There’s an old political science phrase called the “tragedy of the commons.” This is a dynamic that states any public resource that can be used by everyone will be overused until it is exhausted and no longer has value. Way back in college, a professor described it in terms of cows. There was a field of grass owned by the townspeople and anyone could graze their cows there until their cows became too fat and ate all the grass. Or something. It was always a difficult concept for me to grasp when put in a bovine context, because what town has a bunch of people who own individual cows?
After years of attending Mardi Gras parades, I’ve got a much better example. There’s a bunch of public land that becomes extremely valuable for certain days of the year because they are great places to watch parades. If simply left public, there would be plenty of space for everyone in the community to use the land and enjoy the parades. But there are some people go to great lengths and personal expense to manage this public land for exclusively private use. The temporary privatization of this land creates an artificial scarcity that only encourages earlier and more elaborate schemes of privatization. Eventually, only the small number of folks who have the time and money to engage in privatization schemes get to enjoy the value of the land, and the rest of us have to find something else to do.
I use Endymion Saturday as an example.
Like many Mid-Citizens, my wife and I are hosting some friends at our home on Samedi Gras, the Saturday before Mardi Gras. That is the day Endymion will parade through the neighborhood. I usually have a lot of fun, see a bunch of family and friends, and enjoy the afternoon and evening on the porch in good company.
While I live close enough to hear the marching bands, I usually don’t see much of the actual parade. Maybe I’ll saunter on over to Canal Street and see the very tops of the floats. If I’m very lucky, one of the riders will launch a themed Frisbee or football off the very top row and the wind will help bring it the half block back to where I’ll be. More likely, I’ll just stay on the porch and avoid the drama that comes with trying to attend this parade.
While non-attendance is technically a choice I make, the real issue has been decided for me days and sometimes weeks before hand. At some point in the run up to the parade, all the public ground and rights of way disappear underneath a variety of tarps, spray paint, and caution tape. A solid wall of festive-colored ladders presents a blocks-long physical obstacle to freedom of travel. Despite a polite demeanor, any attempt to navigate through this confusing ad hoc map often leads to yelling. Like a trespasser in the night, I am no longer welcome in someone’s “area,” even if I am only passing through.
Things can become very tricky if you attempt to exit one “area” and end up in an altogether different “area” managed by someone else. I guess I should have been more careful to check the new property lines scrawled in two-week old spray paint! And that’s just over on Orleans Ave, folks are already trying to set up shop on Canal.
Hell, I heard the RTA was having to clear the streetcar tracks of parade squatters as early as Tuesday this year. Not sure how deep someone’s entitlement must be to involve shutting down public services four work days early, but I’m sure next year someone will try for five. Sometimes I wish we could just put Great Locomotive Chase era cow catchers on the red streetcars and run them until about 15 minutes before the parade starts.
Yeah, I know some of y’all are thinking I’m out here trying to play the neighborhood fun police. I’m not from here, so I never get to know how much of a “Mardi Gras Tradition” it is to deny other people the ability to see a parade. Here I was thinking we were all invited to the greatest free show on Earth, and that the whole purpose of hosting a fun public spectacle in the community was so that the community could attend. My bad.
So I’ll leave that drama for others. My idea of fun simply does not include getting physically threatened by someone in a purple, green, and gold rugby shirt who has had too many drinks and is highly offended that I walked too close to their hodgepodge collection of tattered camp chairs. Maybe I’m just too old for that sort of thing.
Thank goodness most of my day involves awesome house parties with friends and family! We can still hear the marching bands, after all.
Patrick Armstrong lives in Mid-City and has been a NOLA TrashMOB volunteer for 3 years. His views are his own and do not reflect official positions of any organizations or groups he is a part of. He posts inane musings on Twitter @panarmstrong.