City / Culture: In Praise of Fireworks

In most cities – and smaller towns – public dollars go into creating a civic Independence Day fireworks display. In other words, an arts display; with culture as unifier.

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By the time you’re reading this, your immediate memories of the Fourth of July weekend are likely long gone. But maybe this weekend, a breeze kissed a wisp of smoke your way, maybe from a neighbor’s front stoop barbeque, or back porch grill.

Maybe briefly, your piriform cortext takes in the scent and dishes up a gray matter flashback to the hamburger or tofu dogs, or the elote that you gobbled up in honor of the shucking off of King George III.

Maybe a car down the block backfires. Maybe your neighborhood is burdened by gunfire. Or maybe someone you know has acquired so many roman candles, sparklers, cherry bombs, catherine wheels and all the whiz-bang rest of DiY rocketry that he or she is still setting off these pyrotechnics weeks after the Fourth, the only special occasion being dusk.

Whatever the reason, the smells, the sounds, or the remainder inventory brings back to mind that seminal Fourth of July celebrant, fireworks.

Fireworks are a prime example of the City / Culture topic. This column covers creative activities that take place in urban settings, with a particular emphasis on actions undertaken by city residents that might otherwise be considered the responsibility of municipalities. Like neighborhood fireworks.

Okay, now somebody please cue the William Tell Overture, or Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, or better still, any beat by the RZA.

Depending where you live – presumably in a city if you’re reading this website – but depending on what state, or country, how you experience fireworks is likely considerable different from whoever else is reading this at the same moment. That’s due in part to cultural traditions, laws, and law enforcement.

In most cities – and smaller towns – public dollars go into creating a civic Independence Day fireworks display. In other words, an arts display; with culture as unifier. Residents come together, crane their necks, shape their lips and drop their jaws, oohing and aahing upwards.

As George Plimpton, seersucker-suited polymath and author extraordinaire, recalling his youth, wrote in his 1984 volume, Fireworks: A History and Celebration:

“And then, of course, there was the professional show. Not only did these soft summer evenings have perfect weather, but perhaps they were the first community gatherings one experienced in childhood – the first instance of communal activity.”

Plimpton grew up to become the longtime Fireworks Commissioner of New York City. This was an unpaid, honorary title. In typical fashion, he got a great book out of the gig.

While Plimpton was off on a barge or some such in the Hudson River, working on public displays watched by a million-plus people, good folks elsewhere sizzle, pop, flash, and boom in the big holiday with private – and usually illegal, and more usually, unpunished – personal displays. (Plimpton’s book also makes it clear the man shot off his own fair share of personal stuff, too. And he was a demolitions specialist in the Army.)

There are Los Angeles neighborhoods, for instance, where the block-by-block displays put on by residents at their own expense and risk rivals, and even outshines, the nearest official City-sanctioned displays.

Except, that is, for the grand finales. Individuals or impromptu collectives of neighbors can’t compete with municipal grand finales. But in the same manner that public space and private space are so often confused and co-mingled, fireworks displays are, too. And corporate fireworks can most definitely light the sky in spectacular ways.

Here in Southern California, people residing near Dodger Stadium can look out their windows, or stroll through (public, but closed after dark) Elysian Park, and see holiday as well as occasional other post-game fireworks. In Anaheim, in a less urban setting, Angels baseball games feature more of the same. So does the dedicated soccer stadium in Carson.

Down in San Diego, Sea World shoots off nightly summertime displays. City / Culture once attended an engagement party where the betrothed duo kissed in front of a picture window, and in the background, giant pinwheels filled the sky.

Back up in Anaheim, Disneyland shoots up nighttime fireworks shows. Even Uncle Walt and his mirthful Cast Members can’t keep the pageantry from blasting up and out of the confines of the intentionally insular theme park.

When it comes to large-scale displays, whomever the purveyor, some neighbors complain, particularly about non-holiday fireworks. And some environmentalists voice air and water-quality complains about fireworks.

Speaking of science, Dr. John Steinberg, a vice president and media director of Pyrotechnics Guild International considers – rightly – fireworks to be both an art and a science.

Asked about just that, Steinberg emailed this reply to City / Culture: “Art: Performance – achieving an esthetic result that produces a perceptual and emotional response in the creator and in the audience. Science – try making fireworks or displaying them without understanding chemistry, physics, electronics, etc.”

(Plimpton’s book is full of famous historical figures who would agree. Peter the Great, Charles V, Louis XIV, Leonardo Da Vinci, Plimpton himself.)

City / Culture also asked Steinberg, of PGI, if historically in the U.S., fireworks have been more of a government-sponsored activity or private?

“The trend,” Steinberg replied, “has been toward less private use and to more public sponsorship – not necessarily governmental – due to increased costs and particularly due to regulatory and insurance burdens and costs.”

What about elsewhere in the world? “Some countries – such as Malta – promote individual/private fireworks clubs,” Steinberg wrote. “[Others] – such as Mexico, Spain, etc – allow citizens to engage in fireworks activities at festivals where such activities would be prohibited in the U.S. Many, if not most, countries actually have more restrictive laws than the U.S. regarding private fireworks use.”

Again, there’s laws, and there is the enforcement, or not, of those laws. In parts of Los Angeles on Independence Day, police helicopters buzz blocks. Police cruisers and unmarked units – their headlights turned off – arrive and threaten arrest. And still, everywhere you look, colorful constellations halo palm trees, and kids twirl glowing incendiaries as if they were electric cotton candy. Sadly, worldwide, some people get burned or mangled. The great majority of people obviously do not.

Still, well in advance of New Year’s Eve, or next year’s Independence Day, or whatever occasion is fit for fireworks, we give PGI’s Steinberg the last word.

“Please be careful and obey all regulations, ordinances, and laws,” Steinberg writes. “Whether you agree with them or not!”

Read past City / Culture columns here and contact the columnist.

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