My husband and I gravitated toward Flat Rock Creek 15 years ago because its quirkiness was truly a selling point. It had a reputation for being a very innovative and forward-thinking city and had carved out its uniqueness against the other more established municipalities. The government was small enough to be nimble and responsive. The police department was considered top-notch as they set the bar for the county for training and response, investing in not one but two K-9 units long before other bigger cities followed suit.
They added an armored personnel carrier to their fleet in the 1980s. What most of us would actually call a tank. Some scoffed at such a seemingly frivolous expenditure for a small city, but no one laughed when it was called into service shortly thereafter to rescue two teenagers in the big city next door, who were clinging to a median signpost for their lives during a horrific rainstorm and resulting flash flood which devastated parts of that city and washed away their police cars like so much debris. Ours is definitely a city with foresight.
The city hosts a major league BBQ contest every June which lures huge, hungry crowds of people from all over the Midwest just to breathe the rarified smoke it produces over the course of three days. It’s considered an honor to serve as a judge as my husband has some years and my teenage son was elated to be chosen as a table runner last year.
The city also sponsors an annual spinach festival in early fall, much smaller in scale than the BBQ contest though it takes place in the same city park, to honor the Belgian spinach farmers who originally settled the area and for whom many streets are named.
The community center in Old Town is the site of myriad classes, activities, and sports for children and seniors and everyone in between. As a preschooler, my daughter did a brief stint in a tap dancing class taught by a locally known and accomplished elder dance maven who still conducts classes there for kids and adults. My husband used the gym for extra basketball practices when he coached my son’s grade school team. My son’s kindergarten graduation was held there. Exhibitors make use of the gym throughout the year; the Handcrafters Fair every October is by far my favorite.
Citizens turn out in droves for the small but satisfying Fourth of July parade every year and the attendant events throughout that week: an early morning run, a midnight bike race, a street dance, and, until it was eliminated last year due to economic woes, a mammoth fireworks display in the huge county park it shares with another mid-sized city.
The parade is held in Old Town, right next to the railroad tracks which bustle 24/7 with freight trains transporting coal and sundry other cargo. Patience is a virtue cultivated early in one’s residency here as motorists’ routes are regularly interrupted by the passing of trains whose horns punctuate the day, synchronizing the city’s businesses and piercing the still of night like a coyote howl.
We’ve watched the parade from the back of our minivan to keep from getting soaked by a thunder storm and watched it from lawn chairs we drug across the railroad tracks in the oppressive humidity that defines mid-summer here. A local group of Shriners, a mainstay of the parade, charms the children by racing tiny go-carts in circle 8s and tooting horns on their miniature Model Ts. Some of them prance good naturedly in goofy costumes to entertain the crowd accompanied by tunes produced by their kazoo-playing comrades.
Other music is provided by a horn band comprised of random area high school students trumpeting their only tune, “Louie, Louie,” throughout the parade route.
The city’s swim team is heralded like local heroes. Cub Scouts packs and Girl Scout troops pedal their meticulously decorated bikes as their leaders walk along and toss candy to kids. City officials wave to the crowd from the back of slow-moving convertibles.
Young girls from dance academies turn flips down the asphalt and the costumed players from a local Renaissance Festival engage spectators with their theatrical antics and hardy shouts of “Huzzah!” Local businesses advertise services through festive floats. Even a pristine garbage truck is part of the route, a nod to a local waste management company.
The only unpleasantness is the periodic invasion every couple of years of politicians seeking to solicit votes and shore up name recognition. But even that annoyance is so quintessentially American that it’s hard to be offended. Residents come from all over the city to watch and everyone gets a good seat curbside. After the parade ends, people head to their respective neighborhood pools to spend the day swimming and splashing and sunning.
We’ve been watching the city’s Fourth of July fireworks show since it was held on the easement along the railroad tracks in the 1980s. In the first years we lived in our house, we could actually view it from our driveway. But once it shifted to the large county park and shared costs with a neighboring city, my husband initiated a new family tradition.
We’d venture out to the middle of the lake in the big county park at dusk and watch from a canoe the brilliant display of fireworks ignite the sky and cast its massive reflection on the black still canvas of water. The lake effect, in this case, was the illusion that the trailing embers falling from the spray of fireworks were showering the water as each resonant boom echoed off the bluff on the other side of the lake. Two shows for the price of one and both free.
In recent years, I noticed an uptick of families celebrating with picnics at the shelters surrounding the lake. Typically, we’ve gotten together with family friends for grilled hamburgers and hotdogs at someone’s home to celebrate after relaxing at the pool all afternoon. It has never occurred to me to go to a park on that day except to see fireworks. But it has occurred to a fair number of recent immigrants to the United States.
So I’ve been privy to a most remarkable scene: the gathering of immigrants and native-born Americans—who would know which was which on the edge of the lake as they cluster around the dock and boat easement to get a good view of the night sky?
Right here, smack in the middle of the heartland, this: people of all ages and origins, Asian, Indian, Hispanic, Slavic, African American, European, and other ethnicities, all gathered in one place to celebrate the birth of these United States, a wondrous cacophony conjured by the sounds of different languages and dialects rising into the evening air as people descend the hill to reach the dock at dusk to watch fireworks.
This scene has invited me to think anew about public spaces and what they might mean to people in this country. But that is the subject of my next post.