a Fourth of July baby, fireworks have held a notable, if mixed,
place in my life. They are either a built-in bit of fun and
excitement on my birthday, rounding off the day with an automatic
celebratory vibe with no effort on my part. Other times they
are those things everyone else has plans for that mean I don’t
have much choice about what to schedule for the evening of
Perhaps not surprisingly, they also often highlight the ambiguous
feelings that a “loyalty to the country always, loyalty to
the government when it deserves it” type like myself has about
many displays of “patriotism.”
Mostly though, they’re just fun, and the main yearly question
is: From where do we watch?
A few years ago we actually went down to Empire State Plaza
for the fireworks. Wedged on a patch of grass on Madison Avenue
by the entrance to the New York State Museum visitors parking
lot, we enjoyed the reflections in the windows of the Erastus
Corning Tower, got cricks in our necks, still couldn’t really
see the ground show, and waited for an hour to be able to
drive home. The festival vendors with all their red, white
and blue kitsch evoked memories of Mechanicville Family Day
and the cotton candy and glow-sticks evoked memories of my
suburban childhood Fourths. Listening to (and occasionally
practicing deep breathing through) the often surprisingly
xenophobic, angry, and simplistic contemporary “patriotic”
music reminded me how out of touch it is easy for me to become
from large swaths of mainstream sentiment.
This year I watched the fireworks from Lincoln Park. It was
a perfect view, less crowded, and a short walk from home.
The ambient music was hip-hop or R&B from people’s car
stereos. Many people chose to be there all day, grilling and
picnicking and tossing footballs. We were close to playgrounds,
had room to fly a kite, and were surrounded by our own, ahem,
homespun ground show in every direction, sometimes uncomfortably
From the hill of the park, we could see no evidence of the
crowds down at the plaza. And I expect that those crowds,
unless they happened to drive home past the park, had little
idea we were there.
I don’t have anything particular invested in which of these
experiences was “better.” I think it’s pretty cool that there
are two such different options. But it’s impossible to attend
both and not feel the racial divide. It’s stark enough, in
fact, that it’s hard to believe that it’s not cultural comfort,
rather than any of the various other differences, that make
the choice between them for most people.
And so now, despite my best intentions for carefree birthday
enjoyment, my metaphor-inclined brain has ladled yet another
layer of symbolism onto to the fireworks: Something we all
share in theory, but from such different vantage points that
they become less a shared experience and more an example of
how we’re living our lives in parallel universes.
There are a number of writers and academics out there right
now sounding the alarm about how most Americans are increasingly
spending most of their time with people like them. This is
perhaps most noticeable as a kind of resegregation by race
in some places—what professor David Wilson, author of Cities
and Race, has called the third wave of ghettoization,
where certain neighborhoods are isolated and separated to
enable the revitalization/gentrification of downtowns and
But it’s not just race. Bill Bishop, the author of The
Big Sort, argues that it’s at least, if not more so, true
of things like political orientation and social values—hence
the observation that there really aren’t blue states and red
states, but blue urban areas and red sprawling and rural areas.
Even within suburbia and within cities Americans are tending
I don’t see this as all bad. Urban queer-friendly oases have
been a lifesaver to many, and I imagine that people who don’t
feel isolated where they live probably have more real-life
interactions with people than those who need to go online
to find anyone who doesn’t think they are from space. Like-
minded communities can rally to create wonderful institutions,
safe spaces, and new ideas.
But it gets comfy easily. I have to admit to getting uncomfortable
pretty quickly when spending too much time in the company
of those who don’t appear to share most of my core values.
Whether it’s far-flung family members or business meetings,
I have trouble finding my way to that middle ground between
argumentative and conflict avoidant. I often cut short the
search for common ground and end up breathing a huge sigh
of relief to come back to compatriots around whom I don’t
feel like I’m self- censoring all the time. And I know many
people who’ve felt the same.
The downside to this is obvious: If we never interact with
people who are different from us or who disagree with us,
how do we run a shared country, or even a shared city, with
them? How do we make decisions when we’re chronically either
combative or conflict avoidant?
The times when I do bridge the gap—a conversation about wild
edibles and cooking venison with the chain-smoking Republican
contractor or activist tactics with the Baptist pastor—always
feel heady with possibility. I’d love to have the stamina
and the conviction to live in that space all the time. I think
I might do more good there, might learn more, might have a
clearer lens on reality.
But for now the prospect feels tiring and a bit dangerous.
And that, I suppose, is the legacy of the big sort.