Friday, January 2, 2009

Space is the Place

At my more New Orleans-centric blog, I've been writing a lot recently about the city getting involved in Mid-City's New Year's Eve tradition of a Christmas tree bonfire on the Orleans Avenue neutral grounds. (You can read previous posts here, here, here, here and here, and you can see a youtube video here.)

There's no question that it was the most Apocalypse Now event I've ever been to, with fireworks going off on all sides of you, a dense smoke illuminated by fireworks even before the bonfire was lit, and the fire itself was usually a pretty fine inferno. I understand any mom or dad who was afraid of it, and I understand any city employee or public official who thought it was too extreme to go on as it did for decades (monitored by a fire truck for the decade-plus that I've been attending). But it's worth noting that nothing did happen, and that the changes have everything to do with legal liability and the general impulse of authority to extend itself into as many elements of our lives as possible.

The saddest feature of the new, idiotproofed, uber-secured version of the bonfire is that many are happy if not happier with it this way - not because of the improved safety but because it has been recast in a form they understand. A decentralized, democratic, participatory event was unsettling for many; now it's passive (viewers wait for the fire department to bring them the gift of fire), centralized (there's nothing going on at the neutral grounds site except the bonfire), and the dominant values are those of property - who's got it, who doesn't, and whose is valuable, whose isn't. The neighborhood homeowners don't feel ambivalent about a party/event that could set their houses on fire; now they have prime real estate for a safe, city-sanctioned tradition. Now their property values could go up because the homes are near the bonfire and the start of the Endymion parade route. And at the bonfire site itself, people started staking out their land by the bonfire's barricade as early as 5 p.m. The same neighborhood is notorious for starting to stake out curbside space for Endymion days in advance of the parade. In short, a perfectly democratic, egalitarian event has been transformed into yet another place to enact a haves/havenots drama, which is a sadder fate that death for the bonfire.

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