The Uncanny Valley

Notes on art, culture and preservation

Happy New Year: The View from Two Street

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Here’s some background for you. The earliest parades in history were victory processions: men returning from the hunt with their prized game in tow, carrying or dragging along their colorful fowl and formidable beasts of burden for all the village to see. From these beginnings, the parade evolved in several directions, including the military march (a display of power and might en route to war) and the religious procession (the faithful following the clergy with penitence and ceremonial spectacle through the streets and into the cathedral).

Whatever the purpose, the usual parade today takes advantage of two fundamental concepts: the need for motion and the viewpoint of a fixed observer. The destination of the parade is less significant than the journey itself. A spectacle or performance that is stuck in place is less exhilarating than one with movement, and by emitting energy through motion, the spectacle can be seen, heard, imbibed, experienced, in the flesh, by the largest number of spectators possible.

But for my money, there’s no parade more exhilarating than the one where the line between the spectator and the spectacle disappears. The Mummers Parade in Philadelphia is a story of day and night. The main parade commences the morning of New Year’s Day, moving up South Broad Street to City Hall, and continues into the late afternoon. This is the storied Philly tradition, a promenade of comics, fancies, and string bands attended by families, tourists, students, city dwellers, public officials, suburbanites, trade unionists, business owners, gadabouts and anyone looking for a reason to party. Still, with this being a (justly) hallowed institution, things don’t get out of hand. You’ll mingle with some comics stepping out into the sidelines, but if you’re up by City Hall, running onto Broad Street and following the parade is out of the question.

When the nighttime comes, the party rises to another level. On South 2nd Street, a highly localized digest of the daytime parade unfolds. It begins around Washington Avenue (where the Mummers Museum is located) and continues south to the home bases of the clubs, past Mifflin Street and all the way to Oregon Avenue. This is the real festivity, South Philly style, the natural consequence of the last twenty-four hours of partying. The glitz and glamour is still there, but it’s not just that: it’s a real display of community pride. 2nd St. is smaller than Broad Street; at night, its more open and inviting than Broad Street at daytime. In most cases, the boundary between street and sidewalk ceases to exist.

Here, we become more than spectators; we crave motion. But we don’t just join the parade; we get ahead of it, we linger in one spot, we fall back again. We want as much of the experience as possible, so we play around with the parade’s timeline. Even if you don’t know South Philly that well, even if you’re boggled by the fact that 2nd Street turns into 3rd Street south of Mifflin, you can strut and revel with the merrymakers and for one night, at least, you’re family.

Even Mummers need to stay wiredI’ve always enjoyed the main event on Broad Street. This New Year’s was my first Two Street attendance, though, and it’s another thing that I’ll always love about Philadelphia. It’s not just an occasion for young white folks to get senselessly drunk. The parade really is a communal experience; many a row home has its front stoop teeming with friends and neighbors. Even the kids, aspiring Mummers themselves, stay up past bedtime and watch the action. Yes, the crowd is largely white–something that one comes to expect, given the Mummers’ roots in Europe and the ethnic European makeup of the blocks surrounding the parade route. It wouldn’t hurt to be more inclusive, though, and certainly no one is barred from joining in on the fun.

In spite of this, and despite the fact that other parades have had more thrills–for me, the benchmark is the Phillies celebration in 2008–the good times that opened 2010 in South Philly carry a deep meaning for me. Maybe it’s the first-timer charm. Maybe the times have something else to do with it. As Philadelphians, and as Americans, we’ve had enough of all the bad news after bad news. Last year began hopefully enough, but it didn’t pan out that way for all. This year will be different, we tell ourselves. Perhaps it will. If it doesn’t, no matter. A parade is always an end in itself, a festive occasion that can’t be spoiled by hard times.


Written by cwmote

January 2, 2010 at 2:20 pm

One Response

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  1. nice! Two Street is the bomb!


    January 2, 2010 at 4:25 pm

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