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National Perspective | CULTURE

Other Cities Find Big Easy Partying Does Not Translate

March 01, 2001|JEFFREY GETTLEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW ORLEANS — Mardi Gras mayhem--in Fresno?

Though New Orleans is renowned for patenting the nation's wildest street party, this year the real bedlam erupted far from the Big Easy in places like Fresno, Austin, Texas, Seattle, Philadelphia and San Diego.

As the Mardi Gras celebrations roared to a close, drunken crowds smashed storefronts, duked it out in the streets and clashed with police in places that are relative newcomers to the pre-Lenten bash.

A mob of revelers marauded through downtown Fresno Tuesday night, lighting fires and smashing the windshields of two police cruisers. About 20,000 attended the city's seventh annual Mardi Gras party.

In Austin and Philadelphia, more than 90 people were arrested. In Seattle, five dozen were injured, including a man who slipped off an overpass. Two revelers got stabbed at the San Diego bash, which attracted about 75,000 people. The city has hosted a party since 1995.

New Orleans Mayor Marc H. Morial shook his head when asked about the woes of these Johnny-come-latelies.

"The lesson here is you can't duplicate or replicate or imitate Mardi Gras," Morial said Wednesday. "This festival is intrinsic to our culture and people here and nowhere else understand all the unwritten rules."

Not that everybody follows them. In New Orleans, more than 500 people were arrested, including 221 men and 15 women for flashing.

There was also a double shooting along the parade route and a separate incident in which four young men were apprehended at a street party in a car packed with loaded assault rifles.

But that's not bad, the mayor said, considering a record-setting crowd of 2 million. He especially credited the police, who over the years have developed a hands-off approach to crowd control.

On Wednesday, New Orleans was decidedly relaxed as the city steadied itself after two weeks of nonstop partying.

Gigantic street sweepers sucked up miles of beer cans, pizza boxes, paper hats and crushed beaded necklaces. Tired-looking travelers wheeled suitcases down the streets. The hundreds of portable toilets vanished; a light rain gave the sidewalks and city parks a much-needed shower.

In the other cities, the day-after vibe was much different.

"I'm absolutely sickened at what I saw just several hours ago in Pioneer Square," Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske told a Wednesday morning news conference. Seattle Mayor Paul Schell said he would cancel future Mardi Gras celebrations in the city's historic Pioneer Square.

"Disappointing is the only word I can think to say," Philadelphia managing director Joe Martz said as he inspected streets littered with glass, beer bottles and a few lace bras. "It's disgraceful."

No one knows exactly how many places hold Mardi Gras parties. Mardi Gras diaspora is not a well-studied subject.

According to New Orleans historian Arthur Hardy, the festival, which began in France in the 16th century to mark the coming of Lent, came to New Orleans in the 1830s and spread to other Southern cities by the 1880s. Memphis, Tenn.; Montgomery, Ala.; Atlanta; Galveston, Texas; and St. Louis all had their own carnivals with parades.

But, like the mayor, Hardy, too, is a bit of a Mardi Gras snob.

"Those other places never had parties like ours," Hardy said. "We've been doing this for 150 years. Obviously, we know how to behave."

*

Times senior researcher Edith Stanley, Times staff writer Hang Nguyen and Associated Press contributed to this story.

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