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Arts and Entertainment | State | Sunday, July 4th, 2010, 6:29 am

A Munjoy independence

Maine Observer file photo
Fireworks on the Fourth of July

If you sniff the air around Portland’s East End these days you’ll smell something other than sewage. (Sorry East Enders, it’s a real thing.)

You’ll smell the crisp scent of Freedom.

It’s because this time of year Munjoy Hill becomes one of the freest of free colonies for one night only: Independence Day.

Now before you run off for fear that I’m going to break into a Lee Greenwood catalog, consider whether any other time of year the following happens:

  • A large chunk of the city is closed off with it’s own border, effectively creating a new municipality.
  • Young, old, gay, straight and all complexions gather to eat and play.
  • Drunkards and families co-exist side-by-side.
  • Explosions take place that do not involve the bomb squad or a meth lab.

With apologies to the Old Port Fest and the Fryeburg Fair (sorry Nateva, the jury’s still out on you), Munjoy Hill on Independence day is the mother of all spectacles.

Thanks to an impossible combination of urban planning and tradition, the East End shakes off its lower/middle/upper-middle/artist/hipster-class trappings and cuts loose, transforming from a rolling block party into an unexpected festival of American exuberance … with fireworks!

It’s a day that is somehow simultaneously threatening and welcoming in its potential. You could wander into a stranger’s BBQ and be handed a hot dog, or nearly take a sparkler in the eye.

How does this happen? Turns out one of the most densely populated parts of Portland also makes for the best stage for holiday pyrotechnics. So not only do the natives come out for the show, but the city makes a point to invite all comers to the Hill. Fearing the inevitable traffic snarls from so many people, cops also shut down traffic on the East End for most of the evening, creating (for at least six hours) the unrecognized territory of Munjoy Hill.

Since it’s already a holiday people are well into a day-off summer stride of BBQ, drinks and yard games. By the time the border to the outside world is erected around 4 p.m., you can bet there’s already a patriotic miasma of meat, beer and sun exposure hard at work. The chants of USA! USA! USA! are just simmering under the surface.

By nightfall the only thing left is to turn the crowd loose on each other under the stars to whip themselves into an explosive all-American frenzy.

If you’ve walked the streets of Munjoy Hill on the fourth you’ve likely seen amazing sights — cars running over lit firecrackers, babies crying because of the booming sky, a surprising number of nondescript red plastic cups and enough star-spangled clothing to make Betsy Ross question her work.

I wrote plenty of stories on July 4th when I was at the Portland Press Herald. But it was an interview for an obituary that I think best captured the holiday. The woman said her late father — who had lived on the Hill most of his life — loved Independence Day more than anything else. It was an opportunity to throw a big party, have the neighbors over, meet new people and just enjoy each other’s company, she said.

And if we’re all honest, isn’t all of that the reason to head up to the Hill? As far as fireworks technology has come, explosions in the sky just aren’t as captivating in an age of 3-D TV, jet skis and Ryan Seacrest.

What makes Independence Day on The Hill so unique is the community, the oddities and the chance of memories, if not just plain good times. That sounds mighty American if you ask me.

Maybe it’s the reason a brilliant songwriter once sang, “There’s ain’t no doubt I love this laaaaaaaand.”

Sorry. Couldn’t help it.

I’ll see you on The Hill.

Justin Ellis is the editor of The Signal.

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