Monday, July 05, 2010

From Bust to Boom

When Mayor Daley announced that the city's annual downtown 4th of July fireworks display would be canceled in lieu of three smaller events spread along the lakefront, much grumbling ensued. Nobody likes change, especially not to beloved holiday traditions.

But I gotta say, in practice, this seeming bust of an idea turned out to be pretty damned spectacular.

We've headed to the Grant Park fireworks maybe once every three years. It's a lot of schlepping on the train for a North Sider. To claim a tiny patch of grass from a semi-decent vantage point, we'd have to leave our place about 3 hours in advance of the fireworks. The display would last all of 15 minutes, and then another 2 hours to get home. Not that I'm complaining. We were always glad we made the effort--there's something about seeing the entire city of Chicago, all colors and economic levels, come together that's electrifying. Not to mention the opportunity, after the display ended, to walk up Lakeshore Drive, closed to auto traffic. That was probably the best part--gazing at the lake and city skyline on a warm summer night and falling in love with Chicago all over again.

Here's how last night played out in comparison: At 8 p.m., an hour before the fireworks were set to shoot off, we hopped on our bikes and rode down a nearly deserted Wilson Ave. to the lakefront. Where cars were stymied by police barricades, we sailed on through. (I have to say, traffic cop is an awesome job. You get paid to be rude.) By 8:30, we were plopped on the grass, just feet from the beach. We watched as the fireworks' barge maneuvered to a spot on Lake Michigan literally right in front of where we were sitting. We had lucked into a front-row seat.

As I surveyed the crowd, which stretched from Montrose to Lawrence and beyond, I couldn't help but wonder what the Tea Partiers would make of such an assemblage. As a rough estimate, I'd say white folks like my husband and me made up about 5 percent of the gathering. The rest were a mix of Latinos (the vast majority), African-Americans and assorted other ethnic groups. They might not have looked like the Founding Fathers, but they celebrated with as much gusto and joy. Little kids ran around with glow sticks and the smell of barbecue mingled with the stench of sulphur. Fireworks are illegal to shoot off in Illinois, but you'd never know it from where we sat. The amateur bangs and crackles were applauded by the crowd, while we waited for the real show to start.

This was something new, something you didn't get in Grant Park. The spirit of independence--it was like the city had come to our party instead of the other way around. We weren't sitting under the shadow of august institutions like the Field Museum. This was our neighborhood so we were free to loosen up a bit. The year before, we had watched security personnel shoo people off the lawn of the Shedd Aquarium, which had been reserved for a private party. In contrast, here it felt like being at the kids' table on Thanksgiving instead of with the grown-ups in the dining room.

According to my watch, the city's display kicked off a minute late, but once the first rocket launched, I knew I was among my own people. People who love fireworks. People who aren't too cool to admit thier childish delight in watching sparkly things go boom. We whooped and cheered every burst--which included smiley faces and heart shapes and these gorgeous cascading fountains that drew a collective gasp. No one had thought to bring a radio to listen to the musical simulcast; instead, a guy next to us, part of large extended familial group, kept up a running play-by-play. His schtick needed a little work--he called the grand finale approximately halfway into the 15-minute show. All the while, people continued to shoot off their own fireworks, because what is the 4th but a pyromaniac's dream come true.

As the last burst faded to black, we got back on our bikes, weaved through the crowd, and were shortly in the clear. We zoomed passed buses, parked, waiting for the oncoming hordes. I'd never ridden in the dark before and had been a little apprehensive of making the attempt. But much like that walk up Lakeshore, it was the best part of the night. It felt free--free to be in the open air, to be part of this tiny band of cyclists, to have the road nearly to ourselves. As we made our way home, fireworks shot off all around us, and we were in the center of the celebration, enveloped by the magic.

By 9:45, we'd pulled up to our building, ready for Round 2. For the past couple of years, a group of teens has held their own fireworks display in the park behind our condo. For amateurs, it's pretty impressive (we wonder how much it costs and how the heck these kids get the money to pay for it, but that's a minor quibble). We settled onto our back deck--again, a front row seat--and a few of our neighbors came out to enjoy the show as well. When the cops arrived to shut the kids down, we nearly staged a protest but thought better of it--Chicago cops have a reputation, after all. (Where were they on the lakefront, where the crowds were much thicker and the danger much greater?) Not willing to call it a night, we chatted up our neighbor and her guests, one of them in town from Ohio, our home state. This might not sound like a remarkable occurrence, but it was, because in a huge city like Chicago, you don't necessarily even know the people who live five feet across the hall from you, much less talk to them.

On this night, the fireworks had brought us together. And wasn't that the point, after all.


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