When July 4th sky goes dark, community spirit dims

For the first time in decades, the Maplewood skies will be dark on Independence Day.

Oh, there'll be a few stars sprinkled across the night sky and a wan half moon, but not a hint of the holiday's usual kaleidoscope of bombs bursting in air, and no oohs and ahhs from thousands of appreciative spectators.

Budget cuts have forced the cancellation of the suburb's immensely popular one-day festival, which was always capped with a dazzling fireworks display. Simply put, the Glorious Fourth won't be quite so glorious around these parts this year.

Probably a handful of unaware families will excitedly tote their lawn chairs, blankets and coolers of pop to Hazelwood Park, only to be greeted with an empty parking lot and silent grounds.

They will be as disappointed as my family was to discover this longtime tradition has fizzled, the victim, it seems, of Gov. Tim Pawlenty slashing state aid to local cities. Looking at their bleak budget forecasts for the remainder of the year, Maplewood officials had to make some tough choices - fill potholes, keep streetlights on, mow the ballfields, plow the streets, spend $17,000 on the annual fireworks show ....

Tough choices, indeed. Few would argue against the necessity of local governments funding essential services. But what about those hard-to-quantify intangible assets - the ones that create civic pride and a sense of belonging?

Rarely, in nearly three decades, did my family miss the Maplewood Fourth. As is so often the case, the first one was especially memorable.

Having never been to the Maplewood festival, my husband and I did not know what to expect, but if you had asked us, I suppose we would have said the usual pretty, but unremarkable, show.

Instead, what we witnessed was a raucous scene with kids waving sparklers, dogs barking, the Whitesidewalls playing in the background and the occasional bang of a Black Cat firecracker. And all this was before the really big show began at dusk.

It was so much fun, the following year we invited out-of-town friends to join us.

The Maplewood celebration lived up to expectations. We were up so close to the fireworks, a scorched piece of cardboard shell casing actually fell on the head of our sons' godfather, Kelly. Despite a few singed hairs, the friends had such a grand time that they've joined us many times over the years for the Maplewood Fourth.

The holiday marks the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and is the only time all year when we come together to openly celebrate our nation's birth.

For years Maplewood helped us do that, with picnics, watermelon-eating contests, cotton candy, concerts and yes, fireworks. We never wanted it to change; thought it would last into the distant future.

Amenities such as swimming pools, public beaches, golf courses, playground equipment, recreational trails and, yes, town festivals, are among the things that drew us to our communities in the first place, and yet they're often the first items politicians eye when they get out their red pencils.

When these amenities, which provide so much joy, are gone, our lives feel diminished.

Mary Lee Hagert can be reached at mlhagert@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7820.

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