Diverse concert at Mall, parades and picnics mark Fourth of July

By Chris L. Jenkins and Stephanie Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 5, 2010; B01

A rollicking party on the Mall celebrated America's 234th birthday Sunday with folklore and Frisbees, soccer games, Christian rock and a star-studded concert, punctuating the nation's diversity with verve in a multicultural mosaic.

Unlike in recent years, when Independence Day crowds dodged raindrops, blue skies gave way to a crystal-clear evening as people gathered at picnics and parades, munched on ethnic dishes on the Mall and lined up along the banks of the Potomac River to view the capital's pyrotechnic extravaganza.

For some, the day was the perfect culmination of Americana, past and present.

"This is our country's picnic, Main Street parade, jam session and sports day all rolled into one," said Chauncey Johnson, who, with his wife, Tammy, had driven to the District from suburban Philadelphia. As he waited in line to enter the festivities at the east end of the Mall, headlined by Gladys Knight and the Pips, he added: "Look at it. . . . It's every slice of American life right here."

Blocks away at the White House, President Obama celebrated the holiday -- which also marked his daughter Malia's 12th birthday -- with a South Lawn picnic of hamburgers, hot dogs and watermelon pops. Many of the more than 1,000 guests were members of the military.

On the Mall, festivities began in the late morning as crowds transformed the green expanse into a marketplace. Couples lay on blankets in the shade.

At every turn, the day bespoke the Fourth of July. There were the sights: red coolers, white sun hats and blue beach towels. And the sounds: the thump and bass of high school marching bands, the calls from Hare Krishna floats and the rhythms of mariachi bands.

There was no official estimate of the huge crowd. U.S. Park Police, who no longer estimate the size of Mall gatherings, had anticipated that a half-million people would attend the festivities, which included the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Park Police detailed hundreds of officers and rangers to control crowds and confiscate alcohol.

Although the mercury soared into the 90s, many said a subtle afternoon breeze helped keep the day from being a scorcher.

"Shoot, I remember, was it 2003? 2004? You could barely move it was so bad out here," said Janice Torrance of Capitol Heights as she sat on a towel with her sons, Nile and London.

Still, many found innovative ways to cool off. Teresa Cho and her three children soaked their feet in a small ice chest after walking the length of the Mall.

"Didn't expect to do this, but desperate times . . . " Cho said.

Thousands poured into the Mall's museums for the exhibits as well as the air conditioning.

"I've been in this museum I can't tell you how many times, but right now, the cold marble is all I care about," said Robert Tolbert, 45, who stood in line at the National Air and Space Museum with his wife, Vicky, and their three children. The former Washingtonians, who live in northern Michigan, said they didn't miss their District summers -- except for the July Fourth festivities.

"Just how I remember it. It's very comforting, actually," said Vicky Tolbert, 44. With "all the things the country has gone through, and is going through, it's nice to have this be something that remains consistent."

The region's festivities began with another tradition: politicians seeking votes. At the annual parade in the Northwest Washington neighborhood of Palisades, the lineup was dominated by elected officials, many of them running in coming contests.

As the politicians marched along MacArthur Boulevard, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and his supporters threw Mardi Gras-type beads and stickers into the crowd. Fenty and his backers were followed by supporters of D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), his main rival in his reelection bid; council members Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Phil Mendelson (D-At Large); and others.

"The ratio of politicians to everything else is too high," said Beatrice Meyerson, a longtime resident. "It's more fun to watch bands and kids."

Back at the Mall, the musical entertainment and fireworks were big crowd-pleasers.

Actually, to Mary Brandenburg of Northern Virginia, the pyrotechnics were "a little hard on the ears." But her 7-year-old granddaughter, Emma Wickett, proclaimed the show "awesome."

It was the first Independence Day trip to the Mall for Amelia Torrez, 37, of Stockton, Calif. An immigrant from Colombia, she has lived in the United States for nearly seven years and became a citizen late last year.

Torrez said she promised herself she would make the trip to Washington after becoming a citizen because she went through the immigration process and wanted to treat herself to a celebration.

"This is what you dream of, being a part of this kind of celebration," she said. "It's nice to take part in what's typically American."

Staff writers Anne E. Kornblut, Naomi Nix and Martin Weil contributed to this report.

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