One of the stories in Letters from New Orleans, “Holiday Burning,” is about bonfires in Gramercy and Lutcher, a little upriver from the city: One of those traditions whose actual reason for being is a little unclear, but that has taken on a life of its own.
Those bonfires are a very sanctioned and official sort of event. But there was another version of holiday burning closer to home that I didn’t write about: the orching of Christmas trees on New Year’s eve, on Orleans neutral ground in Mid City (very near where we lived). Supposedly this tradition has gone on for 80 years. Lamely, we never went, because we are New Year’s Eve wimps.
But by friends’ accounts it was always quite a spectacle. The most remarkable thing about it was that, while setting a huge pile of Christmas trees on fire is both an obviously dangerous activity, and hard one to keep secret, this practice somehow went on for all those decades without any official blessing from the city. (My impression is that there was certainly unofficial sanctioning of a kind, in that fire trucks were around on at least some years — making this an all the more New Orleans kind of event, something basically illegal but with the complicity of relevant authorities.)
I wasn’t particularly surprised to hear that, this year, the event finally became an open source of controversy, and the city announced a clampdown. For one thing, it just seems inevitable. I mean, come on: At some point a bonfire in a residential area is going to attract opposition. Second, my sense is that post-Katrina New Orleans is still wrestling with its identity, and there are some new, different sorts of people involved in that discussion. And third, in the last couple of years, video of the bonfire has bounced around the Web. I wouldn’t say the Internet exposed a true secret, it just made an open secret much harder to ignore.
Earlier this week, apparently, a compromise was reached:
In the past week, city public safety officials launched a campaign to shut down what they called the “illegal and dangerous” bonfire, prompting a backlash from residents who consider the towering inferno stoked by discarded Christmas trees a neighborhood tradition.
The arrangement reached Tuesday calls for a controlled fire in a 12-by-12-foot area , surrounded by a 2-foot-high metal retaining wall, Woodridge said. Barricades surrounding the retaining wall will be set back a few additional feet from the fire. A welder’s cloth will cover the ground in the designated bullpen area, designed to catch any falling embers or ash. …
Virginia Blanque, vice president of the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization, said she and officials agreed a scaled-down bonfire is much better than no event at all.
Alex Rawls finds it somewhat “depressing” that “the city has decided that its supervision is required in a way that it never was before” — and that the neighborhood seems to be going along with the new scenario. I’m not there so I’ll skip any direct judgment, but I would say one of the things that makes unsanctioned traditions special is that their very tentativeness — the sense that it could go away at any time. Clearly the bonfires will never be the same again, but perhaps they’ll become interesting in a new way, and in any case, those bonfires of the past have just become infinitely more special in an “I can remember what it was like before” kind of way. (And I have a funny feeling that the New Orleans appetite for unsanctioned traditions will get sated in some other, new way. Just a hunch.)
And in other news, I see that this year the sanctioned Christmas bonfires upriver were marred by violence this year: Five people were shot in a “scuffle” outside The Neighborhood Bar in Lutcher.