By Carter B. Horsley
Parades are a big deal in New York.
They are the major public congregations
of the city, rituals of respect for special heritages and heroes.
They are mostly for the very
young and the old, but in an increasingly private and virtual
world they are important for everyone, a chance to get outside,
mingle, gape, humanize.
They encourage tippy-toeing,
straining, peering and waving at strangers.
They raise timeless questions:
Who are these people?
Why are they marching?
Are they tired?
Are they bored?
Must they be proud?
New York's greatest, and probably
the world's, of course is the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade,
which predates and outclasses DisneyWorld's fantasies: giant cartoon
balloons only slightly hemmed in some of the world's best Art
Deco skyscrapers and held down by Lilliputians interspersed with
lots of bands and TV-camera-seeking celebrities. In comparison,
the flamboyant floats of Pasadena's Parade of Roses are merely
Floats, of course, are not
alien to New York and those in the Puerto Rican Day Parade are
overflowing quite literally with human energy and a few spangles.
In the early 70's, the parade,
however, was not universally admired as its passionate watchers
left a legacy of foot-deep litter from Fifth Avenue building edge
to 100 feet into Central Park. Over the years, however, the parade
has cleaned up its act, with the help of the city's Sanitation
Department. It is the city's largest, loudest and longest parade,
in terms of duration, but its flurries of Puerto Rican flags and
bright white T-shirts and sirens and incessant, irrepressible
rhythms would impress even the Energizer Bunny, and is testament
to the city's enormous Hispanic population. More exuberant than
lavish, it is a tribute to the hard-working Hispanic families
who struggle for survival with little public recognition. In 2001,
the city's police enforced very strict traffic control that made
access to Fifth Avenue, where almost every building put up ungracious
barricades for their greenery, difficult.
In stark, somber and surprising
contrast, the Martin Luther King Day Parade is one of the city's
least well attended despite the city's large black population.
Indeed, its sparsely-people sidewalks rival those at the Veterans'
Day Parade. How two such obviously important occasions can be
so poorly supported and attended is a very sad commentary and
a real enigma. The Martin Luther King Day Parade route should
probably be changed from Fifth Avenue in midtown to Fifth Avenue
and 79th Street to 125th Street and Lenox Avenue. Given Harlem's
great cultural heritage and the significance of black music, this
should be the most joyous and lyrical of parades. Conceivably
the parade has gotten bogged down in politics as its namesake's
nonviolence and great civil rights leadership was not universally
embraced by the black community. If that is the case, it is sad
and must be overcome as Martin Luther King was one of the greatest
Americans and the parade can easily accommodate and encourage
all sorts of leadership.
The question of location is
controversial. Parades are generally held on weekends and most
of the major ones go up Fifth Avenue and pass St. Patrick's Cathedral.
Because the St. Patrick's Day Parade uses this route, the other
parades want the same grand treatment. The impressive route, however,
is terrible for its impact on the city's traffic for ever since
the Central Park Drive has been closed on weekends, the closing
of Fifth Avenue and the crosspark drives produces gridlock. The
city should reroute the major parades from Fifth Avenue onto Central
Park Drive, where the impact on the city's traffic would be greatly
minimized. Any impact on the park is not likely to be significant
as the Drive is wide enough, especially with its parallel walkways,
to accommodate the parade watchers. It's only common sense and
the reckless, inconsiderate and selfish joggers and bikers and
skaters have had it too good for a long time and should learn
to sacrifice a bit as well. One is not concerned with promoting
automobile traffic in the city, but in permitting residents and
tourists to have some mobility on weekends from Spring to Fall,
the parade season.
Some parades, of course, are
more localized. The Halloween Parade in Greenwich Village may
well be the city's most colorful and the rare tickertape parade
up Broadway to City Hall is one of the world's great events. The
television coverage of the confetti-strewn New York Yankees making
their slow way through Broadway's great canyons was spectacular
The parade I remember the most
was one of the Victory parades at the end of World War II when
thousands of troops marched on Fifth Avenue. I remember the tanks
as being very noisy and was frightened by them when I saw what
their tracks did to the street, which I had then assumed was solid
and impervious. As a young child who grew up during World War
II, the images of Nazi standard-bearers parading with awesome
precision was another indelible association, albeit negative.
Indeed, military parades, whether in Moscow or China or down Pennsylvania
Avenue in Washington on Inauguration Day, generate ambivalence.
The orderliness and discipline are admirable, but the glorification
of weaponry is not the most ideal pageant for children, although
military veterans who have put their lives on the line for their
country are definitely due honor.
The most impressive parade
I attended was a protest against nuclear weapons up Fifth Avenue
about 15 years ago in which giant puppets and huge banners turned
the avenue into a choppy, colorful sea of surprises, as shown
One of my best photographs,
shown below, is of a lovely little white girl sitting on a tiny
plastic red chair at curbside looking in one direction while next
to her a handsome little black boy and lovely little black
girl sat on the curb looking in the other direction, both surrounded
by the legs of adults learning against the police cordons for
the parade. The boy, looking at the coming marchers, was absorbed.
The girl, looking at those who had marched by, was distracted.
Marchers, you see, are only
half of the parade. The watchers are the other half, and hopefully
pickpockets are a very small minority.
Parades often conjure sunny
summer days on festooned Main Streets in the "Our Towns"
of rural America. New York does not have a joyous Mardi Gras celebration,
yet, but hopefully it will. (Of course, the mourning parade in
one of the James Bond films with its great hesitation step might
give one pause.) Parades have been commercialized a bit,
but remain pretty pure Americana, though, of course, ask a Parisian
about Bastille Day on the Champs Elysees before you get too proprietary.
New Yorkers will stop and watch
just about anything and if it moves, like a parade, they'll linger.
The bonnets of our Easter Parade,
of course, deserve sonnets, or, at least, news clips.
highlight of the 2009 Steuben Day Parade in New York was the wacky
Sax-n-Anhalt-world.de, saxophone marching band that seemed to care less
about precision marching and more about targeting individual spectators
for serenading. Dressed in back, the group seemed to go off in
many directions, all with a joyful musicality that belied their
Germanic black-shirtedness very nicely.
Who wants to leave a party?