There are firework celebrations and there are fireworks celebrations. If you’re an American and grew up at a time when the Fourth of July was celebrated with barbecues, fireworks and back lawn parties, you know how different the fourth can be when a community creates a celebration than when it’s done more formerly.
I grew up in the Adirondacks mountains of upstate New York, in a small town where kids were allowed to be kids in all the best ways. It was before the time of lawsuits, or when parents were paranoid or when towns had more rules and restrictions than not. Rules were meant to be broken and the order of the day was “no risk, no reward.” In the summer, we used to get fireworks from my uncle who traveled to the New Hampshire border to buy them since they’re illegal to purchase everywhere else in New England.
Others followed suit and because enough people around the lake where we had a summer camp and spent every summer did the same, there were plenty of fireworks from the community to watch a spectacle all night long.
Then of course, you move into an urban area where you need to travel in busy traffic to get to a Fourth of July firework celebration and even then, you’re not able to get close enough to them to feel the fire. I don’t know about you, but I want to feel the fire — there’s something magical about it.
California, eat your heart out! I had the opportunity to experience America’s Independence Day this year in…of all places, the Bronx, a northern borough of New York City. Unlike every other night the previous two weeks, the night was cool after two days of rain. Regardless, people in the Country Club area of the Bronx, not far from Crosby and Buhre Avenues (a stop on the 6 line if heading north from Manhattan), set up chairs on the streets to take in a full evening of fireworks.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of course, since every Fourth of July since I left the east coast has been kinda….well, lame. Midnight at Disneyland or Disneyworld doesn’t quite count as America’s normal.
We were having a barbecue in a backyard along one of the neighborhood streets when we started to see a magical display of fireworks above us. Here’s the thing — it didn’t stop. From 8:30 pm to around 9 pm, the sounds continued to blast around us. By 9 pm, we decided to take a meander around the neighborhood streets. From Pelham Bay Park and Country Club Drive to Kennellworth Place, Ohm Avenue, Spencer Street, Stadium Avenue, Rawlings Avenue and finally Valhalla Street, we roamed. Standing in the middle of the street, we would take in one display of fireworks from a few feet away and after it finished, we would follow the noise and the brightly lit colors and run to the next…..this continued for most of the night.
On each occasion, we were only a few feet from where the boxes exploded and as they blew high into the air, they’d trickle down from the sky, over the roofs, and eventually onto the streets where we stood in awe and excitement. We were so close that we had to duck in some cases to miss the sparks.
On all sides of us, fireworks were going off — locals were shooting them over cars, over houses, in the middle of streets, in back yards, over bushes, trees and lawns.
They were going off on all sides of us. When we finally reached Valhalla Street, we found several dozen people who had set up chairs on the corner waiting for a family on the end of the street to set off one canon after another. This family seemed to be the Chief of Fireworks for the area, and apparently is a tradition every year. Families chip in money for the experience of an all night long Fourth of July spectacle. As such, thousands of dollars of fireworks proceeded to go off over the course of two hours. This was no 15-30 minute show that you typically get from a more professional display.
We could see and smell the smoke around us and as they went off, we were literally under the fireworks as they were falling down from the sky. Magic was happening and the community created the whole thing! Streets competed with each other and as one street ended a bout of fireworks, another street set theirs off….and this went on until 11 pm or so in the evening.
I forgot my camera, so what’s included here doesn’t capture the magic that we experienced last night. At one point, we were so close to them, that the thunderous roar of the fireworks and the sparks of one threw us backwards and we rolled on the ground laughing. We were at a safe distance but at times, it didn’t feel like it and I was a little shocked by how close they were shooting to cars, houses, cats, dogs and kids. And yet, it was part of the culture and what made the experience so magical and well, so…..American.
Just like my childhood days (and rarely found in other parts of the country unless you travel to the Midwest), rules were meant to be broken. Immigrants from Italy, Greece, Albania, Irish, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Ukrania all lived among these streets. They brought their energy and culture with them and of course, their contribution to this very special American national holiday.
Photo credits: www.uptowncollective.com, bronx-pr.com and thebronxjournal.com.