When Steph and I worked in Cambridge, we discovered just how hard it was to get a road closed there. Once, we had an idea for a charity 5K, but discovered that there’s actually a waiting list to get approved. We would need about 16 charities to decide they no longer needed money before we would have a chance at our 5K being approved. Another time, when the church we worked for wanted to host a block party, it took presenting a proposal to 7 different city departments. The party was approved, but shifted from the avenue in front of the church to a little side street: ‘We wouldn’t hear the end of it from the neighbors if you closed down that street.’
Right next door in Somerville, where we lived, the attitude toward street festivals couldn’t have been more different. On Somerville weekends, the question isn’t whether a major thoroughfare will be closed down, but which one and for what whimsical reason. Closing down one of the city’s major squares for a road race on St. Patrick’s Day is perhaps not out of the usual, even outside of Somerville’s borders. But how about closing down the other one for a celebration of Fluff, the novelty marshmallow condiment? And then there’s Honk, a festival and parade of activist marching bands. My favorite, though, is Porchfest, when the whole town is basically turned into an outdoor musical festival, with local bands playing on people’s porches. These are just a few of the bigger ones. Like I said–and I was hardly exaggerating–there’s something every weekend.
For residents of neighboring cities trying to drive in or through Somerville on the weekends, this predilection for street parties is a huge hassle (sorry, Dan and Kaiti!), but I loved Somerville’s partying ways. First of all, there was a handy text alert system on Fridays to let you know where to find the fun, and where to avoid the traffic closures. But, really, as a cyclist, the traffic closures were more of an advantage than a problem, since about 75% of the time the police would let my bike through even while directing cars down an endless series of small, one-way street detours. And in the end it’s just fun to live in a city where it’s not always business as usual.
I always thought that Somerville can afford to be so fun-loving because it has so few responsibilities. It’s young, and small, and relatively unimportant. Why not throw a costume parade for no particular reason? Cambridge is bigger and more important; it has serious work to do even on the weekends. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that DC, far bigger and far, far, far more important than Cambridge, is basically a great big Somerville.
Our first exposure to DC’s willingness to close down the streets was the Pope’s visit. The leading news item for a week was which roads would be closed for the Pope’s visit. The answer was all of them. Congress, in a week containing a major budget deadline, closed for two days (a mere three weeks after their summer recess) because the Pope was in town. Everyone else followed suit. DC was a great big Pope party for pretty much the whole week.
That’s a visit of major international significance, of course. And it’s true that some of the street closures here in DC are for more serious reasons than we found in Somerville; the Million Man March was here rallying for equality and justice a couple of weeks ago, for instance. While these things may be serious business, they’re not business as usual; and they bring a festival atmosphere to the city. Who know what might be happening around the corner at any given time? And sometimes the answer is just pure fun. Literally right where the Million Man March ended, Taste of DC began, on the same street on the same day. Last weekend, a long stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and Capitol was shut down for I still don’t know what; but there was a band and booths and strings of millions of lights. It looked like a good time. Road closures are such a regular thing here in DC that many of the streets have these plates in them that can be raised to form a barrier. Is this part of the road, or a gate? In DC, it has to be able to be both.
We haven’t yet figured out if there’s a text alert system to tell us where the party is. But we’ve learned by now not to ask whether there’s something going on downtown this weekend–of course there is–but just to wonder which parts of the Mall and Pennsylvania Avenue are closed. And we feel right at home.