Thousands of Americans flocked to the nation’s capital on Sunday, welcoming under fireworks-lit skies the city seeking an Independence Day that resembled at least some version of a normal holiday.
As the pandemonium finally abates, the day began with masked actors in George and Martha Washington costumes greeting unmasked tourists on Constitution Avenue, and ended on the crowded National Mall with rockets of red lights over cheering citizens, who are no longer required to stand six feet apart – as the Fourth of July in Washington is supposed to be. In between, children waved flags in parades, partygoers drank bottles of light beer, immigrants became citizens in Mount Vernon, and one man got on his knee in front of a marble statue of Abraham Lincoln to ask his girlfriend to marry him.
“We feel it,” said Jeff Litten. “The city is waking up.”
He was one of about 10 congressional and National Institutes of Health staffers who planted four American flags on the ground near the Washington Monument, where they decided to throw a “fathers’ party”: Hawaiian shirts, cornballs, a portable mini grill.
During the pandemic they kept in touch through Zoom and were happy to finally celebrate something together, in person, along with thousands of other campers.
Perhaps there was no more emblematic sign that Washington was becoming increasingly commonplace than the opening at 6.30am of the long-closed square in front of America’s most important home.
“Mum, is that the White House?” – said 10-year-old Zoe Gaines, turning to her mother Sarah. “Oh my God!”
Zoe – and the hundreds of other people crowded along the new high black fence around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – were able to get a closer look at the executive mansion than any member of the public in the past year.
“Come over to the fence so I can take your picture,” Sarah said, inviting her 11-year-old son Jalen and 8-year-old daughter Samia to join Zoe in front of the White House.
Her children couldn’t believe how big he was.
“How many bathrooms are there?” – Samia asked.
Zoe, sitting on the ledge of the base of the fence, wiggling one leg, answered confidently, “Um, exactly 35.”
According to Gaines, the family didn’t come from New Jersey to the county because of who now lives behind the fence, but because she and her children finally felt safe – and what better way to celebrate America’s birthday than in its capital city?
Late one morning, Karlan Jankowski was cycling to the archives with two friends, all wearing tricot hats. They stopped to add their name to a reprinted Declaration of Independence.
All three had just arrived from the Barracks Row parade on Capitol Hill and planned to ride their bikes later to Lady Bird Johnson Park, where they usually watch the fireworks.
Jankowski usually stays in Washington for the Fourth, but for the first time since 2017, Dennis and Lindsay Guccciardo joined her. Their disdain for the man in the White House has kept them away, but this year’s celebration, Dennis hopes, will return to what it “should be”.
“The focus is on celebrating America’s independence, not on one…,” he began.
“- a man,” Lindsay finished.
But it was that man, Donald Trump, who made the celebratory visit special for the Gulino family, who stopped outside the Trump International Hotel, owned by the former president, to take pictures of the golden letters adorning the front of the building.
“We just think it’s great to see his name,” said Tom Gulino. He, his wife and two teenage sons flew more than 700 miles from Plainfield, Illinois, to meet their 24-year-old son, a Marine who came from North Carolina, where he serves.
They had already visited many of the area’s most famous tourist spots, including Ford’s Theatre, the Supreme Court and Arlington National Cemetery. The Trump International Hotel was a must-see for the family, although its exact location was a bit of a surprise.
“It’s kind of ironic,” Gulino remarked, “it’s across the street from the IRS building.
They weren’t the only Trump supporters celebrating. Outside the White House, Mamadou Sako, a Central African immigrant wearing a “Team Trump” cowboy hat and all-red boots with “TRUMP” printed on them, lamented the ouster of his beloved leader, but was still happy to see D.C. looking the way it should.
“To open it all up and see so many faces is just a joy,” said Sako, who moved from Gabon to the district in 1987 and now works as a chef.
About the same time, three miles to the west, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) strolled down MacArthur NW Boulevard, enjoying the crowd that lined nearly 10 blocks along the parade route in the Palisades. Her daughter Miranda, in a striped dress and a blue bow in her curly hair, sat on Bowser’s hip while the mayor tossed green stress balls – “We are Washington,” the sign read – into the crowd, desperate for relief.
“Happy fourth!” – she shouted between hugs and cheers from the audience.
For eight-year-old Carter Goldberg and his family – four generations spread out on the grass near the Washington Monument – this Fourth was the happiest they could remember.
In May, the boy was admitted to the intensive care unit in Pittsburgh with a severe case of covid-19 and, as a consequence, a multisystem inflammatory syndrome known as MIS-C.
According to his family, he spent more than two weeks in hospital as his blood pressure plummeted.
“We almost lost him,” said Diane Stumpf, 71, Carter’s great-grandmother.
Even after his release, he was in so much pain and gained so much weight because of steroids that he struggled to finish the school year. His legs still hurt and he gets tired easily, his family says, though it was hard to tell when he was chasing a bird on Sunday afternoon.
“I was so far from catching it!” – he retorted, putting on his red, white and blue cap. “So far!”
He then began to list their recent itinerary. They had been to the Washington Monument and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, he said, pointing to each of them. They also ate ice cream.
Listening, Stumpf realized how amazing it was that they were here after what Carter had experienced.
“After all this, it just feels like freedom,” said Diane.
The country’s 245th birthday follows a pair of holidays the likes of which have not been seen in modern US history, and in its capital the wait for a dose of the usual patriotic cheer has been particularly long.
In 2019, Trump appropriated the holiday by calling it “Salute to America”. In a ceremony that bore little resemblance to those staged by authoritarian regimes, Coast Guard helicopters, an Air Force B-2 stealth bomber and Navy Blue Angels flew overhead before the president addressed a select group of VIP supporters in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
Equally unusual was the celebration in 2020. With the pandemic still raging and just weeks after violent protests over the death of George Floyd, visitor numbers in Washington dropped dramatically, with just one-tenth as many people taking the metro as the year before.
In Black Lives Matter Square, flags were burnt and stomped on. Elsewhere, Trump supporters got into scuffles with protesters. The president ignited these divisions in a speech from the South Lawn of the White House, saying he would soon defeat the “radical left”.
Now, almost exactly six months after Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol to prevent Congress from certifying his electoral defeat, his successor, President Biden, sought to return the Fourth of July to its bipartisan tradition by hosting 1000 military and first responders at the White House’s “America Together Again” celebration.
“Across the country today,” he told the crowd, “we can say with confidence: America is back together.
Much of the mall and beyond has begun to look like it did before the pandemic, before the protests, before the resurgence. The plywood on the buildings downtown was gone, and battalions of sweaty, disinterested high school students were back. The melodic, sometimes mind-blowing soundtrack of Constitution Avenue – the clinking of ice-cream vans – is back, as are the Big Bus Tours buses whizzing past them half-full. The Smithsonian museums have reopened, and Segway Tours pass office workers eating lunch on benches in the park in Lafayette Square, opposite the White House.
But even when the office workers and tourists return, Washington will not be entirely what it used to be, perhaps never. Physical reminders of the city’s long period of chaos remain.
In Lafayette Square, the public toilet that protesters set on fire last summer has yet to be rebuilt. Its walls are charred and the building itself is enclosed behind a chain-link fence, like a museum piece on display to the curious or bewildered passers-by.
Across the road are the now-legendary giant yellow letters that read “BLACK LIFE MATTER”. – A permanent reminder of what thousands of activists took to the streets for.
And less than two miles away, just behind the Peace Monument, a black metal fence still guards the Capitol. “The area is closed,” the red-lettered signs read, the result of an attack on American democracy that, among other things, led to the annual Capitol Fourth concert being pre-recorded and televised.
On Sunday afternoon, perched on the steps of a nearby reflecting pool, Alexander Foley set up a small easel and an 8.5 by 11-inch canvas. He sprayed a protective agent on it and used the plastic packaging of the canvas as a palette.
With a thin brush, the Baltimore-based artist blended blue and red stains. Sitting down on a chair on the lawn under an umbrella, Foley re-imagined the building in front of him – without the fence. He wanted his canvas to reflect the normality and liveliness of his favourite holiday.
“I see fences as a cage in people’s homes,” said Foley, who was joined by his poodle rescuer Amadeus. He came to Washington with a stack of canvases to depict the capital not as it is, but as it used to be – and as he hopes it will soon become again.
For Nicolas Picard on Sunday, none of the recent turmoil in Washington or around the country mattered much. When he woke up, he felt anxious and nervous at the same time. The night before he had picked out his red chinos-style trousers, but he had had to go into a friend’s house to iron his blue striped button-down shirt because it was wrinkled.
By mid-morning, Picard reached a field overlooking the Potomac River in Mount Vernon, where the Frenchman joined 38 other immigrants – from Lebanon to Liberia, from Mauritania to Moldova – who were about to become US citizens.
Picard, 32, had lived in the US for two decades before returning in 2011 to attend graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University. He began the citizenship process almost at the same time as the pandemic swept the country. He watched the fierce racial confrontation and the presidential election that soon followed. According to him, it was a difficult period.
“There were a lot of feelings,” Picard recalled. “How do I understand the system of government, the protests and the civic activism going on around me when I become a citizen and claim my patriotism?”
On Sunday, he stood during the national anthem and took the oath of office, and when the ceremony ended and the audience cheered and applauded, the woman in front of him started crying.
Picard understood why. America is deeply flawed, he knew, but now it is his home and he has a voice, a chance to help make it better.