Almost Two Million People Attend The Annual West Indian Day Parade And Here's Why
Every year on the first Monday of September, a massive party takes place in New York City, and everyone's invited. While some Americans prefer to kick back, recharge their batteries and let Labor Day pass them by in a haze of chicken wings, awkward family obligations and awful TV, the summer is brought to its end in a far more explosive fashion up in Crown Heights. So, how do you locate this event? If you happen to spot technicolour floats and hot pink feathered costumes floating in a sea of powdered paint, you'll know you're on the right track to find the whereabouts of the annual West Indian Day Parade.
What is the parade?
The West Indian Day Parade is an infectiously fun event that toasts Caribbean culture, art, history and traditions. Each year the streets of the Big Apple close and crowds line up to welcome costumed dancers, musicians and revellers. Caribbean islands represented in the parade include Trinidad and Tobago, Haiti, Barbados, Dominica, Saint Lucia, Jamaica, Saint Vincent, with many others included.
The history of the parade
Although it seems ridiculous to imagine nowadays, the parade, which is just one part of a Carnival that celebrates Caribbean culture, started in a ballroom in the 1930s. Jessie Wardell and some of her West Indian friends began the whole event by staging costume parties in large enclosed places including the Savoy, Renaissance and Audubon Ballrooms. In the early days, it was celebrated as the last opportunity for the release of all emotions, before the beginning of the 40 penitential days of Lent. The original celebration was held in February, but the cold wintry atmosphere and indoor confinement was not to last for long.
The earliest known Carnival street activity was held in 1947 when Wardell, with help from the Trinidad Carnival Pageant Committee, secured the first street permit for a parade event on the streets of Harlem. The event was a great success and continued to get bigger with each year that went by. These days, the event is organised by the West Indian American Day Carnival Association (WIADCA). In the beginning, the carnival brought in thousands, but now the number is in the millions.
The dark side of Brooklyn's favourite event
These days, the carnival has moved to Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. Like many big events the carnival has been plagued by a string of crime and violence, with several tragic incidents - including both fatal and non-fatal shootings and stabbings - taking place since 2003. However, the New York Police have strived to make it clear that the annual West Indian Day Parade is a place for celebration, not brutality.
After the leaders of J’Ouvert City International, a community group that has organised the event since the nineteen-eighties, and the West Indian American Day Carnival Association, which oversees the parade itself, had a closed-door meeting with Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams, the N.Y.P.D., and city council members, they announced the creation of a task force that would address violence not just at the carnival, not at all big city events in general.
After police distributed fliers reading: "This community will no longer tolerate this violence. Do not shoot anyone. Do not stab anyone," Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams dismissed the prospect of the cancellation of the event, telling new outlets: "We don’t stop celebrating the Fourth of July because some crazy breaks out a gun."
What can I expect to see at this year's parade?
On September 4, 2017 the pre-parade parties will begin before dawn with J’ouvert (which means daybreak in French), an irreverent festival held before the event. But there's no time for fatigue as the most exciting part of the day begins with the parade at 11am. Prepare yourself to dance to steel-pan and calypso bands on the side of the streets and marvel at the elaborate costumes that you would find it hard to find anywhere else.
But the parade is not just something to look at, it is an event to throw yourself into headfirst. Although you'd find it hard to rival the impressive ensembles marching in front of you; partygoers are prone to dressing up as political figures or celebrities so make sure you join in and bring your A-game! The parade is a time to lose any bashfulness and prance about in the street, indulging in powdered paint fights, frantically waving Caribbean flags and making new friends.
If you'd thinking seven hours sounds extreme, don't worry yourself. There are vendors all around selling homestyle island grub and drinks so in true Caribbean style, you won't ever go hungry.
So, have I managed to sway you from your Labor Day film and chicken wings marathon into attending the West Indian Day Parade instead? Seriously, give me one good reason not to come. Can't think of one? Thought so.