Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fireworks

By Patty Wetli | Thursday, July 5, 2012

Fourth of July at Winnemac Park. Credit: Sarah Tilotta

Navy Pier is for tourists.

That was the prevailing sentiment at Winnemac Park (5100 N. Damen Ave.) on Wednesday night, where Chicagoans gathered on the 4th of July to take in a thoroughly unofficial, thoroughly illegal, thoroughly majestic DIY fireworks display — one that was appropriately of the people, by the people and for the people.

“I’ve been coming for several years,” said Ryne Smith (last name dubious) of Uptown, who has family in the neighborhood. “It’s more like a community atmosphere.”

There was none of the staking out of a square of grass hours in advance, schlepping on the CTA or setting out placeholding lawn chairs (what up, Evanston) that typically characterize more staid, organized celebrations. People came and went over the course of nearly two hours, milled about or planted roots.

Whether lounging on blankets, sitting in chairs or just reclining in the grass, hundreds, potentially a thousand, neighbors ringed each of the park’s ball diamonds, where infields were converted to launch pads. Twisting their heads like spectators at a tennis match to catch the competing displays, the crowd clapped and whooped in appreciation for everything from the most basic fire cracker to the most extravagant burst of colored light. “It’s like each baseball field is warring with each other,” said Smith.

Despite the, we repeat, completely illegal nature of the event, the police and fire presence was invisible. Yes, there was the occasional misfire into the crowd or just feet overhead, and sure sitting downwind of a blast was apt to fill a person’s throat with sulfur and eyes with ash, but observers were willing to accept the risks.

“One guy got hit in the arm and his shirt was smoking. His friend put it out and the party went on,” said Joe H., who, along with wife Sandy, has been a Winnemac regular for 15-20 years. “It’s a blast. It’s one of the last few free things. This is more open, people can do what they want.”

“It seems like it gets bigger and bigger every year,” added Sandy who, in spite of the sweltering temperatures, was not about to miss the show after calling in sick last year. “I don’t have air conditioning at home, so it’s probably cooler here.”

Though the adult pyromaniacs that we approached for an interview refused our request, even after a promise of anonymity, their younger, less wary counterparts proved more forthcoming. Thirteen-year-old Daniel and his “13 in two weeks” friend Anthony (Remember when you couldn’t wait to add a year to your age? Sigh.) were lighting off the legal sort of fireworks readily available at the likes of Wal-Mart.

“I’m having fun” said Daniel, who was positioned somewhere near third base. “We’re used to lighting these.” His father was perched in a lawn chair just a few yards away, and with the confidence of youth, the boy stated, “Yeah, I feel safe. I don’t see any casualties.”

By 10:30 p.m., most of the bombers had run out of ammunition and their audience began to disperse, having declared their independence from the city’s department of cultural affairs and special events.

Said our pal Joe, “The mayor can’t cut this.”

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    I love the Winnemac fireworks as well; but I was disappointed to see all the trash and burnt shells left on the baseball diamonds the next morning. Workers were literally shovelling this garbage into the back of a truck. 

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