Here’s a helpful phrase from history: “emergencies of over-patriotism.” That’s from the New-York Tribune in 1909, from one of the many newspaper accounts from the turn of the century lamenting the DIY fireworks launched by the masses every Independence Day. American industrialization and immigration had created an urban working class in need of ways to blow off steam, and pyrotechnics provided an outlet—at the cost of hundreds of lives accidentally lost every summer.
In response to the annual boom in booms, the “Safe and Sane Fourth of July” reform movement pushed for many of the fireworks regulations still in place today. But this development was not merely about public welfare. The Safe and Sane movement, wrote the leisure historian Roy Rosenzweig in 1985, sought to “repress and replace the distinctively boisterous and ethnic commemorations by the working class,” and “did not focus on just any mob but specifically on the city’s growing immigrant populations from southern and eastern Europe.”
This history is a reminder that the present, much-publicized wave of unlicensed fireworks shows in cities nationwide—which has sparked hundreds-fold increases in citizen complaints to governments and led to intimidating police action in black neighborhoods—is not all that strange a phenomenon, though it has been treated as one. The New York Times story on the recent explosions includes this context: “While they are illegal to buy, sell or ignite in New York, fireworks are an entrenched tradition of the city’s streets, especially in working-class neighborhoods.”
In Flatbush, Brooklyn, after riot-gear-clad NYPD officers intervened in fireworks celebrations, the activist group Equality for Flatbush accused white gentrifiers in the neighborhood of having invited the dangerous police attention with Facebook threads about fireworks noise. “It is a culturally accepted norm of Brooklyn to expect amplified music and fireworks starting on Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend,” the group wrote in a press release. Look around social media, and you’ll find a diverse range of people annoyed at the noise. But as Gothamist points out, “In many cases, the growth of nuisance calls is a better barometer of gentrification than any specific change in behavior.”
The fireworks encapsulate the cramped, complex reality of urban leisure amid both a pandemic and a reckoning over policing. The pandemic has canceled summer travel plans en masse; many beaches and parks have capped capacity and closed facilities; air-conditioned spots outside the home—malls, movie theaters, restaurants—remain largely off-limits. For many, especially the immunocompromised, outdoor fun may seem like an unthinkably risky indulgence. But the fear of infection and the lack of options for things to do aren’t keeping everyone inside. To a greater extent than ever, city summer entertainment involves local public and semipublic spaces: sidewalks, stoops, parks, and, in the case of fireworks, the shared sky. The summer of social distancing will also be one of social closeness between neighbors, illuminating divides of class, ethnicity, and place—as leisure has always done.
Take, for example, the new prevalence of people walking around with wine. The shutdown in New York City has led to the temporary legalization of to-go liquor from restaurants and bars, a measure meant to help such businesses stay alive. It has not led to the legalization of open containers of alcohol on the streets—but wander around the city’s boroughs on any pleasant-weather weekend, and you’ll see gaggles of people clinking drinks in parks, plazas, and other public venues. For now, the pleasures of the nascent to-go-cocktail culture rely on the loose enforcement of laws that would squelch them. And as was clear even before the recent protests—when citations for violations of social distancing in cities such as New York and Chicago were largely issued to black and brown people—law-enforcement laxness tends to be extended more to the white and wealthy.
The history of urban policing, leisure, and class is instructive. Cities implemented open-container laws only in the late 20th century, after courts struck down vagrancy laws, whose expansive definitions had been used to effectively criminalize homelessness and harass people of color. In a 2013 history of open-container bans, the journalist Joe Satran reported that “patterns of police enforcement of public drinking laws do suggest their origin as a replacement for unacceptably vague and discriminatory status offenses. Though national data on public drinking infractions are hard to come by (or nonexistent), the few studies of police enforcement indicate that poor, black people are arrested at rates many times higher than affluent white people.” A similar story—of hazily defined ordinances being used to discriminatorily regulate who can hang out where—applies to the loitering laws tested today whenever friends in masks congregate on sidewalks or street corners.
“Everything we think of in terms of race in the United States, recreation and leisure had a hand in influencing it,” Rasul Mowatt, an Indiana University professor who studies leisure and race, told me earlier this week. I’d called him to talk through the sociology of stoop hangs and pavement barbecues: classic inner-city rituals that would seem to be more important than ever this summer. He emphasized that such gatherings have always been shaped by structural oppression. Low wages and unemployment keep many city dwellers from traveling or otherwise engaging in pricier forms of recreation. Urban planning has often sought to contain poor populations where they are (Robert Moses allegedly designed the overpasses to Long Island’s Jones Beach to be too low for public buses to pass under them). Green spaces have been sites of racist harassment, a fact illustrated by the recent stories of Ahmaud Arbery (the black man killed while out on a run in Georgia) and Christian Cooper (the black bird-watcher accosted by a white woman in Central Park).
The pandemic now adds to the list of factors complicating leisure time for many—and the way people respond (and are allowed to respond) will no doubt be tied to their social circumstances. I asked Mowatt about eras in history when paradigms of leisure, class, and race shifted significantly. He mentioned the 1800s-era advent of city parks amid industrialization, the 1920s boom in and backlash against African American enclaves such as Black Wall Street, and the 1960s desegregation of public gathering spots. Could the pandemic be another change moment? He speculated that, if anything, it was the recent protests against racist policing that hinted at another reshaping of leisure, forcing a reevaluation of “public-space access in general: Who can be on a street and what can that person do on a street?” It’s a question that, this summer, will be negotiated under the glow of fireworks.