This weekend, many Strong Towns readers and members celebrated Independence Day. We hosted cook-outs, rode our bikes, watched fireworks, and hung out with our neighbors. It was celebratory, communal, and affordable—a wonderful example of what a Strong Town could be.
The scene in my city, Milwaukee, WI, was particularly exuberant. We had our big city-wide fireworks on July 3 and there is a tradition here that the entire metropolitan area gathers at the banks of Lake Michigan to pitch tents, set up grills, let their kids roam or bike around, and relax the day away, waiting for the firework show in the evening. I took a jog along the Lake on the afternoon of the 3rd and I witnessed a sincere change of pace from the usual lakefront activity.
Typically, the lakefront area is fairly empty; it has these huge grassy fields, criss-crossed by a few sidewalks and streets. On a normal Sunday, especially when the weather is chilly and breezy (as it tends to be in Milwaukee by Lake Michigan) I’ll see couples strolling, sometimes families riding bikes and kids tossing a Frisbee. But besides that, most of the space just sits unused. I’ve always thought that the Milwaukee lakefront was a very underutilized and under appreciated space—the sort of area that most residents come to for occasional events like summer festivals or boating, but mostly forget about unless they live close by. I could be wrong, but that’s my perception as someone who lives in the neighborhood and does use the space on a regular basis.
So the contrast between that typical lakefront scene and July 3’s holiday hoopla could not have been starker. It reminded me of when I used to live in New York City, in a neighborhood where no one had yards, so they made the park along the Hudson River their yard. They took their dogs down to run around, threw birthday parties for their kids on the grass, and spend afternoons and evenings just enjoying the breeze and the sun. With the pull of the holiday weekend and the promise of a firework show, my fellow residents were suddenly ready to appreciate the beautiful lakefront together.
Across the country, others seemed to be having a similar experience of Independence Day, even if it was on a smaller scale. I saw dozens of photos on Facebook and Instagram of my friends biking around, watching community parades, and cooking at neighborhood barbecues.
What better way to celebrate our nation than by spending time with all the people who make our towns strong and wonderful? And what better way to enjoy a warm summer day than outside at the lake, in a park, or out in the neighborhood?
The Independence Day celebrations in my town have shown me what people choose to do when they have a beautiful free day in front of them. They could’ve been driving to the mall. They could’ve been cooking a private dinner with their families. They could’ve been inside watching TV. And I’m sure some people were doing all of these things. But a great many were outside, eating and laughing and playing in public space. On a day when they could’ve been doing anything, they chose to spend it out in the community.
I wish every day could be like this. I have to believe that our towns would be safer, friendlier and more genuinely enjoyable if we spent more time outside together instead of inside and segregated.
Of course, after the magical Fourth of July evening concluded with a firework finale in towns across the country, suddenly, everything went back to normal: People make a mad dash for their cars and sat in bumper to bumper traffic trying to get to the edges of town or out to the suburbs.
But for one day, I got a glimpse of what my town could be when people take full advantage of natural beauty and community space, when people actively choose to share food and friendship with their neighbors. That's my vision for a strong town.
(Top photo from youtube)