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Zaleski: Small towns do the 4th better than cities

Small towns do the Fourth of July better than big cities. What once was a straightforward celebration of the 1776 declaration by the American colonies of independence from Great Britain has morphed into extravagant mega-events that come off as opulent urban competitions. Small towns can't afford such wastes of public resources, and usually opt for something simpler, yet more meaningful. Cities used to do it that way.

I grew up in the 1950s in a city I believed was small. New Britain, Ct., had a population of about 80,000 (since shrunk). When compared to nearby Hartford or Bridgeport with populations in six figures, New Britain was small. But it was more than numbers.

The post-World War II years saw a resurgence of community cohesiveness that was spurred by returning veterans. Every family I knew had been touched by the war—some tragically, some heroically, all profoundly. Veterans craved normalcy. They created a version of the American dream that remains the ideal. Perceived assaults on the ideal have roiled the nation's psyche and poisoned its politics ever since.

The Fourth of July was vital to the ideal. New Britain's Walnut Hill Park was the best and biggest of the city's parks. On the Fourth, the bandshell at the foot a of grassy slope rang with music from an orchestra that featured veterans who had played in the service. My dad and uncles came to the park with their families for the festivities and to renew bonds that had been forged in war.

They knew each other. They had survived. They remembered men—friends they'd grown up with—who did not. I learned the meaning of gold stars in windows of the houses on my little street. Of the 60 or so, at least 25 were homes of Gold Star Mothers, moms who had lost sons in war. No neighborhood was without gold stars.

The trauma of war was communicated without bravado or braggadocio at those Independence Day programs. It wasn't facile red hat patriotism. It wasn't talk radio's toxic perversion of "Americanism." The men in the park knew what war was. Their kids, like me, came to understand what they did, how they did it, and why most of them were modest about it. Their quiet patriotism had been steeled by war. Faith in the nation—in the democratic values that are the foundation of the republic—would define the rest of their lives.

Years after those celebrations in the park, sons would clash with their World War II dads over the Vietnam fiasco. The generation gap would widen as never before. In some ways, the gap still fouls the national discourse.

But for a short time, the Fourth of July, especially in small cities and towns, was a genuine celebration of community that was anchored in common experiences and shared values. We knew why we were were there. We did not need the distraction of a sky filled with fireworks—a meaningless display lighting up the faces of today's faux patriots, who won't even talk to each other.

Zaleski retired in 2107 after 30 years as The Forum’s editorial page editor. He continues to write a Sunday column. Contact him at or (701) 241-5521.