Sunday, June 23, 2024

A view of Boston’s Fourth of July fireworks from Cambridge — losing very little of the impact, since the fireworks are set off from the Charles River between the cities. (Photo: Christopher Schmidt)

Cambridge Day is part of a project called Voices of MainStreet — a weekly, nationwide Q&A in which editors at the money and lifestyle site MainStreet.com ask questions and bloggers answer them. For this entry, we were asked about the Fourth of July holiday.

Normally it would be unimaginable for a U.S. city of 105,162 people to let the Fourth of July pass without some official effort. And if not for a single, significant fact, that kind of oversight would certainly set up Cambridge for a powerful charge of a lack of patriotism, if not outright communism (which happens anyway, although it’s less of an accusation than a wry assumption):

Cambridge happens to be across the Charles River from Boston, which — you may have heard — puts on a pretty good Fourth of July celebration.

How can it not? Boston is the cradle of liberty, while Cambridge has always been just that place across the river, or that place that could have been Boston if our governor in 1631, John Winthrop, hadn’t decided at the last minute Boston was really the place to be. After the last minute, in fact; he literally took down the frame of the house he was building to move south below the Charles. The spirit of Winthrop is alive today in Vertex Pharmaceuticals, which is relocating 1,300 workers to undeveloped Boston from Cambridge, and the spirit of all the people Winthrop left behind is alive in all the other innovation companies in Cambridge (including the dramatically expanding Novartis) mystified by the move and willing to watch it happen without being all too inspired to follow the example.

Regardless, a fluke of history has made it incumbent upon Boston to go all out on fireworks, music (courtesy of The Boston Pops and this year, Lionel Richie) and celebrity guests. This year, Lowell, Mass., native Michael Chiklis will be on hand to sing original songs and help launch his musical career. If you ever wondered what it would sound like if Detective Vic Mackey stopped beating and murdering people and instead belted out some middle-of-the-road rock, this is your year to cram yourself onto the Esplanade among just under 400,000 other people and squint with delight as your dreams are fulfilled. Last year the festivities cost $2.5 million, likely the second-most expensive gala in the country after New York and ahead of even Washington, D.C. (Not all Fourth budgets are shared so freely.)

Cost to Cambridge, even though it gets equal view of the 15,000 fireworks bursting overhead for, let’s face it, an increasingly tedious 20 minutes at the end of a two-hour, 10-minute buildup: almost nothing. We have sound towers, food carts and restrooms and a very long stretch of park along the Charles and can come and go with much more freedom than the powerfully congested combination of Esplanade and Storrow Drive on the other side of the river. As a result, many more people party at home, arrive just before the fireworks, get impatient anyway watching them and argue with themselves and each other whether it makes sense to leave before their climax with Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.”

Cambridge for the win. We’re not less patriotic; we’re just allowed to be a little more practical about it. Karmically, it’s payback for Winthrop’s real estate decision 380 years ago.

Several years ago friends flew in an au pair on the Fourth. Almost immediately after experiencing Logan International Airport this waifish French girl was wedged among hundreds of thousands of spectators along a darkened Memorial Drive, obliged to watch things explode overhead for 20 minutes and wrenched quickly away on a forced march back home. Along the way she got to see two large Somerville girls in a no-holds-barred physical fight and screaming match. (Somerville girls are tough, and some cultivate a townie-pride accent as gentle as chain saws dismantling an old tank.)

Karmically, the au pair must have been bewildered, thinking: This is what the French get for helping the Colonies win independence 200-plus years ago?

Yes, but for free.