Passing By

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 tacky.

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.

Colorful costume

Colorful costume in Hispanic Day Parade, 2001

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.

Hispanic Day parade 2001

No parade has more flags than the Hispanic Day Parade

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.

Don King rides float

Don King rides float in 2001 Hispanic Day Parade on Fifth Avenue

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 last year.

St. Patrick's Day Parade 2002

St. Patrick's Day Parade, 2002, Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street

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.

Nuclear disarmament parade on Fifth Avenue

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 above.

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.

The highlight of the 2009 Steuben Day Parade in New York was the wacky, 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.

Steuben Day 2009

Who wants to leave a party?

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