Another day, another holiday, another crazy event in New York! Yes, it is Independence Day and of course New York has a bit of an atypical way of celebrating it. Sure, we have fireworks that we’re billed as the “nation’s largest fireworks display” (sponsored for many years by Macy’s). But while most of the country gathers in parks and fields to watch their local fireworks displays, we don’t really have that luxury here. Macy’s fireworks are launched from 5 barges spread out through the East River, so let’s see…what large open space could hold the millions of people expected to view tonight’s display? Well, FDR Drive of course!
Yes that’s right, as I read on the internet ahead of time that it’s a good idea to bring picnic blankets and lawn chairs to set up in the middle of the highway to watch the display. FDR Drive (the highway that stretches along the east side of Manhattan…it’s western counterpoint is called, depending on the area, West End Ave, the West Side Highway, and the Henry Hudson Parkway) was to be closed to traffic from 42nd Street to Houston (How-ston, remember?) and for a bit downtown as well form 7pm on for public viewing. The fireworks started at 9:25pm and were to be broadcast on NBC.
All advice said to arrive early because it gets pretty crowded. I thought, what the heck, I’ll go check it out…you gotta do it at least once. I packed lightly, bringing my iPod, book, a few snacks, some water, and an umbrella (there was a chance of rain). Once you went in there was no going out and getting back in and no restrooms available (just like New Year’s Eve in Times Square).
I arrived around 7:20pm (a good 2 hrs before the fireworks were to begin). There were only a few areas where you could enter the FDR (on entrance ramps…it IS an elevated highway) and you had to pass through a police checkpoint at 1st Ave where they checked your bag. Even at that early hour I could see many people sitting on the median from a few avenues away. As I proceeded through the checkpoint and walked up the ramp to the highway, it struck me what an odd sort of expeirence it was to walking around on the highway. Only in New York, I guess.
By the time I made it onto the highway, there was no median space left to sit on, so I settled along the police barricade on the west side of the highway. I was around 35th Street or so. It was a nice spot…directly behind me was an unobstructed view of the Empire State Building. To my left was the United Nations building at the Queensboro (aka 59th St) Bridge. To my right I could see the Williamsburg Bridge, which terminates at Delancy Street on the Lower East Side (the fireworks were located between 10th and 28t Streets). And straight ahead of me was Long Island City in Brooklyn. (See Pictures at the bottom of this post).
Shortly after I arrived, is started to rain and the umbrellas came out. Fortunately, it wasn’t heavy. My first hour I spent on the phone and keeping up with some of my usual Podcasts. There were a few bits of entertainment. A FDNY ship sailed back and forth up and down the East River sucking up river water and shooting into the air as if it were a fountain. Also a grop of FDNY helicopters repeatedly flew back and forth in some fancy patterns.
After a while the rain stopped and I started talking to this couple who had settled next to me. The man was wearing a shirt with a familiar quote on it: “No One is Alone–Stephen Sondheim” It’s from the musical INTO THE WOODS. Needless to say, we hit it off real well and learned that they were quite devoted theatre goers. It was a lovely way to pass the last hour.
I should also point out that I was glad I arrived when I did because by now it was extremely crowded and I still had a decent amount of room to myself.
Of course, it started to rain again shortly before the fireworks were to start. The umbrellas went back up (this time I shared one with the woman I was talking to…her husband hated umbrellas and didn’t want to share with her). By the time 9:20pm rolled around and a test shot was fired, I could hardly see it at all because of all the umbrellas. People in the back started hollering to the people in front to put their umbrellas down, and by the time the show started 5 minutes later, everyone had put theirs down. Fortunately, it really wasn’t raining all that hard.
The show started promptly at 9:25pm and lasted for a whopping 30 minutes. There was supposedly a musical score to accompany it, but one would have needed a radio to listen to it. There were several interesting fireworks, including explosions that formed vivid smiley faces, 3-D triangles and square, and bursts that lasted unusually long. One fancy explosion remained in the air for minutes. It appeared almost as red and white fluorescent bulbs strung together! There were some highly touted nautical fireworks that would burn on the river, but I could not see them.
Of course, getting out was a slow adventure, particularly because you had to leave via the same narrow entrance ramp you came in on. Then I had to process with the masses (and my new found friends) to Grand Central to catch my train home, which was PACKED. It felt like traveling at rush hour, even though it was now 10:30pm! There were even people who couldn’t fit onto the train, but by now I’ve learned how to wiggle my way onto a packed train. I walked into my apartment at 10:50, impressively less than an hour after the show ended.
So would I do it again? Sure! It was quite the New York experience (even though most of the crowd in my area were clearly tourists). Next year though I’m investing in one of those collapsible camping chairs…the folks who brought those were very clever! Other clever people brought picnic blankets too, because there’s nothing quite like having a picnic quite literally in the middle of the highway! Aaah, New York…how do I love thee!
Top to Bottom: United Nations Building (the tall white column) and the Queensboro Bridge; The Empire State Building, illuminated red, white, and blue for Independence Day; Queensboro Bridge…notice how crowded it’s gotten?; Williamsburg Bridge; FDNY “Fountain” boat; FDNY helicopters;