The only plan was to make sure to be at the lake by nightfall, for the fireworks. This was the consensus at a pool party on the Fourth of July in Echo Park. “Were you there last year?” “A tree caught fire!” “It’s a war zone.” “It’s Gaza.”
At dusk, my friend Nina and I stopped at the House of Spirits, grabbed 40-ounce bottles of Miller High Life and headed to Echo Park Lake just in time. Ash and smoke were already burning at my contacts. The screams and near-sonic booms filled the pink and purple sky, giving the neighborhood the feeling that this was no longer Los Angeles, the United States of America, 2007, but instead a time-bending mix of the Battle of Puebla, the Alamo, and the final war scene in that Denzel Washington movie, Glory.
At the northern end of the lake we met a crew of some of those super-sophisticated, ambisexual, ambi-Latin Wassup Rocker teenagers from South-Central, introduced ourselves, and lay back on the cold grass. Bang! And then the smoke would glide away. Bang! Bang! We giggled and yelled each time. “I don’t have to go to Latin America!” I squealed to Nina. “I already live in it!”
The Fourth of July is a big holiday in Echo Park. Most years, we’re served with weeks of “premature” fireworks, then have residual explosions for several weeks afterward, to the immeasurable distress of pets and wild animals everywhere. On the big day, however, the park becomes ground zero for a direct-contact fireworks show that is a running local miracle for the simple fact that no one has been killed in the process. Hundreds, maybe thousands of people ring the lake and launch big, scary fireworks from their bare hands, into the sky, over the water, into the trees, even at each other: firecrackers, flares, Roman candles, sparklers, helicopters.
The entire community comes out. Families wander the lawns surrounding the lake, enjoying evening picnics with blankets, lawn chairs and coolers. Grandmothers unload crates of complicated-looking fireworks and distribute them to hopping children. Couples cuddle and watch the igniting sky. Cool kids move around in drunken packs, hootin’ and hollerin’ in total glee. Fresh fireworks are sold from covered shopping carts. The air is so choked you can hardly see. It’s great.
Technically, this is 100 percent illegal. Although they are permitted in more than 30 cities in L.A. County, mostly in the southeast, fireworks are not allowed within L.A. city limits. The Los Angeles Police Department recently reported confiscating 2,000 pounds of illegal fireworks in the Harbor Division, its biggest bust ever. This might have had something to do with the marked decline in before-and-after fireworks in the city last week. “As far as radio calls, it was like a 50 percent decrease” from 2006, said LAPD Officer April Harding. The only major fireworks-related injury happened on July 3, when a 13-year-old boy in South L.A. blew off four fingers on his left hand with a firework he mistook for a Roman candle. “Firefighter/Paramedics cleaned and dressed the boy’s painful wounds,” the L.A. Fire Department blog grimly noted from the scene, “while their colleagues fruitlessly searched the vicinity for remnants of his fingers.”
You would think, given the risk levels of handling fireworks, that police and fire squads would blanket Echo Park Lake every July 4, but the exact opposite is true. They just stay away. When a tall palm on the east side of the lake caught fire two years ago, a lone LAFD engine showed up to put it out. The very crowds who were lighting the fireworks cheered on and applauded the firefighters who fought the flames with a hose, while little boys kept lighting bottle rockets on the sidewalk, directly in front of the engine. Everyone was having a blast. I remember the firefighters, after they doused the burning palm tree, posing for photographs with proud mothers and their small children, a reminder that immigrants, more than they’re given credit for, really love and admire the most classic icons of American heroism, cops and firemen.
Even as Echo Park changes into a more high-income area, enforcing L.A.’s fireworks laws at the lake on the Fourth will
never really be feasible. The big secret about law enforcement in Los Angeles is that if a certain code or statute contradicts the social traditions of the massive Mexican and Central American work force that keeps the city running, it simply isn’t enforced. Look at street vendors, or the gardeners with their blowers. And in the grand American tradition of fusion, the Fourth of July in particular has evolved into an immigrants’ holiday. Fireworks, widely used in Latin American religious and patriotic festivals, are reminders of home. And the fact that the tradition is illegal is hardly a hindrance. We’re celebrating liberty here, remember? Lighting illegal fireworks is basically an expression of American independence, in the raw.
On a tucked-away corner of the lakeshore, I approached a nicely dressed man who stood with his wife and their daughter, a girl of 5 or 6. They were calmly and leisurely lighting fireworks. It felt like a normal family activity.
“You guys do this every year?” I asked in Spanish.
The man looked at me like it was a stupid question. “We live here,” he said.