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Never take a good street parade for granted

Can MayDay and Grand Old Day  find a way to march toward a sustainable future?

For tens of thousands of people, it’s impossible to think of Bloomington Avenue without conjuring up an image of the MayDay Parade, the annual anarchist puppet festival that has taken place every year in Minneapolis’ Powderhorn neighborhood since 1974. In my estimation, the MayDay Parade is the Twin Cities’ most idiosyncratic public event, an unpredictable recurring spectacle that ties together Minneapolis’ lefty counterculture seamlessly in between Lake Street and Powderhorn Park.

Among MayDay’s many unique features are the inscrutable anti-capitalist mythology, the stunning puppets, the “pre-parade” appearance of the off-leash Southside Battle Train — a pedal-powered claptrap punk device straight out of “Mad Max” — and the weirdly beautiful boat ceremonies that end the day amongst the sloping nooks of Powerhorn Lake. Combine it all together and it’s a tradition that stands up well with the nation’s finest urban public ceremonies, alongside Philadelphia’s Mummer’s Parade or any given Sunday in New Orleans.

The "South Side Battle Train" coming down Bloomington Avenue before the Mayday Parade.
Photo by Bill Lindeke
The “South Side Battle Train” coming down Bloomington Avenue before the Mayday Parade.
Yet one cannot depend forever on a deep wellspring of unpaid puppeteer labor, and the announcement earlier last year that this year’s Mayday Parade could be its last amounted to a sign of the apocalypse for lovers of vibrant public streets. The nonprofit theater that organizes the parade is putting it on hiatus pending some unforeseen beneficence from a foundation or donor. Add in last week’s cancellation of the 2019 Grand Old Day parade in St. Paul — a street festival that is also 45 years old — and it prompts the question of whether our cities’ public traditions are dying in front of our eyes. Why is it so hard to have a parade in this town?

Parade logistics

It turns out that street parades and festivals in Minneapolis and St. Paul are often wildly expensive and depend on a large amount of volunteer energy and underappreciated labor on which it can be hard to rely. Without community funding and meaningful buy-in (read: dollar signs), it’s almost impossible to put these kinds of events on year after year.

And yet not all is lost for the city’s street festivals, parades and parties. Take, for example, Minneapolis’ now-thriving calendar of Open Streets events.

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Compared to a big parade, putting on an Open Streets daylong festival is a bit of a lower bar. Instead of wrangling all the necessary floats and performers, the city simply closes off the street for an afternoon and lets the people themselves take over.

Years ago I spoke with Colin Harris, the urban planner who helped put the very first Open Streets event together. Before the first event, he had spent years working with the city’s police, fire, and traffic staff, negotiating specifics about routes, detours, traffic and business impacts with the community and staff.

Open Streets
For Open Streets, Minneapolis simply closes off Lyndale Avenue for an afternoon and lets the people themselves take over.
After the first event on Lyndale Avenue proved to be a success, the plan became an annual tradition, growing into a thriving city-managed effort with seven events planned this summer. The City of Minneapolis takes a direct hand in helping to fund Open Streets,  though the specific events are organized and operated through Our Streets Minneapolis, a walking and bicycling advocacy nonprofit.

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“Sustainable funding,” replied Nick Ray Olson, when I asked him about his biggest need. Olson has been one of the people in charge of organizing Open Streets for the last three years, and he was optimistic about the future while simultaneously cautious about the amount of work it entails.

A perennial challenge

“Funding is a perennial challenge for large-scale event organizers,” Olson said, “along with the logistical operations of the events themselves. It’s a ton of work, and vast majority of that work happens behind the scenes.”

One of the big logistical challenges of any parade or street event are the  wooden barriers and detours that must be planned around the omnipresence of car traffic in any American city. Police have to be hired, traffic directed, and sometimes planning all of that proves difficult.

“There’s more work now,” Olson explained, referring to the year-over-year growth of the events. “Its a good problem to have: As more people attend the events, there are more considerations that need to come into play, as more businesses and organizations want to do more things at the event.”

Add to that the other logistics — like bathrooms, cleanup, and signage — and costs quickly mount, especially if you want to have a parade that won’t alienate its neighbors with inevitable trash and litter that comes with thousands of spectators throwing candy.

“We have to pay for a police presence,” explained Hayden Kilkenny, who organizes St. Paul’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade for the nonprofit Saint Patrick’s Association. “We have to pay for sanitation, pay to clean up the streets afterwards; we have to get a street sweeper afterward, and pay for port a potties.”

It seems like a daunting challenge, though Kilkenny was not quick to assign blame to the city for all the red tape.

“I would not say that the city is putting up barriers to our parade,” Kilkenny added. “You just have to have your proper permits, and get everything in on time. As long as you have people willing to do that and help out, it’s kind of a well oiled machine.”

St. Paul’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, at least in its current iteration, is even older than Grand Old Day or MayDay, and they have long counted on volunteer hours from association members to help alleviate the costs of the parade.

“A lot of it’s done by us,” Kilkenny added. “We go and we put up all the no-parking signs ourselves the night before and take them all down the next day ….”

Deepening a sense of place

Though they disrupt predictable traffic patterns, parades and festivals have many intangible benefits for cities and neighborhoods, building community, fostering connection, and deepening a sense of place. For cities that increasingly struggle with connecting isolated neighbors, reducing costs and hurdles for parades might be a worth some efforts.

The moveable dragonfly event barrier in downtown Hopkins.
Photo by Bill Lindeke
The moveable dragonfly event barrier in downtown Hopkins.
For example, last year Hopkins debuted a new public-space design on its central Eighth Street that it dubbed the “Artery.” The street is designed to be easy to close off for public events and festivals, and the big street reconstruction included a barrier shaped like a dragonfly’s wing that can descend and close the street to car traffic with the flick of a switch. The idea is to emphasize the street’s potential as a place that is as much for public gatherings as it is for speeding car traffic, in the hopes that events and a deeper sense of community might flourish in downtown Hopkins.

Another key dynamic for a good public festival is keeping it simple, not making it overly complicated and allowing guests and community members to easily grasp how and why it exists. This has proven to be an occasional challenge for Open Streets planners.

“Every time you add a new turn or new neighborhood or go over another physical barrier, like train tracks, rivers, bridges, it adds more complicated elements,” explained Nick Ray Olson.

Over the years, Open Streets events have experimented with a few different routes, designed to avoid or connect neighborhoods or traffic barriers. Some have involved circuits, or L-shaped street plans, but those have tended to be less successful than events that are straight shots through neighborhoods.

A strong identity

Similarly, it doesn’t hurt to have a strong identity, either through a specific connection to place or with some sort of other cultural or ethnic identity. Both of those factors hold strong for the St. Paul’s Cinco de Mayo parade, which will be happening in the heart of St. Paul’s historically Latinx West Side community this Saturday, the day before the MayDay Parade across town.

“Events are important to St. Paul because they bring people together to connect and support our community,” said Deb Shaber, who is the president of the organization the puts on both the Cinco de Mayo and Winter Carnival festivals. “They are also complicated and expensive to plan and manage. We work hard every year to produce the Winter Carnival and Cinco de Mayo and take this responsibility very seriously.”

The cultural landscape of the city is always changing. Each year, new parades, events, and traditions come into being just as others fade away. (See also: the Rice Street Festival parade, an event that is struggling to reconcile tradition with a changing neighborhood.) At the same time, having parades that can thrive for generations is a sign of deep social identity that can be rare in the United States.

A second line
Photo by Bill Lindeke
A second line in New Orleans: parades that operate without many barriers or traffic control.
New Orleans is surely the king of the country’s public parade scene, and anyone who has been to a traditional “second line” parade there will likely understand the virtues of laid-back self-organization. These weekly rolling social festivals meander through the city’s neighborhoods like a laid-back conga line, and offer an inclusive tradition of infectious camaraderie. It’s one of the many peerless ways that the Big Easy uses its public streets to foster culture, and any logistics or traffic problems that might result from the traditions pale next to way they build community connections.

Meanwhile, the organizers of both 45-year-old Twin Cities events hope that MayDay and Grand Old Day can find a way to march toward a sustainable future, lining up funders or community support that will keep their volunteers and staff from burning out. If not, they’ll be another example of traditions that have failed to evolve with the times. In the meantime, if you head out to MayDay or Cinco de Mayo this weekend (which I highly recommend), don’t take the parades for granted. You never know how long they’ll last.