It's not terribly hot out, and it wasn't threatening to dump rain this evening, so Jazmin and her boyfriend and I went out to see the Independence Day* fireworks this year.

For reasons that escape me, Independence Day celebrations have standardized over the years into 1) drinking a lot, 2) barbecuing an assortment of meat products, ideally over open flame, and 3) setting off as many fireworks as you can get your grubby little hands on. The unofficial fourth option, after screwing up one or more of these, is 'trip to the local ER', which will of course endear you to the many fine people who have to come into the hospital to work while everyone else is throwing parties.

The City of Boston leaves the first two things for you to take care of privately, but throws itself into the third with alacrity. Much as the New Years Eve celebrations are televised from Times Square in New York City, the Fourth of July fireworks are broadcast nationally from the Esplanade in downtown Boston. The main broadcast is live, including the open-air concert given by the Boston Philharmonic -- this is impressive, especially the part where they punctuate the 1812 Overture with actual cannons -- and goes out commercial-free. This is unusual here, but one of the many things for which Boston is known is the television station WGBH, which sponsors a plurality if not a majority of the public broadcasting content in the US that we don't buy outright from the BBC.

There were fireworks every year when I was growing up in Phoenix. The city provided the venue, and the city paid for them. Nobody came to watch them as 'the City of Phoenix'. They showed up to watch as individual people who happened to live somewhere around Phoenix, and figured these might be cooler than, like, the city of Peoria or the city of Glendale, or the city of Mesa, or whatever. Phoenix didn't make any particular effort to make sure the display was visible as widely as possible; you showed up to watch or you didn't. You didn't really schmooze with other people; you showed up with your lawn chairs and snuck in your beer and staked out your territory, and when they were over you folded up your stuff and your family and left. I'm pretty sure Glendale actually held theirs in (well, over) a local stadium, once that was built.

Boston shows up to watch the Esplanade show as a gestalt. The fireworks are actually set off from a set of barges floating in the river between the Mass Ave and Longfellow Bridges. They're visible for miles -- you can get a good view of the display all the way from the Boston University Bridge out to cruise ships by the Charlestown Navy Yard. Big chunks of Memorial Drive (Cambridge side) and Storrow Drive (Boston side) are closed to vehicular traffic during the show, as almost three miles of riverbank and sidewalks turn into spectator seating. Some adventurous souls go out on the Charles in kayaks and canoes to watch. Boston and Cambridge are well aware of this, and there are a number of places along the bank that set up speakers and play the PBS feed of the pre-fireworks concert for people too far away from the Hatch Shell to see it. The fireworks proper are run by House of Grucci, an American family-owned company world-famous for its pyrotechnic artistry.

You could question the resources poured into this shindig, and you could probably get a good argument going. Lots of them, really. Scheduling, budget, security, crowd control, transit, all kinds of things. But it would not occur to anyone here to question whether it's the city's place to run the celebration. Of course it is. That's what cities are for -- you live together and pool your resources so you can have better stuff than you could manage on your own. There are probably a thousand million things more necessary for daily life that run on this principle, but there's no reason this shouldn't be as true for parties as it is for working sewers. Especially if you want to throw a party with attendance in the hundreds of thousands.

Boston takes Independence Day especially seriously. It's not just celebrating some guys from here who did a historical thing, or even celebrating that this is the geographical locale where the historical thing happened; Boston very much considers itself to be the same city that existed back then. People move here, move away, are born and die, but the City of Boston continues on.

The city, collectively, remembers what it has done, because the city, collectively, acts. June is LGBT Pride Month in the US. The City of Boston organizes the Pride Parade, and the festival on Boston Common; the city buildings fly rainbow banners. After the shootings in Orlando, the City of Boston organized a vigil, outside of City Hall, at which the mayor spoke. In November, the City of Boston puts up a Christmas tree on the Common, and about a month before Christmas, the City of Boston celebrates when it turns the lights on. The tree comes down from Nova Scotia every year, in thanks, because when the Halifax exploded, the City of Boston organized trains of doctors and nurses and supplies, and sent them north.

I'm sure most of you are staring at this in utter perplexity right now. Most places are probably like this, at least to some degree. But the Sonoran Desert, where I grew up, operates in an isolated eternal now. The retirement communities just outside of Phoenix once decided they didn't want to pay the county school taxes, because they didn't personally have any kids still in school, and this was actually entertained as a reasonable argument. This whole thing where people cooperate because everyone will benefit -- rather than bitching and pulling out because they don't want other people leeching off their hard work -- still blows my mind. Even, or perhaps especially, when the benefit is purely psychological.

* tl;dr for non USians: Back when the US was "the American colonies", the English were running low on money for militarily harassing France and Spain and commercially exploiting the East and West Indies. They decided to make up the shortfall by charging hellacious taxes on everything they exported to the colonies, mainly because there were no colonial representatives to deal with in Parliament, and the colonists were too far away to file their complaints in person with torches and pitchforks. There was diplomatic bickering, but when that didn't work, the colonists basically just resorted to breaking shit. The instigating incident, at least according to our history books, was when a ship sailed into Boston Harbor with a load of tea leaves and demanded the import tax before they'd offload any cargo. In response, a bunch of Bostonian guys dressed up (unconvincingly) as members of the local native tribes, boarded the ship, and dumped the contents of the hold into the harbor. England correctly translated this as 'no, fuck you, Dad' and things went downhill from there.

[This is known as the "Boston Tea Party", and is where the crazy Tea Party people in our politics get their name from, if you were wondering why a coalition of deeply-repressed religious zealots were styling themselves after a civilized afternoon gathering involving bone china and tiny cakes. They see themselves as revolutionaries standing up for "the people", having somehow missed that a significant amount of "the people" in the country think they are scary and insane.]

July the Fourth, 1776, is traditionally held to be the day we formalized the document declaring our independence from the motherland. It wasn't, but as historical myths go, this is reasonably close to reality -- mainly what keeps it from being strictly true was a lot of bureaucracy, and the fact that messages traveled on horseback in those days. In any case, it's a federal holiday. American public schools aren't generally in session in July, but universities that run summer classes don't run any on the 4th, and anyone working for the government who's not part of emergency services automatically gets the day off. Banks follow the federal holiday schedule, because banks. Whether private businesses also close depends on where you are. In Arizona most things didn't; Boston takes the holiday far more seriously, so more or less everything is operating on reduced hours, if they're open at all.


  1. I am definitely in love with the City of Boston, or at least I really like like her so hard. She tolerates my volunteering. I think you pointed out a lot of the things I love about being part of a collective, while also managing to indicate that we are, by and large, a weird bunch that follow bizarre cultural norms. Kudos to you for that.

    1. Volunteering is very different out here than it was in Arizona. The thing that really bothered me out there was that you were almost never volunteering *with* the people you were volunteering *for*. There was this very middle-class churchy vibe to it for the most part, where you were always the (usually English-speaking Anglo) Haves donating your time to the less fortunate (usually Spanish-speaking Mexican/Latinx) Have Nots. I was surprised to find that the dance studio where I volunteer in Cambridge is much closer to the norm out here -- the people who work the desk are the same people who take classes and use the rehearsal studios there.

  2. Yeah, about that:

    Turns out it's been this one philanthropist's organization securing funding since 1973 and now he's stepping down.

    1. 'Funding' and 'resources' are not entirely isomorphic. A great deal more than money goes into organizing the event. We were down at BU, for instance, and we saw at least three completely separate law enforcement agencies providing security and crowd control, at least one of which came in from a completely different part of the GBA to help. The city is responsible for the road closures, maintaining the festival grounds, and running the venue. It is a great deal of effort that no amount of money could or would replicate without full cooperation from the city authorities.

      WGBH isn't officially part of the city government either, but they cover the major broadcasting duties because they are part of the Boston community. This is the major element I felt Arizona in general was missing. The guiding philosophy out there is 'why should anyone else benefit from my work?'


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