Fourth of July parade.Photo: Christopher RomanoCross-posted from Strong Towns.

A reader sent me this great quote regarding Independence Day from John Adams:

It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever.

In typical Adams style, I’m sure he said it with drama and meant it with all seriousness, but it brings a smile to my face nonetheless. Pomp and parade … Oh, if he could see us now.

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I absolutely love the Fourth of July. My hometown of Brainerd bills itself as the Fourth of July capital of somewhere … I can’t remember if it is “the world” or just “Minnesota.” Either way, I grew up with an annual dose of the full spectacle of American pomp. The only parades I ever remember missing were the two when I was off in the Army, and those were very lonely affairs. The pomp and parade of basic training may be more dignified, but just isn’t the same. There’s no place like home.

For one day each year, humanity descends on an otherwise inhumane landscape, pedestrians boldly take back the public realm, and Brainerd feels like a community again. We brush up against each other walking down the street. We run into old friends and meet new ones. We look disapprovingly on the overly tattooed kids puffing on cigarettes, who crave our disapproval. We stand in reverence of the flag, veterans of past conflict and current warriors. We laugh at the zany and the bizarre.

These are all the things that I would imagine our ancestors doing too.

When I say that Brainerd has an “inhumane landscape,” I mean that it is generally inhospitable to people outside of their cars. Sure we have sidewalks in the downtown, but they are inches from streets designed for fast-moving cars, with “decorative” lighting for cars, signs for cars, shops designed for cars, and large parking lots (of course, for cars). I’ve detailed in this space how the new county government center is a confused blight on what is left of Brainerd’s urban fabric. But nonetheless, remove the cars from the street and it suddenly becomes a place that overweight people will walk a mile to be in.

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Want to revitalize your town? Yes, it’s that easy. And really, you don’t even have to remove the cars altogether — just make them the third factor you design the public realm for after pedestrians and cyclists and the last factor you design the private realm for after buildings and sidewalks. In urban areas, tame the car and watch your places flourish.

But we’re a long ways gone in Brainerd. Our new county apostasy will be there for 50 years or more, as will the bizarre design of Laurel Street, a major part of the parade route that goes past all of our civic buildings. Laurel Street now has either a split personality (part street/part road) or is a cross dresser (a road in street’s clothing). I look at everyone smiling and having a good time and I kind of ache. Hey guys … you know, we wouldn’t necessarily have to have a parade to pull off a gathering like this. We could spend our money a little differently here and this kind of thing could happen all the time.

Speaking of the parade … I could be wrong, but the number of floats seemed down from prior years. While we had a good collection of soldiers, dignitaries, and law enforcement vehicles, it did not seem like many businesses participated. When I was a kid, I walked in the parade about every year there for a while. Once I carried a huge American flag with the rest of my baseball team. Our local sponsor asked us to do that. Another year I was on a float, again, for the business that sponsored our ball team. Neither of those two businesses were visible in this parade.

And come to think of it, neither were the places we were told were our economic future. The new places that put those old places out of business. There was no Walmart float. No Target float. Home Depot had plenty of wood and trailers, as did Menards, but they weren’t there. Super America, McDonald’s, Jimmy Johns … didn’t see any of these guys. 

And I didn’t see any of their accountants either. They don’t use our local accountants after all. Didn’t see their printers or advertisers either. That’s all handled at corporate. Same with their attorney and other professionals. But the local CSA was there (yeah St. Mathais farm) along with the best locally owned restaurant that is one of their biggest customers (yeah Prairie Bay). And the high school band. Gotta have a band.

The day ended with the fireworks and, say what you will about my hometown, we know how to do fireworks. And even though this video from the local paper called it the “Grand Finally” (which it may have been for some), to me the finale of this day was tucking my sleeping girls into bed, confident I was creating some memories that will help them to someday see the hidden potential in the places that matter most to them.

Happy Birthday, America. When we use the proper measuring device, I believe we’ll find that our best days are yet to come.