Theory Teacher's Blog

How to Celebrate the 4th of July in Columbia Heights, D.C.

When I was a kid, growing up in one of those infamous Orange County, California suburbs, 4th of July meant BBQ in my backyard and fireworks in the front driveway, fireworks that we had bought in the next town over where they were legal. These fireworks were pitiful things — little tubes that spat out sparkly flame about two or three feet up into the air — but pitiful though they were, I was just eight years old and thought they were cool. Usually my friend’s family came over, and that was also cool. Such was the experience of the suburban child.

Since I’m all grown now and living my own life far away, my parents obviously don’t light fireworks in the front yard anymore; no more fake “oohs” and “ahhs” as they carefully monitor their children dancing about the yard with sparklers. Instead they watch the Boston and New York fireworks on TV accompanied always by the “1812 Overture” and the commentary of some idiot announcer. As for myself, a few times when I lived in cities or visited friends in cities, I would head over to watch those special city-run displays. If I was lucky, I was invited to a friend’s house whose house/apartment had a view of the city fireworks show, so that I could enjoy grilled meat and salty carbohydrates in the sanctity of a private home but still bear witness to the occasion and feel at one with the nation.

Please forgive my sarcastic tone. I know I was supposed to admire the artistry of the pyrotechnics, but usually I was just bored. Every display looked pretty much like every other display I’d ever seen, and something about it felt too controlled… too prophylactic, as if my role in the celebration of freedom had been transformed by an efficient, centralized bureaucratic state apparatus into the role of a entirely passive spectator. The message of such fireworks shows seemed to be that “independence” is to be watched, not re-enacted. My pyromaniac instincts could hardly be satisfied by mere watching.

In the Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant neighborhoods of Washington D.C., things are a bit different. This year, I’m spending all of July in these neighborhoods to enjoy some time with friends and use the city’s fabulous libraries. If you’re unfamiliar with D.C. or have only experienced its many monuments, museums, and government buildings as a tourist, then I probably have to explain my nation’s capitol city to you before I explain what was so excellent about its 4th of July. Away from the tourist attractions and government offices, D.C. is a fascinating mix of cultures. In a sense, D.C. is both the least American of American cities and the most American at the same time.  Ironically, the very thing that makes it feel different from the rest of America is also the thing that makes it the most iconically American — its international culture, its free-thinking and tolerant liberalism, its mixture of working-class and professional-class populations. For instance, the tiny neighborhood of Mt. Pleasant is exactly one third white, one third black, and one third Latino, and though certainly a lot of this mixture is due to past waves of migration and recent gentrification, I don’t think it is another example of the typically tragic gentrification story. In contrast to the version of gentrification narrated in this recent novel by the DC-raised/Ethiopian-born Dinaw Mengestu, the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood association actively tries to follow the enlightenment principles of the social contract to make this uneasy mixture work for everyone.

So, how does one properly celebrate the 4th of July in Columbia Heights? Does one take the subway to the enormous National Mall and watch the fireworks burst over the Washington monument? No, of course not, unless you are a tourist. Rather, if you are a native (or wanna-be native), you grab a bottle of cheap champagne from the fridge, and shortly before the sun has set completely, crawl out of the window of the top story of your friend’s row house and up a make-shift ladder to the roof.  There you will inevitably discover other like-minded souls dancing without much sense of rhythm to Chicano hip hop on pirate radio. What could be more in the spirit of “independence” day than pirate radio or Chicano hip hop? Once it gets completely dark, then the magic begins — not a single display of fireworks like you find on TV, but a whole city-wide panorama of pyromania. You can look in any direction and see rockets bursting over the rooftops. Immediately below you, wherever you happen to be, a car will inevitably pull up with a trunkload of rockets and begin shooting them right over your heads, and inevitably one of the white 30-something professional-class neighbors will come outside, angrily shake a finger, and call the police on this somewhat brown-skinned man, not realizing that he, his wife, kids, and other relations are firing them from the steps of their own house and that the police will merely ask him not to double park his car next time. From the rooftop, you and your friends will of course cheer for your pyrotechnically skilled neighbor and hurl insults at the complaining hater.

I enjoyed this Independence Day more than I have enjoyed any in the past. Maybe it sounds a little sappy, but I felt like I was actively celebrating a human desire for freedom and not passively consenting to an empty and chauvenistic national pride.


July 6, 2009 - Posted by | race

1 Comment »

  1. […] A Modern Anthology of Queer Latino Poetry . He also selected finalists for Best Gay Erotica 2008 How to Celebrate the 4th of July in Columbia Heights, D.C. – 07/06/2009 When I was a kid, growing up in one of those […]

    Pingback by Posts about La Raza as of July 6, 2009 | EL CHUCO TIMES | July 6, 2009 | Reply

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