The Tragedy of the Neutral Ground

Essay by Dave Fagundes

New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebration is justifiably famous as a city-wide bacchanal centered on extravagant parades. But beneath the atmosphere of lawlessness, a surprising degree of order prevails that stops the gatherings from descending from revelry into chaos. This brief Essay explores the spoken and unspoken rules of New Orleans’ Carnival season, focusing on how both law and social norms combine to manage access to and use of the public property along the city’s major parade routes. In particular, this Essay considers two problems that arise out of the outsized demand for public sidewalks and the “neutral ground” between major thoroughfares during the Carnival season: the use of ladders as a way to give young children a better vantage point and the increasingly prevalent tendency to “land grab” large swaths of public property for days at a time. While these objectionable practices contravene local ordinances and have been the target of admonitions from city officials, the primary means of deterring this conduct are informal sanctions such as refusing to throw beads at those on dangerously placed ladders or simply walking through someone’s excessively large claimed space. The success of these formal and informal attempts at deterrence remains questionable, though, perhaps due to lack of city enforcement resources and the distinctive challenges of enforcing social norms in the Carnival setting. This Essay concludes by reflecting on the promise of a sharing ethic as a superior conceptual alternative to traditional ownership notions when approaching the use of public property during the Mardi Gras season.

About the Author

Professor of Law, Southwestern Law School; Visiting Professor, University of Houston Law Center.


90 Tul. L. Rev. Online 17 (2016)