Earlier this month, a group of Bayou St. John residents gathered around a dining room in a private apartment overlooking the Mid-City waterway, discussing the increased public use of what once was a quiet area. Mid-City Bayou Boogaloo, the music and food festival that last year attracted more than 35,000 people to Bayou St. John, was one of the topics on the table.
Organized by the Greener Bayou St. John Coalition, the meeting was held in part to get input on whether festivals like Bayou Boogaloo should be encouraged or be considered "incompatible" with the health of the area.
The health of the bayou, and its surrounding neighborhoods, has been a hot topic, and that's why Bayou Boogaloo organizer Jared Zeller says he wants more than ever to protect the greenway and provide for neighborhoods surrounding the waterway.
Zeller plans for the first time this year to replace employees hired to monitor festival entrances with volunteers who will solicit donations for various neighborhood organizations and local nonprofits.
"I've been thinking about this over the years," Zeller told Mid-City Neighborhood Organization members at a meeting last Monday. "The goal will be to solicit donations, and the proceeds go to better the community."
If the plan works, Zeller says that more than $5,000 could be raised for neighborhood groups. That money would be split among organizations which have agreed to send in at least 14 volunteers to man the entrance and exit points, asking not only for donations but also to check for outside beverages, coolers and other prohibited items.
Last year, Zeller says, he raised $15,000 from Bayou Boogaloo attendees dropping money in a donation bucket. This year, up to 33 percent of donations will be dispersed among nonprofit groups to be used however they see fit.
According to Mid-City Neighborhood Organization President Jennifer Farwell, donations are key to the success of festivals like Bayou Boogaloo, which are free to the public.
"The costs of putting on such a large festival are considerable, and donations are an important piece of the puzzle," Farwell says. "We're hopeful that his plan to use local residents as volunteer entrance greeters, who can solicit donations as they check for prohibited items such as coolers, will net him a sizable pool of donations."
Donations help keep the festival free, Zeller says. In the future, he may have to come up with ways to solicit even more donations, as the City of New Orleans has said it may charge Zeller and any other festival organizer for using Bayou St. John.
In January, Zeller said the city was planning to charge him up to $10,000 for using the bayou — a fee he says is prohibitive and "not comparable" to fees charged to use other public land spaces, like Audubon Park.
In March, the city waived most of the fees associated with this year's Bayou Boogaloo, including a "land use" fee. That's in part because city officials haven't decided how much to charge for using the bayou — but that could always change, Zeller says.
"They have this property they want to rent out but they don't know the value of it," Zeller says.
He adds that he "appreciates" that the city is trying to get the number right, but he still worries the amount could be too much.
"Bayou St. John doesn't have any infrastructure — no electricity, no running water, no facilities," Zeller says. "While it's a beautiful piece of land, there are some things that are lacking."
In the meantime, however, neighborhood associations and nonprofit organizations say they're grateful for the opportunity to benefit from the free festival.
Greg Jeanfreau, the president of the Faubourg St. John Neighborhood Association, says it's a great opportunity for his group. The association could use the extra money for ongoing projects such as planned renovations to Desmare Park, a historic playground tucked between Esplanade Avenue and Moss Street near Cabrini High School.
The money could also go toward a new crime camera grant program. In March, organization members voted to provide $3,500 for neighborhood crime cameras, distributed as $100 grants to residents who install them.
Zeller also invited Morris Jeff Community School and Mid-City Youth Volleyball, both of which are nonprofits, to send volunteers in exchange for a cut of donations.
Peter Hickman, president of Mid-City Youth Volleyball, says he hasn't secured volunteers yet, but if he's able to recruit them, the organization could use the money to build a permanent sand volleyball facility somewhere in Mid-City or help additional players become certified coaches.
This year certainly isn't the first time neighborhood-based groups and Bayou Boogaloo have crossed paths. Morris Jeff, for example, regularly pulls in donations from an iced coffee booth it operates during the festival. The festival has also partnered with the Faubourg St. John Neighborhood Association in the past to help fund a project to rehabilitate the historic Magnolia and Dumaine Street bridges.
But now, Zeller wants to give other organizations a chance to profit from Bayou Boogaloo. Now in its ninth year, with a music lineup that includes Big Freedia, Eric Lindell and Rosie Ledet & The Zydeco Playboys, Zeller says there's an opportunity for the popular festival to benefit entities in the surrounding area.
"We want to be fair to other groups," Zeller says.
Those Mid-City partnerships can turn out to be mutually beneficial. Like the Mothership Foundation, the nonprofit that created Bayou Boogaloo in 2005, Hickman's organization regularly works to beautify the bayou, he says.
"Our volleyball organizations are careful to migrate where exactly we set up courts in order to minimize impact on the grass, and we know after doing this for five years along the bayou that the grass will recover with a vengeance by summertime," Hickman says. In fact, the grass grows so quickly in the peak season that the Orleans Levee District often cannot keep up with maintenance, so we frequently mow portions of the bayou that we use for volleyball."
He adds that volleyball players and coaches also fill in holes, clean up litter and pick up dog poop. As Bayou Boogaloo approaches, Hickman has been picking up pieces of glass that have been unearthed after the Mothership Foundation planted new live oak trees along the bayou.
"I think our presence offers a sense of vitality and pride in the neighborhood that carries over to others as they pass by," Hickman says. "We probably even provide a sense of safety for some."