Sunday, August 19, 2007

Turners Falls, MA Parade & Block Party

"Take to the street Saturday, August 11th in downtown Turners Falls from 3 - 10 pm! The Avenue will be closed for food, music, dancing and other wonders of the post industrial world." How could we turn down such an invitation? Turners Falls has always been one of my favorite places in the valley--I like its down but not out feel, its towny bars, the real turkey clubs at the Glen and the strange candy store that seems like it must be a front for some other nefarious activity.

Throwing a block party is a pretty courageous act if you ask me. After all, they require that the inhabitants of a neighborhood really feel neighborly enough to hang out together, break bread, let their hair down with each other and watch each others kids act like maniacs in the streets. If my neighborhood is like yours, there isn't a lot of unwinding that people do together out in the street, or on the stoop, anymore. It's a complete tragedy for social life in the US that we rush straight home from work into our little self-enclosed bubble, with its fortified lawn and its myriad mindless distractions inside, never knowing the people we live twenty-feet from.

Thus the block party and parade called to me--because of its audaciousness in going against the stream. I'm not going to say that it was perfect, or that it will change life as we know it, and I won't deny that many of the locals looked a bit bewildered and not exactly at ease as a lot of young new hipsters who have moved into the old industrial shell traipsed through the streets in their gear. But it was a start.

Barbara Ehrenreich has written a lot of interesting material on the subject of collective partying and its perfect compatibility with social movements. In her article, "Transcendence, Hope, & Ecstasy: A historical look at political passion and fun," she writes, "it was the dissident Soviet writer Mikhail Bakhtin who rescued carnival from the historical margins, pointing out that it represented a ritualized rebellion against authority in all forms. In carnival, the poor created a 'utopian realm of community, freedom, equality, and abundance,' marked by the inversion of all normal hierarchies: Men might costume themselves as women and vice versa, lay people dressed as clergy, kings, and priests were symbolically mocked. Interestingly, the same themes of ecstatic abandon and defiance of hierarchy appear in the carnival tradition worldwide, even in places apparently untouched by European influence."

Though the shape-changing and slightly transgressive behavior that might be present in a costume parade in downtown Turners Falls doesn't signal the start of any real change, it is, I would argue, a necessary ingredient to getting anything started.
According to Wikipedia, "Block parties gained popularity in the United States during the 1970s...[and] were often held outdoors and power for the DJ's sound system was taken illegally from street lights. This was famously referenced in the song "South Bronx" by KRS-One with the line: 'Power from a street light made the place dark. But yo, they didn't care, they turned it out.'" I don't think anyone stole electricity, but people did stand in the middle of the street and take over space that is normally held by our cars.

Though I loved the spirit of the Turners Falls event, I was sad that the lecherous bank of america played a part (a large part, given their unavoidably large banner and the red plastic frisbee-freebees they threw among the crowd). Nothing like a major money grubbing corporation to give everyone that down-home feeling of solidarity...Corporations are excellent studies of what grabs people in a visceral way, and they will lose no opportunity to latch onto community events. What could be better for them? They do nothing real to support the community, in fact they undermine it on all levels, and then they get street cred and free advertising for being at the block party. If you think b of a isn't a bad neighbor, think again--they laid off thousands of workers in New England in 2000 and again in 2004 after promising state officials that they would maintain jobs; this is to say nothing of jobs they've cut around the country. Instead of frisbees, they could have been handling out low-interest loans to residents so that they could help revive the economy in the old mill town--how about that, b of a?

In the end, I think the most transgressive part of the day was seeing all the kids freed from their parents, toddler safety harnesses and all other forms of restraint, in a total state of absorbing glee, due to the ubiquitous "fire hydrant spouting water at the neighborhood children," that Wikipedia says is a must at a block party. Check out the video to see what I mean.

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