Years ago, when I lived in Inwood, I walked to the public pier at Dyckman Street on the Hudson River to see fireworks on the Fourth of July. The sightings were disappointing. Through clouds in the distance I could see the faint glow of a few shows over New Jersey and could see none of the official Macy’s fireworks happening farther downtown.
I returned to my apartment disappointed but was soon treated to shows of illegal fireworks that more than compensated. The barrage of ordnance that filled the northern Manhattan sky was a welcome sight that took me back to my childhood in Yonkers. I would emerge from our apartment in Yonkers on July 5th to a scene that resembled a war zone. The curbs and corners were filled with the spent paper from reams of firecrackers, and one time I saw a metal garbage can that had been exploded and overturned, looking like a giant metallic banana peel.
When I first returned to the city to live as an adult, I lived in Ozone Park, once the home to professional-grade illegal fireworks shows and street festivals paid for by the Gambino Crime Family boss John Gotti. Gotti had been in prison several years at that point, and the authorities worked hard to prevent the return of a large-scale illegal fireworks display. Police were all over 101st Ave. and the surrounding streets, but it made little difference. Managing to get on the roof of my building, I could see the official fireworks far away in Manhattan, but the cat-and-mouse game of cops and illicit fireworks was more entertaining.
Illegal fireworks have been a New York City staple for decades. When I was in fifth grade in the New York suburbs, I went to a neighbor’s yard where a friend’s father let me light sparklers off some candles set on the ground. I felt like the greatest outlaw on Earth. Kids waved around sparklers while adults set off bottle rockets and M-80s. When we heard police sirens in the distance, adults blew the candles out and we ran to the backyard until the danger had passed.
More recently, we have enjoyed the sights of fireworks over Whitestone and College Point. Early morning jogs through Flushing Memorial Field has found launch sites of the previous evenings fireworks displays, the tubes still smelling of gunpowder in the cool dawn, like a mortar position of a recently passed battle.
The allure of illicit explosives dates to the birth of the American nation. The first battles of the American Revolution were fought over the British Army’s attempt to seize illegal weapons.
New York, which was under the yoke of British rule for the bulk of the Revolution, was no less fervent in its commitment to the cause. One of the bloodiest battles of the war was fought in Brooklyn; the Battle of Long Island almost ended the Revolution—Washington barely escaped to regroup. The first woman known to take up arms for the United States did so in Manhattan at the Battle of Fort Washington; Americans lost that battle too and Fort Tryon park still bears the name of the British governor of New York at the time.
Our founding fathers would have been hanged as traitors to the crown had we not won. No matter our heritage, Americans are proudly descended from outlaws and outcasts. People setting off fireworks today are not would-be revolutionaries, but they are tapping into the same antiauthoritarian sentiment that is alive in spades in America today.
The city has seen an increase in setting off illegal fireworks. We hear them in every neighborhood and in some cases too late (true fireworks enthusiasts know to stop between 11 p.m. and 12 a.m., July Fourth excepted). There is a need now for people to celebrate and sending exploding stars into the night sky is best done while remaining safely distant from fellow citizens. Many bars and restaurants remain closed, large parts of the city are effectively locked down by massive protests. Fireworks are a needed respite, a needed release of our energies to celebrate something, whether that be the birth pangs of a better America or a fiery exegesis of an abiding patriotism.
Illegal fireworks are a proud New York tradition, a proud American tradition. Let it never die.
Last Wednesday thousands gathered in Fort Totten Park in Bayside, Queens for a fireworks display. The event had all the makings of potential disaster by modern metrics. Thousands of diverse people crammed into a limited area and jockeying for space to get a good view. A little league soccer team was wrapping up practice as people took their places in the expanse of green field between portable toilets and a row of food trucks. Bounce castles entertained children before the fireworks started and people took what they thought were the best positions to view the show as they waited for the sky to get dark enough.
The fireworks started promptly and a roaring whoop went up from the crowd as fireworks lit up the sky. New Yorkers cheered enthusiastically for this celebration of our War of Independence. When it was over, the crowd made its way out of Fort Totten without incident, or at least any major ones.
From parts of Fort Totten you can see the glitter of the Manhattan skyline and be inspired by the nighttime majesty of the Throgs Neck Bridge lit up. It is a marvel how New York holds itself together while the country seemingly tears itself apart. Gotham is as rife with division as everywhere else: New York City gave us both Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The greatness of New York serves as a microcosm of America. We see all the same issues in New York first, and the city, rightly or wrongly, serves as a template for how the rest of the country can navigate its problems.
The Fourth of July brings us down to Earth, reminds us of how American we are. It is popular to look upon outward signs of patriotism as right-wing or quaint, but if you believe America is for everyone and that patriotism is expansive and great, then join the celebration. The freedom we have was purchased in a bloody war, several actually.
The land we are on we do not claim by divine right. Every inch of America was fought over. We waged war on France, Great Britain (twice), Mexico (twice), Spain and countless Native American nations to get the current borders of the United States. July 4th celebrates the birth of our nation, a hard-fought war for Independence that was in effect our first civil war. When the war started it was not a foregone conclusion that we would win. The patriots who signed their names to the Declaration of Independence knew that the document would serve as their death warrant if the war didn’t go their way.
The Battle of Brooklyn was one of the bloodiest fights in the history of the American Revolution, and the war would have ended had Washington not been able to retreat to Manhattan. The British held New York for most of the war, but the city has signs of the American Revolution everywhere. The first woman who took up arms for America, Margaret Corbin, fought at the Battle of Fort Washington in Manhattan.
Some are fatalistic and see America as it is headed now as intrinsically doomed. There is no cultural coherence to sustain us through these times, they say, and new communities and nations will rise out of what is now a crumbling empire. But New Yorkers have bridged these divides in the crucibles of ambition and creativity. We are strong when we demand truth and strength, and turn to leaders not afraid to speak honestly and make the right enemies. We can do that in America as a whole if we are willing.
Let the American Revolution be our call to action today.
Growing up in Yonkers, New York, which borders the Bronx, the fourth of July was always a time for fireworks and fun. I would stay up as late as I could watching people light up firecrackers, Roman candles, bottle rockets, and other fare. I’d jump at the fearsome boom of M-80s. On the fifth of July I’d go outside to ride my bike and step into what looked to me like a war zone. Paper from expended fire crackers lined the gutters, leftover powder from unexploded ordnance glinted in the sun. One time I saw a metal garbage can that had been split in half and turned upside down by a blast of something, looking like a sad metallic banana peel.
When I first moved to New York City as an adult, I lived on 101st Avenue in Ozone Park, Queens. A few blocks down the street was famed Gambino Crime Family boss John Gotti’s old local headquarters, the Bergin Hunt & Fish Club. Gotti had been in prison for several years by that point, and the Mafia was a shadow of what it once was, but the Teflon Don had thrown big parties in Ozone Park every Independence Day and his presence was still looming large enough to draw a large police presence. I could not look out the window of my small studio on July 4th of that year without seeing the NYPD.
When my brother was visiting the next year, we managed to get onto the roof of the building I lived in. While we could see the fireworks off in the distance happening over the East River, it was much more fun to see the illicit explosions spreading it spider light over the skies of Ozone Park. The ensuing cat-and-mouse game of the firework lighters and the police added to the intrigue.
Years later, when I lived in Inwood in Northern Manhattan, I walked down to where Dyckman Street met the Hudson River, hoping to see fireworks of some capacity over the water. I was too far away from the official celebrations to get a good view of anything and I went home. But the volume of illegal fireworks being launched in Inwood was enormous, and I got a better show from my living room window than I could have had anywhere else.
I have been back in Queens for almost seven years now, this time in Northern Queens on the Flushing-Whitestone border.
Our co-op apartment building houses two addresses that do not connect except in the basement and on the roof. The roof is normally not accessible, but one of the buildings is without its elevator, so residents can take the elevator to the top floor of our side and cross over the roof.
On the fourth of July the skies over New York City were lit with legal and illegal fireworks alike. With one girls falling asleep early, my wife and I took turns bringing our other daughters up to see what there was to see. We knew there was a lot going on in our neighborhood as the evenings leading up to the fourth had at least one or two substantial barrages of fireworks audible and in close range.
From all sides of the roof we saw fireworks in the distance. A string of lights on the roof added to the festive air. The official Macy’s show over the East River started up at 9 p.m., and other legal displays could be seen over some of the country clubs of Douglaston and other well-to-do neighborhoods. But the most compelling sights were the ones going on right over the tidy homes of Whitestone.
The fireworks would burst into a glowing flower of streaking fire and fade almost as quickly. “Where go?” asked my youngest daughter, pointing to where the colorful display had just been. Another family from the other side if the building was on the roof as well. “Happy Birthday America!” one little boy called out as the colorful bombs burst in air.
The Saturday after July 4th, our family visited friends for a celebratory party. There my older girls got to experience sparklers for the first time. They enjoyed holding the fizzing light, aware it could burn them but marveling at how pretty it was. It was what the older people and the big kids were doing, and they were glad to be involved in the tradition. I didn’t get to hold sparklers until I was in fifth or sixth grade, and my parents would not have allowed me to partake if I had asked them. I was at a neighbor’s house and the grown-ups were lighting off the bigger stuff, using a candle on the ground to help light things. When police sirens could be heard in the distance, someone would blow the candle out and we’d retreat to the dark shadows of trees near the house until the danger of being caught had passed.
Of course there are dangers to fireworks, and no shortage of stupid people who set them off dangerously and without regard to safety or consideration for others. But we can’t let stupid people ruin our good time. Just as we shouldn’t stop loving our country because stupidity is on the ascent in our leadership and public discourse, we shouldn’t stop loving the celebration because morons are in the mix. The idiots will be there until common sense or well-placed fireworks weed them out.
Colonists won their freedom with blatant opposition to oppressive laws and plenty of gunpowder. It’s that heritage of the outlaw patriot we celebrate with fireworks at this time of year. It’s a tip of the hat to our revolutionary history. May it never die.
The Fourth of July every year brings with it many great traditions: hot dogs, fireworks, partying to excess with friends and family. And every year I have partied with high school friends in a way that embraces all of these observances.
My high school friend Steve and his wife Paige put on a great 4th of July party that brings in friends from far and wide.
Steve is the center of our social circle among most of my Connecticut friends. When we were in high school, his mother’s house was our central meeting place, and Mrs. Q was a second mother to a lot of us. She is missed. Steve and Paige’s house has become a second home to many. They have helped many friends and relatives who have needed places to stay. Even friends with perfectly good homes of their own nearby wind up spending a lot of time at Steve and Paige’s house.
The day of the party, circumstances delayed our departure until after 2 p.m. Driving on I-95 in Connecticut is its own special hell, and a Saturday on a holiday weekend it was an infernal misery of traffic. A two-hour drive became a three-hour drive, and since our kids had already napped at home, they screamed and cried for much of that three-hour drive. When we finally pulled onto our friends’ property, it was after 5 p.m.
I didn’t have time to make the stop for fireworks like I normally do. The forecast called for rain.
Once we got there, it was great to be among friends again.
Steve is a very handy person. He turned his one-story house into a two-story home and constructed his own out-buildings to keep farm animals on his property. He got me into hunting, gave me good advice on how to move about the woods, and helped me field dress my first deer. He also introduced me to the works of Arthur Schopenhauer and we’ve debated both the immutably dark nature of human existence until the wee hours of the morning.
Steve and I were both financial journalists for a while. After being laid off and being without a regular job for a long time, Steve began working in shipbuilding by helping to renovate the historic Amistad. He has since began working on boats in Newport, Rhode Island. More than a year ago, he told me he could not go back to working behind a desk. At the party he said he hated having to be away from his family for so long for his job, but that he loves his job. He wakes up every morning and looks forward to going to work. It was something I had heard about but didn’t think I’d see.
A man who loves his job today is rare. I expected to see Bigfoot or get kidnapped by a UFO before one of my friends told me they loved going to work every day. Even though he loves to play the part of a curmudgeon, he looked sincerely happier than he’s been in the past. It was great to see and I can’t think of someone who deserves that more than Steve. He brings a lot of good thoughts and much-needed perspective to a lot of his friends. I know I’ve been better for having had long conversations with him and I’m far from alone.
He’s been writing a lot of good poetry lately as well and posting his poems online. He’s getting to see new things, and be inspired by his work with ships. “In so many ways, sailing is freedom like most of us can’t even understand.” He messaged me at one point.
A while into our time at the party, I found Steve sitting on a lawn chair in the back of his pickup truck. With him was our friend Jay. The two were perfectly content to sit with their beer there and observe the party from their perch. But they soon began to attract a crowd. Everyone wanted to stop by and enjoy the conversation. In between searching for and wrangling my children and stuffing my face with food, I discussed poetry with Steve.
We agreed that two men sitting in the back of a pickup truck was good fodder for a poem and we decided to each write a poem with this as the theme.
The party continued and despite my not being able to contribute to the supply of ordnance, there were still plenty of fireworks. My twin girls asked to be brought inside and skip the rest of the barrage after getting a bit too close to the pyrotechnics. Inside Jay was making his outstanding jambalaya, and we got a peek at the culinary genius at work.
We stayed late and got on the road for home after 11:30 p.m. Someday we’ll stay overnight in a tent on our friends’ lawn like my wife and I did before we had children.
It was a great way to celebrate Independence Day. The national politics evolves and devolves, and no matter your perspective, it’s easy to become discouraged. The strength of our country lies in the bonds we form with friends and neighbors, and at Steve and Paige’s house, a strong community thrives on its own.