Independence Day celebrations are at their best when they combine reverence for the country with good humor, lots of smiles and a nostalgic embrace of place. Throw in some candy, a hot dog or two and some politicians to boot, and it's a celebration not to be missed. Why would a city, especially one that has billed itself for decades as the Fourth of July Capital, ever decide to pass on their parade?

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I'm not sure where this post is going to go today and so I'm going to apologize in advance for taking you on a detour through my convoluted nostalgia. You see, I love the Independence Day parade in my hometown of Brainerd, MN. I turned 39 this year and, as far back as I can recall, there are only a couple of years when I wasn't watching the parade or actually being part of it. This will be the first in a long time because I won't be at the parade this year.

You see, come Wednesday, there isn't going to be a Brainerd Independence Day parade.

I want to start in 1989. That was the summer between my sophomore and junior year of high school. I was in the parade that year playing snare drum in the Brainerd High School Marching Band. We were forbidden to wear sunglass so, of course, we wore them. I had always wanted to be in the marching band and so this was a very triumphant day for me.

After the parade, I met my girlfriend and we hung out enjoying the festivities. There was a band and, while I can't remember their name, they played the best live version of the song You make me wanna shout I have ever heard. I remember that because, at the time, I was obsessed with this version by The Beatles. The two of us sat on a blanket under the stars and watched the fireworks together, a happy memory that is forever seared into my mind.

The next two summers I was away in the United States Army. Knowing I would need a way to pay for my college and also being rather patriotic and inclined to military service, I joined the National Guard. Between my junior and senior year, I was at basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey. The following summer, just after graduation, I went to Missouri to be trained as a truck driver (88M was a rather risk free military occupation at the time -- not so today). 

These 4th of July celebrations were not fun. At basic, there was no "celebration". My memory of July 4, 1990, was loneliness and extreme homesickness. I remember writing to my girlfriend (same one) swearing that we'd never spend a 4th of July apart again. As a 17 year old in a stressful situation, I might have been prone to a little melodrama, but I recall it being a very painful date. The next year was little better. Sitting in the barracks with my pen and paper, there was no parade. No fireworks. No celebration.

Of course, July 4, 1992, was a glorious day for me. I had no military commitment that summer so I got to watch the parade (my girlfriend, who was a year behind me in school, played saxophone in the marching band) and, that evening, the fireworks. The promises we made each other as kids -- to always spend that day together -- lasted through our final years of college, through our year of engagement and now for sixteen years of marriage. I'm sure if she read this she would say I am being sappy and overly dramatic about it all. Guilty, but I've already apologized for that.

Last year I wrote the following about our 4th of July celebration.

I absolutely love the 4th of July. My hometown of Brainerd bills itself as the 4th 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.

So why isn't Brainerd having an Independence Day parade and fireworks this year? Once I tell you it will be clear why this is a double kick to the gut.

Road construction.

And not just any road construction. The parade was canceled due to the construction of College Drive, a project I have written about many times and which we call My Hometown's Last Great Old Economy Project. Let me sum it up for you as follows.

Old shortcut past the college. Neighboring city of Baxter (pure suburban model) creates a car sewer concentrating large amount of traffic on this shortcut. Bring in consulting engineer. Traffic projections suggest monstrous growth and extension of the car sewer is recommended. $9 million. City officials rightly balk on cost estimate. Borrowing three years of state aid funds for a shortcut to the neighboring city's WalMart is not economic development, especially at that price. Ultimately, some chicanery provides a way for fewer votes than normal to approve the project and it proceeds. Car sewer extension is currently being constructed.

As a side note, I did try to intervene in all this mess. I'm going to include those conversations in my upcoming book and don't have room for it all here, but let's just say two things. First, a project with a much higher return on investment could have been built for less than a million dollars (in other words, spend 1/9th the current cost and get many multiples additional return). It was presented to staff and rejected. Second, although few know it, this project is simply the next step in a larger (unwritten) plan by the staff and their consultants to build a couple more bridges and many more miles of car sewer. This is all being done (insanely) in the name of fighting congestion and inducing economic growth. An approach more ignorant of the world we live in there could not possibly be.

Back to the problem. The parade used to stage along College Drive and then go through the heart of town. Without the ability to stage there, no parade. Here is what Brainerd Community Action, parade coordinator for the past 25 years, indicated:

With the construction of West College Drive and after reconsidering other parade route options, the board has determined that there is no safe way to have a 4th of July Parade in 2012.

I've seen a lot of parades in my life. You probably have too. They routinely happen in cities big and small. Brainerd takes up an area of eight square miles. Are we really so unimaginative that we can't find room in this city for a parade celebrating the birth of our country?

No place for a parade here? (Image from Google Earth)Actually, we're not as unimaginative as we are constrained by our own obsession with moving cars. The idea of there being congestion freaks people out. The notion that highways through town may be asked to do anything except move cars quickly to neighboring Baxter seems foreign to us. I'm not exaggerating here. In the debate over this parade the welfare of the traveling automobile was front and center in every conversation. How will 35,000 people get out of town if one of the three options heading west is reduced to two lanes (which actually was its capacity for the past four decades -- only its future capacity will be four lanes)? Our thinking is so backward.

Well, not all of us. The local chapter of the Jaycees stepped in quickly with a logical solution.

The Jaycees reported they contacted the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Crow Wing County and Brainerd city officials about downtown parade routes and secured tentative permission, if the city approves, to temporarily detour South Sixth Street traffic during a parade down 13th Street. The county provided permission to use their parking lot for parade staging, the Jaycees reported.

The proposal calls for a parade route that starts on Laurel Street at South Second Street, goes east to South Fifth Street and then south to Norwood Street, east to South Eighth Street, north to Front Street and west to South Sixth Street.

According to the plan, traffic on South Sixth Street would be detoured down Oak Street onto Southeast 13th Street.

“Although all the details are not finalized, this parade route would be safe, showcase Downtown Brainerd and would be an overall benefit to the community,” the Jaycees wrote.

The Jaycees submitted requests to the city for road closures and a parade permit.

But alas, the Jaycees proposal was rejected. Want to know why? It is not enough that Brainerd is spending three years of their state aid funds to build a STROAD so their residents can more easily shop in neighboring Baxter. It is not enough that Brainerd has spent literally millions, and given over the entire character of the town, reconfiguring all of the public spaces for fast automobile traffic so that its residents can more quickly drive to Baxter. The fact that Brainerd did not oppose the school district when it closed schools in Brainerd and built a new, area-wide campus in Baxter, facilitated the destruction of its two historic theaters (now parking lots) when Baxter got its new theater.... I can't even begin to count the ways that Brainerd has slit its own throat in favor of Baxter.

So here's another. The Jaycees proposal was rejected so that the parade and fireworks could go forward in Baxter. Area residents will gather on the back side of the Mills Fleet Farm and among the weeds that have grown up over the abandoned golf course (which was to be Baxter's downtown, in another economy) to watch the parade that was supposed to be in Brainerd. It is a cruel irony that the much fought for Cypress Drive extension -- a STROAD that had to be built in anticipation of growth but has sat empty for years, as I described two years ago) - now has a purpose as parade route.

Do I have a right to be upset? I don't know. I just know that all those years ago when my wife and I would lay on the grass at the Brainerd athletic fields and watch the fireworks, I imagined someday sharing it all with our own family. It's just one year, I know, and it probably shouldn't bother me as much as it does, but in seven years my oldest is going to be the age my wife was all those years ago when we first watched the fireworks together. I've watched how fast she has grown and just don't want to give up any of it.

Especially for a stupid STROAD.


Charles Marohn is the Executive Director of Strong Towns. He has a wife and two daughters that seem to tolerate him, despite the moodiness. You can chat directly with Chuck and learn more about implementing a Strong Towns approach in your city by joining the Strong Towns Network, a social space for those actively working to build strong towns.