. The city must also deal with a history of racial divisions. Today two out of three people in New Orleans are black.

Ray Nagin, an African American, was elected mayor in two thousand two. He started campaigns to reduce crime in the city and dishonesty in government. Recently Mr. Nagin announced a plan to improve communities around the city.

The plan is called Neighborhood One. A main aim is to improve seven neighborhoods where thousands of buildings are in bad condition. The Neighborhood One plan would replace them with single-family homes. The city government would carry out the plan together with private developers. Work would begin in small areas of three neighborhoods. VOICE TWO:

New Orleans faces many of the modern problems common to big cities. At the same time, many of its citizens have fought hard to save the beauty of its past.

The French Quarter is the oldest part of the city. It remains the heart of New Orleans. And the French Quarter is where some of the best food -- a mix of French and Caribbean influences -- can be found.

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 museum that honors the D-Day invasion in Europe by Allied forces during World War Two.

In modern New Orleans, old paddle-wheel steamboats still travel the Mississippi River. And old electric streetcars travel along Saint Charles Street. They take visitors past the large homes of early American settlers. Nearby are the modern buildings of two universities: Tulane and Loyola.

In New Orleans, music spills into the streets not just at Mardi Gras, but throughout the year. New Orleans is known as the birthplace of jazz. But local sounds also include Cajun and zydeco music.

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.

Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Faith Lapidus.

And I’m Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.


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