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July 12, 2003

A report on the events of the Fourth of July
Posted by Teresa at 10:00 AM *

On the Fourth of July you can go join the gathering on the FDR (the highway up the east side of Manhattan), closed to vehicular traffic for the occasion so that zillions of New Yorkers can pack themselves onto it to watch fireworks being set off from a barge in the East River. Or, new this year, you can gather at South Street Seaport, or on the Brooklyn Heights promenade, or (I suppose) on the Brooklyn Bridge, to watch an identical synchronized fireworks extravaganza go up from a barge moored in the mouth of the East River. Or you can watch the lesser but still very pretty fireworks show in Newark. Or you can bootleg a bunch of illegal fountains and rockets and Roman candles into the city, and stage your own show.

Alternately, you can sit on your rooftop in Brooklyn and watch all of them at once.

(One of these years I’m going to go back to being able to go up there without thinking how nice it is that I don’t have a major act of terrorism happening in my direct line of sight. In the meantime, it’s still nice.)

The fire escape is rickety and the ladder connecting the top fire escape landing with the roof proper is downright scary. Fortunately, it was too dark to see what we were doing, so we had less to be scared of. Once we were up there I perched on the old bricked-up chimney, while Patrick half-knelt on a bit of wall next to me. There was a nice breeze and a newish crescent moon.

As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I started picking out little groups of my neighbors on other nearby rooftops. Some of them had fireworks. Someone on the south side of President or the north side of Carroll had a supply of pretty little bottle rockets. A large happy rooftop gathering on Garfield was setting off considerably more ambitious fireworks, bursts and sprays and fountains and candles, some of which came almost uncomfortably close to our own rooftop perch. And down on Third Avenue, someone had laid in a substantial evening’s program of even bigger stuff, some of it quite impressive.

(Partway through the main East River shows, the privately sponsored show on Third Avenue became sufficiently obtrusive to bring a NYPD helicopter and its searchlight down from Greenpoint or Williamsburg to inspect our immediate area. The guys down on Third had just lit off some kind of long-lasting artillery barrage number when it started to become evident that that swiftly-expanding helicopter-dot was heading straight for us. The barrage went on and on, sending up green and gold MIRVing starbursts; and when I think of all the fountain-effect fireworks I’ve seen that were played out in just a few seconds, I have to say that that one really gave the Third Avenue guys their money’s worth. Trouble was, the NYPD helicopter was coming on very fast. The barrage finished up, and its corpse was presumably dragged out of sight, with only seconds to spare before the searchlight found the sidewalk square where it had stood.

The helicopter flew away. After a few minutes the fireworks cautiously recommenced all around us; and when the helicopter failed to return, they returned to their former exuberant level.)

The big display out in New Jersey started first, and for a while we wondered whether it might be the promised show at the mouth of the East River, and whether the matching show further north was somehow not in our line of sight. Then the real East River shows started up, both of them quite visible, though the northern one was color-shifted by the intervening haze, and I wondered how I could ever have doubted. This was the real NYC Fourth of July thing: spectacular, unstinting, in an artfully varied program that mixed show-offy new technical effects with old classics done perfectly, and all of it done on a perfectly enormous scale.

Thank you, Macy’s.

Colors: Normal fireworks red. Saturated geranium red. Normal fireworks green. An extra-bright yellow-green. Blue. A bluer blue that didn’t carry well over long distances but was gorgeous up close. Hot violet-pink. Lime-tinted gold. Florida OJ yellow-gold. The usual whites and golds for the “giant chrysanthemums and trailing sparks” part of the show. And of course, lots of color-change tricks that swapped off one of these for another.

They had some really great spherical bursts in what looked like pale gold with pale green and peach-pink, with some sort of fast subtle color changes going on, but it’s possible I was seeing colors that weren’t chemically present. They were magnificent.

Shapes: globes, globes inside of globes, globes equatorially divided into two colors, Saturn-ringed planets, rings, five-pointed stars, roundish but recognizable American flags, bilaterally symmetrical bursts like bowtie pasta, smiley faces, and sawtooth-edged annular bursts of cloudy gold sparks with rings of bright colored stars inside.

What I didn’t see: those really great rockets that release a bunch of smaller bursts that suddenly turn into weird corkscrews and spirals. Too bad. I like those a lot.

They’ve added an excruciatingly cool new effect to the white-and-gold segment, which is always my favorite part of the show anyway. That’s when they do the best giant gold chrysanthemums, sometimes with sharply-defined branching or MIRVing inner bursts, and fireworks that rain down in long trailing lines of falling gold sparks like willow branches, and that weird one that forms a sort of filigreed net of superbright white stars that all drift downward together. Anyway, this new one, which is simply enormous, explodes into a huge starfield made of a great many separate, evenly spaced, almost perfectly round balls of gold sparks. It looked sort of like a cross between a dandelion puffball and the old MacPaint spraypaint effect. It also looked sort of like the last picture on this page, but I’m not sure.

They had a couple of other effects that really impressed me. One was a rocket that went up in a column of gold sparks and exploded into a rather small burst of green stars. Then, moments later, a huge hollow globe of stars, a patchwork of about five different colors, would briefly flare into existence around the now-fading center. And they had some of those fireworks I don’t understand, where there’s a starburst, only instead of exploding outward in a ball or spray, or falling down in clouds of sparkles, the individual stars fly off slowly and erratically in all directions, like a swarm of fireflies. I wish I knew how they did that.

Anyway, it was a well-made show, the kind where you never have to wonder whether the combination you just saw was the grand finale, and there are no big gaps that make you think prematurely that it’s over. As it built toward a climax, the rooftop party over on Garfield started singing “The Star-Spangled Banner”—on-key, for a miracle, and with excellent harmony. We joined in from our own rooftop. I don’t know whether we were audible to them, but it didn’t matter. We all cheered together when we finished.

Then the fireworks show on the river finished in a flurry of huge starburst shells, with LOTS of bang-crash-boom rockets right at the end. That last great thunderclap came rolling like a tidal wave across the rooftops of Brooklyn, hit the taller buildings east of us, and bounced back as an echo a moment later.


Comments on A report on the events of the Fourth of July:
#1 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: July 12, 2003, 03:18 PM:

That's really good writing.

We got one -- just one, swiftly passed -- that was turquoise this year, on the first[1]; I really wonder what was in that one. It was a brilliant clear turquoise, and I have no idea what burns that colour.

I recognize pretty much everything else in your description, only perhaps not quite so many. :)

I'm fairly sure the cloud-of-fireflies effect is produced by making the lights part of slow burning small rockets, a technology first developed for 'base bleed' range extension in artillery shells, where the idea is to fill the space behind the shell to avoid turbulence, rather than to actually push any.

[1] 'this year' is otherwise ambiguous between July 1, Canada Day, and May 24, Victoria Day, both of which occasions being traditionally marked with fireworks. The Victoria Day fireworks are often better.

#2 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: July 13, 2003, 08:49 AM:

Graydon, while I agree with your first statement, isn't it almost...redundant...where TNH is concerned?

I didn't see any fireworks on the 4th (I was busy, and the East River ones aren't really visible from Hoboken), but the Sunday before there was a comparatively minor, but still sufficiently spectacular, fireworks display for Pride Day. That one was on the Hudson, and extremely visible from Hoboken.

The people at the Pier Dance must have been coated with ash.

One color you didn't mention, Teresa, was lavender. Lavender fireworks were abundantly presend on Pride Day, for obvious reasons, and one that might not be: Heritage of Pride, the group that sponsors (or sponsored at the time) the March & Parade as well as the Pier Dance, commissioned the invention of lavender fireworks some years back.

#3 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: July 13, 2003, 12:08 PM:

You captured the magic, all right! Even out here in the boondocks of Prescott AZ, the 4th can be magical. I hadn't seen a fireworks display for years back in California, but c. 3 years after moving here they staged one nearly in our own backyard. Not long after hearing the first "boom," I went out to stand on the walkway beside our condo unit, and gazed out at a huge dandelion. The display that followed included many of the new colors, shapes and forms you mention (including wriggly bits)and kept me mesmerized. My next-door neighbors came out, with their 2-year-old in her stroller (after some bursts faded, she was saying "bye-bye"); the dad has a brother in the business, up in Washington state, and he agreed it was a good show with a nice finale. And meanwhile, c. 15 miles off to the right and north, the little town of Chino Valley put on its own miniature (to us) display.

The last time I saw anything as fun was as a teen back in the '60s when my dad worked on the 20-somethingth floor of an office building overlooking Oakland's Lake Merritt, and we got to watch the fireworks burst right at eye-level, with reflections in the water. I'd *almost* forgotten how great that was, but this 4th I was back under the spell.

#4 ::: STefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2003, 01:57 AM:

About five years back, I took the train up to San Francisco for the fourth. CalTrain had arranged extra midnight departures and busses from the viewing spots. All nicely done.

Alas, it being San Francisco, it was foggy. The mortars popped the shells high enough up that they exploded *in the fog layer*, producing interesting fuzzy pastel bursts. On a few occasions, half the burst was in the fog, half out. Ah well...

This Fourth, I went across the river to Vancouver WA, for "the largest fireworks show in the West." Perhaps in length and volume, but the designated viewing spots were awfully far away. I like being close enough to feel the concussion of those big flash-bangs rattle my chest.

#5 ::: Debbie Notkin ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2003, 11:01 PM:

We were on a (garage) rooftop in Seattle, watching the fireworks over Gasworks Park and Lake Union; the best fireworks display I personally have ever seen.

Thanks for invoking the memory!

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