Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Happy Memorial Day, Welcome To Sarajevo

P1030367Washington, DC isn't well known for it's culture and traditions. We don't have New Orleans' Mardi Gras parades, or New Year's Eve in Times Square, or Boston's distinctive accents. And brawls. Actually it's hard to think of any really well-known uniquely Washintonian traditions here in "the city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm." Outsiders probably think mostly of the politics and the bullets when they think of DC. Oh wait, not the bullets, the Wizards. How ironic, that people were so concerned that calling our basketball team "The Bullets" was offensive because of the crime here. Nothing wrong with "The Redskins," though, that's just kind of racist.

But anyone who's lived here for a while knows this is far from the truth. Actually we have many wonderful traditions and cultural institutions. Like the half-smoke, and mambo sauce.

But one lesser-known tradition to outsiders is the annual July 4th celebration. I don't mean the one downtown where a million sweaty people stand for hours and get covered with ashes. I mean the Columbia Heights/Petworth July 4th celebration that begins every year on Memorial Day and ends sometime after July 4th whenever everyone's supplies are gone. Right on cue, on Monday night I heard a bang outside.

Now even though I am the first person to make an uncomfortable joke about all the crime that goes on in my neighborhood, I honestly don't hear gunshots from my home often. In fact, in two years, I don't think I've heard a single one. So my instinct was not to hit the deck when I heard the noise. Rather, it was to go outside and see what was going on. Sure enough, the sky was lit up. It was the beginning of the annual shifting of funds from DC to China, as my neighbor shot off some pretty impressive pyrotechnics.

But something was different this year. After a mere ten minutes had gone by since the first blast, I saw flashing lights as two cop cars blocked off the end of my street and proceeded to shut down the celebration. The show was over before it had even begun. Eventually they left, and I did hear one more get shot off later, but the police had pretty much put a stop to it for the night. It was a much different story than in years past, where such activities went largely ignored by law enforcement.

Honestly, I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. July 4th itself is an unbelievable show. From my back yard last year, I saw a nearly 360 degree display of rather impressive fireworks being shot off from the surrounding blocks. We talked with one of the "shooters" who excitedly told us of their annual pilgrimage to states south where you can buy big stuff that is not available around here. Three neighbors together had spent over $3,000 to put on their show last year. And it was quite a show. While obviously not the same caliber as what was going on at the mall, it was pretty impressive stuff, and having it right overhead is a lot more exciting than something blowing up a mile away. My alley was a war zone of smoke, flying bottle rockets and falling paper shreds. By the end of the show there was so much smoke you couldn't see fifty feet.

I am not going to lie - I like the show. It's fun, it brings people together because everyone's out on the street (at least, those brave enough to risk getting hit by a bottle rocket or roman candle), and it's a lot better than moshing at the national mall. At the same time, the month-long lead-in of firecrackers in a neighborhood where people are a little edgy about gunfire is not that cool. I'd probably be a lot more comfortable with the tradition if it was limited to July 4th weekend rather than the six weeks around it.

So I wonder what will happen this year. Police responded to the very first fireworks I heard, whereas last year I don't remember a single incident of them enforcing the fireworks ban. Without question it's a sign of the times. Columbia Heights is gentrifying rapidly with the completion of the DCUSA development and a massive influx of new, wealthier residents. And this process always involves a lot more vocal response to petty crime, and consequently a greater police presence. After all, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

It's a mostly harmless tradition, and it's sure a lot of fun. But it's also a pretty uncomfortable one for a neighborhood that is dealing with gang and gun violence on a regular basis. While I'm not sad to see the police shutting down the routine jackassery of shooting bottle rockets and fireworks every night for a month, it would be sad to lose the spectacular neighborhood show that is such a neighborhood experience, and which I've thoroughly enjoyed for the last two years. Sure, it's illegal and maybe just a little dangerous, but it's also something uniquely ours and a rare DC tradition. We'll see what this year brings.


Shannon said...

When I saw the headline, I thought you were talking about the dreary, rainy weather we had on Monday...which reminded me of summer in Sarajevo.

My neighborhood doesn't do much with firecrackers, then again, I can see the Mall fireworks from my balcony.

Anonymous said...

Please note, my source is the somewhat drunken people who were shooting off the fireworks ...

Apparently the police came because they thought it was gun shots. However, the people were told that it is not illegal to shoot of fireworks in DC. So, after the police left they went over to the nearby park to shoot of the remainder of the fireworks.

Several neighbors were rather upset. Perhaps because the fireworks were being set off directly in front of a row of homes. I overheard one neighbor yell out:

"Stop setting off those fireworks or I'll show you some real fireworks!"

I say "bring them on!" ... The fake fireworks that is, not the "real" ones.

Jamie said...

Most fireworks are illegal in DC without a permit, including all firecrackers, bottle rockets and anything else that moves after it's lit. The only legal fireworks are some sparklers and a few other specific types. If the police told them it was legal, then they were wrong, and they did stop doing it when the police came.

Anyway, like I said, I like the big neighborhood show. But as far as the law goes there's no question that what they were shooting was illegal and any fireworks (especially things that fly) are somewhat dangerous in a densely populated area. And the bangs are more than a little disconcerting. I guess generally I say bring it on for July 4.. but I really don't need to hear firecrackers every night for a month.

Jamie said...

Reference to DC fireworks law.. allowed and prohibited.

Foilwoman said...

Jamie: Thanks for the info on half-smokes. I've been having a few each year (there's a hotdog vendor right outside my office) without knowing that this was an authentic (???) DC street dish, but now I know. Thank you.

Rather apt, but depressing, word verification code: resessec. Go figure.