I've lived on the same block in Prospect Heights Brooklyn for 30 years and I grew up on Dean Street, 15 blocks away in Crown Heights, so I know about this part of Brooklyn. One of the constants for the last 30 years is that you know the summer is over because the West Indian Day Parade takes over the neighborhood. I didn't go this year, but of course driving home in the early evening I couldn't avoid it -- every street to my home on Prospect Place was blocked by police barriers. It took showing my driver's license at each check point to finally make it home. Now I understand how the former communist bloc must have felt.
This wasn't the parade's fault or the police; the parade has taken on a life of its own -- now the largest parade of any type in the country. In the early 80's when I was Special Advisor to the Mayor, I was Grand Marshal. I dragged my son along and he rode my shoulders the entire parade route; between the noise and people dressed in costume, my son was particularly concerned with the young man dressed only in a diaper. He hasn't been a parade kind of person ever since. My father's family were all from Barbados, so Carnival was always something we knew about growing up. But it was only when I went to the island as a teenager that I really understood how powerful the institution was and why it continues to draw larger and larger crowds over all these years. To describe me as an adolescent as socially awkward would be kind; I could participate in discussions about politics before I was nine, but to deal with my peers at school ... forget it. So when we went to visit Barbados when I was 12 or 13, I assumed I'd sit around with relatives talking about politics -- I didn't know that I was coming to Barbados in the middle of the Carnival season. As soon as we got off the plane I was bundled off by numerous cousins and their friends to what seemed like ten solid days of fete; you couldn't talk, you just danced. Some cultures have extended rites of passage for adolescents and young adults, for me it was a defining moment as being part of something so powerful and so communal and joyful; it should be part of every young person's coming of age.
So when I hear the music drifting down from Eastern Parkway, it always brings me back to those ten days when I was 13. The parade has become a cultural touchstone for people from the Caribbean and many others. Carlos Lezama was its original organizer; from Trinidad he made it virtually his life's work. A nicer man I've rarely met, never allowed the event to become too commercial or political, totally committed to recreating the same feeling about carnival that so many people had of people gathering for the joy of dancing in large numbers to wonderful music in the streets of Brooklyn or Bridgetown. It explains why the millions who attend the parade keep coming; it reflects some of the deepest needs of people to feel collective joy.