Coastal Commuter

Going forth on the Fourth for bombast and bomb blasts

Allow me to get a little onomatopoeic … ka-boom!

The Fourth of July is the summer’s major party in the good ol’ US of A — and the noisiest celebration of the year. Could there be a more American holiday, in terms of theme, than Independence Day? Yes, you’ve got that historical thing, but, as far as I’m concerned, July 4th doesn’t just commemorate the liberation of the 13 American Colonies from the tyranny of those lobster-backed British bastards. (Don’t fret. I can joke like that. I’m an Anglophile.) It’s about independence — a hallmark of the American spirit and of the freedoms that a certain declaration promised the citizens of this country when the Revolutionary War was won.

There are those who would tell you that the Fourth is really just an excuse for a fusillade of fireworks from sea to shining sea. And lots of John Phillip Sousa marches. And barbecues. And I’d say, OK. All of that sounds good to me. So where do I spend the holiday when I’m pulled between two cities I love? It’s the North versus the South — and no, that’s not a Civil War reference. Would I be happier experiencing the Fourth in Los Angeles or San Francisco? (Let’s assume I’m not going to the Iowa State Fair or New York City.)

The social factor does come into play. One must check one’s invitations. I’ve had many memorable times on the Fourth in L.A.: picnics in Griffith Park, lawn parties in Larchmont, backyard beer bashes in Bel-Air, and street fiestas in Pasadena. There was one gathering at a Hollywood Hills mansion that offered a spectacular view of roman candles and aerial shells going off in the Basin below. A couple of rooftop soirees I attended in Studio City faced the CBS Radford lot, Universal Studios and the heart of the San Fernando Valley, where you can observe some spectacular pyrotechnics on display, both near and far. What a blast to see those sparkling sky blossoms bloom in multiple locations when you’ve found the right vantage point!

As for San Francisco, I’ve had my fair share of fog-shrouded Fourths in the Avenues, where the burgers, hot dogs, apple pie, and good company almost make up for the lack of grandeur above. And the maritime weather patterns can even play havoc with the city’s massive annual Fourth of July display on the bay when barges moor along the Embarcadero between the Ferry Building and Crissy Field. But more often than not, the festivities have gone off over the water with great success — even when the clouds get a little low. And because my S.F. dwelling is in the Russian Hill neighborhood, it’s a short walk to the fun.

The sun disappears. The revelers converge. While powerful speakers blast a selection of rousing musical numbers, a computer-coordinated extravaganza of exploding, shimmering red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, silver, and gold is launched from the barges and dazzles from on high. Technical names for the fireworks can be festive and often derived from flora — peonies, chrysanthemums, falling leaves, dahlias and willows. There are spiders and horsetails and waterfalls, too (although no lions and tigers and bears). You can’t forget the rings and hearts and even those damnable “have a nice day” happy-faces, crowd-pleasers all. At surface level, the sparklers, pinwheels, ground spinners, and fountains counter the aerial show. Labels aside, the visual splendor is nonstop for 15 to 20 minutes. For me, the logistics are ideal. I just head out my door, join the throng, stroll a few blocks and get right under it all. It’s all too convenient and neighborly to miss. Thus, I’ll be there this year.

And I think I’ll hang around town for a bit longer this month. Le Quatorze Juillet, July 14th, Bastille Day — the French Independence Day — comes, conveniently enough, less than a week and a half after the Fourth. That observance, as it plays out in S.F.’s Petit Paris (the downtown area that starts in the vicinity of Bush and Grant, and includes the alleys Claude Lane and Belden Place and the bistros therein), is a cross between a World Cup rally and a full-on rave — with a surplus of Stella Artois and escargot on the menu.

We all know it’s true. Whether it’s Independence Day, Bastille Day, Day of the Dead or, I suspect, even Arbor Day, San Francisco knows how to throw a party — and fireworks, real or metaphorical, are inevitable.

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Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on KPFK/Pacifica Radio's David Feldman Show and Thom Hartmann Show and on Michael Snyder's Culture Blast, available online at and YouTube. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster