“The First Half Mile” of the Bristol 4th of July Parade Route ~ a personal reflection

“The First Half Mile” of the Bristol 4th of July Parade Route ~ a personal reflection…

When “One Half Mile” means more than a measurement of distance.

When “One Half Mile” cannot be defined by duration.

When “One Half Mile” excites both debate and disagreement in small town America.

When “One Half Mile” exemplifies and teaches the very fundamentals of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, one of the cornerstones of American Freedoms — guaranteeing freedom of speech, press, assembly and petition.

When “One Half Mile” is measured in passion.

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There is a controversy brewing in my home town of Bristol, Rhode Island, a town founded in 1680, a town committed to preservation of its picturesque and historic charm, and home to *the oldest continuously running 4th of July Celebration in America.   

There is a controversy brewing like a storm in a teapot, a controversy steeped in One Half Mile being eliminated by the Bristol 4th of July Parade Committee from its historic 4th of July Parade Route, an act strangely and loosely akin (to me, at least) to the Tea Act of 1773 and the resistance by many of the townspeople to this action.

OK. This may seem a bit dramatic and no chests of tea are being hurled into our harbor, but it has similar elements of decisions without representation and refusal of concessions leading to waves of resistance.

This One Half Mile has been, since 1976, the beginning of the 2.4-mile Parade Route, when a shorter route could no longer accommodate the tens of thousand of spectators to the town and parade. Along this One Half Mile are 60 homes, homes often referred to as, simply, “on the parade route.” People often purchase these homes because they are on the parade route. Also along this One Half Mile is our local VFW – Post 237 – from which Veterans traditionally gather on July 4th to view the parade, and Benjamin Church Manor, a senior housing community, where these senior citizens have a perfect view of our famous parade.

My husband Barry and I are among these on the parade route homeowners and our celebrations begin on or around Flag Day, June 14th, when all the red, white & blue comes out, unfurled and sometimes inventive and laying a welcoming mat of patriotism straight into downtown. Our 11 grandchildren (soon to be 12!) come from all corners of Rhode Island to help with the bins upon bins of bunting and flags and they await with baited breath for the night the magical red, white & blue stripes appear right in front of our home ~ The Parade Route. This stretch is seeded in tradition, love of country, celebration, family and neighbors meeting by the dawn’s early light to place chairs, blankets and the like for guests and visitors to BRISTOL’S PARADE, including our One Half Mile

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From Flag Day and through the actual 4th of July, the many Town of Bristol festivities ~ including a true old-fashioned carnival at the Town Common, 2 weeks of free outdoor concerts, a spectacular Fireworks Display and, of course, the Parade ~ welcome thousands of people to Bristol, breathing such life and liberty and not only the pursuit, but the acquisition of happiness to residents and visitors alike.

The Committees that spend an entire year of planning, fundraising and executing these activities/festivities are deserving of the greatest praise and gratitude.

But let me get back to that One Half Mile.

On January 6, 2016, with a vote of 46 – 9 of attending Parade Committee Members, with no knowledge/input/discussion from the residents of Bristol, the 2.4-mile route was shorted to just under 2 miles, eliminating the first one half mile. The Committee cited declined participation (parade is too long, too hot for marchers) and security reasons.

No-one but these people knew.

This news was announced the next day, January 7th, many residents hearing it for the first time on local noon newscasts; and many others, like me, through dozens of text messages from family members, friends, neighbors in, for lack of a better word, shock.

As one would expect, news of this vote spread as quickly as Brown Betty raced through Lexington carrying Paul Revere (not really sure if this is the name of Paul Revere’s horse, but I like it good enough!). A Facebook Page popped up almost immediately – Save the Bristol 4th Parade Route, gathering almost 4,000 LIKES in two days. A Petition has gathered 2,500+ on-line signatures against this vote as well.

Barry and I decided to take action with organizing an Informational/Organizational Meeting to “Save the First Half Mile” ~ and when we approached the leadership at our local VFW to house the meeting, they were all in, citing the lack of communication on the Committee’s behalf and disrespectful displacement of the many, many Veterans who view their Parade from the VFW.

Barry and I printed fliers and distributed them by hand to the 6o affected homes on our One Half Mile parade route. Homeowners greeted us with the greatest concern for this course of events and were anxious to address the situation by assembling to organize.

We learned of homeowners who had retained attorneys to question the legality of such a vote.

One thing rang common with these homeowners within this First Half Mile stretch of Parade — great passion in celebration of our 4th of July through our Parade. This passion is something that CAN be measured in people’s traditions, upholding everything sacred, if I may. Tradition wrapped in country. Country wrapped in patriotism. Patriotism wrapped in history. History wrapped in our Veterans and our senior citizens who still remember. Memory wrapped in honor.

These are the things that Barry and I want to pass along to our grandchildren. This is why this First Half Mile is so important to us.

Now, all of this being said, I haven’t personally spoken to Fran O’Donnell, the Committee’s Vice Chairwoman, but I did listen to her radio interview last evening on the Matt Allen Show – WPRO-AM. Ms. O’Donnell has scheduled a Special Meeting for the Committee to vote again on the plans for a shortened parade route – at Colt Andrews  School, Bristol, January 14th at 7 pm. She explains, “I feel that it is critical that the 4th of July committee not be dictated by other interests,” making reference to our “Save the First Half Mile” informational meeting scheduled for Tuesday, January 19, 7 pm, at the VFW. Ms. O’Donnell makes reference to not succumbing to the pressure of this group.

To this end, I took careful notes while listening and developed 4 questions to hopefully ask Ms. O’Donnell and/or Committee Members at this meeting:

  1. MARCHING BANDS AND DRUM & BUGLE CORPS: If marching bands and drum & bugle corps that have participated in the Bristol 4th of July Parade in previous years are declining to march because the parade route is too long or too hot, would it be prudent to develop a proactive parade sub-committee to research and solicit marching bands and drum & bugle corps locally and nationwide, both high school and college, that would join our parade? In addition, do you have a list of the bands/corps’ that declined and notes soliciting replacement bands/corps’ contacted? And are there ways to move the parade along more quickly, keeping the First Half Mile but shortening the duration of the parade? Perhaps a sub-committee could address this concern?
  2. PUBLIC SAFETY:  If safety along the First Half Mile of the parade route was described “a death trap with no egress” by national and local security agencies back in 2002, most likely in reaction to 9-11-2001, why has the parade continued on that same route from 2002 – 2015. Are there new threats of which the public should be aware and warned? Also, does it concern the Committee that the congestion from the thousands of people from the traditional first half mile crowding into downtown will create more of a security threat with little or no egress? Is there a sub-committee to address egress issues?
  3. INACCURATE COUNT OF “60 HOMES” ON THE FIRST HALF MILE ROUTE: While there are 60 homes on the direct parade route from Chestnut Street to Washington Street, many of these homes are multi-family residences that house two or more families. There are also an additional 100 homes directly affected by the parade route change — those on Sheffield Avenue, Hillside Road, Creek Lane, Gorham Place, Paull Street, Overlook Drive, Fort Hill, Vantage Point, Adelaide Avenue and Usher Terrace. These homeowners/families traditionally view the parade from Hope Street along the First Half Mile. In addition to these homes, Silver Creek Manor’s senior citizen residents are directly affected by the route change, as they also traditionally view the parade from Hope Street, as do the Veterans who view from the VFW on Hope Street. WAS THERE ANY COMMITTEE DISCUSSION ABOUT THESE ADDITIONALLY AFFECTED HUNDREDS/THOUSANDS OF BRISTOLIANS AT THE JANUARY 6TH VOTE?  (Note: Sunnyside Avenue is another directly affected street, but because it doesn’t abut Hope Street, I will mention, but not include its 13 homes in the total count of 160 affected homes, Silver Creek, the VFW and Agave and Sip ‘n Dip as well.)
  4. This IS the TOWN’S PARADE: I question Ms. O’Donnell’s mindset when referencing her quote, “This is not the town’s parade. This is the Committee putting on the parade.” When Reverend Henry Wight of the First Congregational Church and a veteran of the Revolutionary War noted in 1785 that the Town of Bristol should celebrate Revolutionary War Veterans with “Patriotic Exercises” — he referenced the Town of Bristol. This is not only “The Town’s Parade,” but the first of its kind and why the Town of Bristol has the prestigious honor of having the oldest, continuous 4th of July Celebration in America. And let us not forget that John Adam’s wrote that the celebration of July 4th “ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade… from one end of this continent to the other.” (Not, I note, to exclude Chestnut to Washington!) THIS IS THE TOWN’S PARADE. I would ask that although the committee, in Ms. O’Donnell’s words, “Is not obligated to go to the town people before we vote,” would that not be a better, more democratic, more open, more fair way to approach such a dramatic change?

I don’t believe that the Townspeople of Bristol want our cup ‘o tea to runneth over with discontent, but we are certainly willing, as evidenced by the reaction to the series of 4th of July “events” of the past 7 days, to speak freely, address the press, assemble and petition en masse in order to create an open dialogue regarding The Town’s Parade.

One Half Mile is much more than distance, duration and debate.

One Half Mile is an eternity when the passion wrapped up in it — is taken away.

This is our Town, folks. Let’s work together in wrapping The Town in its historic Parade.

 

*Bristol holds the distinction of having the oldest, continuous Fourth of July Celebration in America. The Celebration, first held in 1785, was started by Bristolians who actually took part in the Revolutionary War thus welding a permanent tie with our modern Celebrations. Bristol’s original fervor in celebrating Independence Day was nurtured by extreme hardships suffered during the Revolution. This fervor continues today as Bristol becomes arguably the most patriotic town in America during the three-week Celebration which culminates in the gala Parade on Independence Day which is watched by over 200,000 enthusiastic people. (Source: Explore Bristol by Land or Sea)

“The First Half Mile” of the Bristol 4th of July Parade Route ~ a personal reflection was last modified: July 5th, 2017 by Sharon Couto
SHOWHIDE Comments (9)
  1. Not dictated to by other interest….The DCI dictated to the committee by threatening to not come here, and guess what???…they are not comming here and yet, the committee is still footing the bill for Cranston activities….and the other bands that dictated to the committee about the legnth of the parade……tell them and the DCI, Thanks but no thanks…We don’t need you….it’s our parade, not yours…..

  2. You have many inaccuracies.. I am not saying I disagree with your premise, but taking facts out of context and repeating them inside a new context isn’t productive in your argument. There is a drum Corp committee that solicits for participation of bands… In the parade, for many years now.. The issue is the drum corps can’t afford to come in on the 3rd and stay through the 5th..to compete.. So to fill the parade with musical content that you have become accustomed to, we solicit from around the country and most reasonably priced bands won’t March 2.5 miles, so whether you shorten the distance or the content isn’t available to fill it.. So the question is do you want 2.5 miles of parade with little entertainment value, or do you want 2 miles of parade with more content.. Obviously many want distance over content. I guess folks will be surprised that we actually have to pay for much of the content in the parade…and the crowds have not been more than 100,000 for some time now…remember they are selling tourism to Bristol so facts are based on most favorable tallies…

  3. You might also note that they voted to shorten the route ill-prepared logistically with regards to staging of the marching units, floats and various vehicles. There just isn’t room to stage the parade from the new proposed starting point.

    Also, someone should research the average length of parades throughout the US. They will probably find that Bristols is on the shorter side. The St. Patrick’s Day parade in San Francisco is over 6 miles! (I know I’ve marched it!) it doesn’t lack in participation or spectators. I think it’s more a power play by the committee because they don’t want to be out there that long missing out on their family festivities.

  4. Beautifully said! One point I might add is when Ms O’Donnell stated she would not succumb to any group, she did just that when “a few” groups said they wouldn’t march due to the length. Giving in to bands who come to town for 24-48 hrs instead of holding true to tradition for the many reasons you mentioned is a travesty.

  5. Thank you for your desire to keep the Parade as it should be.
    I would ask Ms O’Donnell what her pedigree is to Bristol and its history.
    My mother was a 7th generation Bristolian and was extremely proud of that heritage.
    Secrecy is a cowards way of doing things. and on top of this she is an egotist.
    It’s time to change the committee. They are not granted this type of power. It is for the town to decide any major changes to its history. The people are paying the taxes!

  6. Macy’s route is 2.65 miles (6 miles in 1924), 3.5 million viewers, 1500 dancers and cheerleaders, close to 1,000 clowns, 30 floats, a dozen marching bands, close to 8,000 participants in all. This all takes place at 9am and ending at 11:50 with Santa in the square. The Macy’s parade has commentators for the tv viewing audience. We have commentators/ “interviewers” running in the street holding up the parade. A limited number of bands should be allowed to stop and perform in front of the reviewing stand. The parade could keep moving, obviously making it take less hours. Marching in Bristol was long as the parade constantly stopped. I had the honor of marching in Macy’s in 1990 as part of The Living Flag. It was an eye opener how smoothly and quickly a parade can flow.

  7. Macy’s route is 2.65 miles (6 miles in 1924), 3.5 million viewers, 1500 dancers and cheerleaders, close to 1,000 clowns, 30 floats, a dozen marching bands, close to 8,000 participants in all. This all takes place at 9am and ending at 11:50 with Santa in the square. The Macy’s parade has commentators for the tv viewing audience. We have commentators/ “interviewers” running in the street holding up the parade. A limited number of bands should be allowed to stop and perform in front of the reviewing stand. The parade could keep moving, obviously making it take less hours. Marching in Bristol was long as the parade constantly stopped. I had the honor of marching in Macy’s in 1990 as part of The Living Flag. It was an eye opener how smoothly and quickly a parade can flow.

  8. From the perspective of someone who has been in this event for the past 30 or so years (and hopefully, many more!). I have some unique insight…

    First, if the parade committee wants to shorten the route to accommodate marchers, all well and good. However, distance is less important to us than is the time we stand around waiting for one drum and bugle corps/high school marching band or another to do their “show” in front of the reviewing stand. (Full disclosure, I was a member of the Matadors back in the day so was part of one of these). This *stop and go* especially in the un-shaded sections is worse than spectators may realize, as it stretches the time standing in the sun (in wool uniforms) out quite a bit.

    Secondly, it makes no sense to me why the parade committee would lop out the section of the route that is: a.) the most populated and b.) has some of the best shade. It would make much more sense to cut out the loop by the Herreshoff Museum. If, however, the parade committee opted to not cut this section due to donations from the Lobster Pot, that is their business… as this parade is privately funded.

    I understand the feelings of those who live right on the parade route, but these events are businesses, and business concerns have to take precedence. This reminds me of people who owned time shares in Newport complaining after the America’s Cup left town… there are and were no guarantees that the status quo was going to be permanent.

    Finally, with regards to length, we do on average 20 or so gigs a year, and this parade is pretty typical in length. We’ve done 5 mile parades, the Savannah, GA St. Pat’s Parade is 3.5 miles, the Gaspee Parade is a tad longer than Bristol, and Pawtucket and Providence St. Pat’s parades are about a mile.

    Again, these are simply my own personal comments, and do not reflect on the group I represent.

  9. Ms. Couto’s piece was very well written, and with a lot of emotion. While I do agree with most of her thoughts, there’s one thing that entered my mind when she said it was the Town’s parade. Yes, it is a parade in our town, BUT, the folks that plan this parade, are a small amount of townspeople that start planning this big event a year in advance. They are the ones that put in the time and effort while the rest of us can sit back and enjoy all the festivities. That’s what the committee is for – to plan and execute all these activities during the two week celebration in June/July. I would say, then, join the committee and let your voice be heard and help out in the planning of these events. It wasn’t set up that the townspeople would have a say in the way things would run – it’s a committee that does the work, and so I agree that they should be the ones making the decisions.

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