Once a year, the Ohio River becomes a living room. Every Labor Day Eve for almost four decades running, a Cincinnati radio station has organized one of the largest and most elaborate fireworks displays in the country. What sets this spectacle apart, other than that it is so large for such a relatively small urban area, is that it takes place not over a vast undefined area such as New York's harbor or Lake Michigan, but over the small strip of water that separates Ohio from Kentucky. For five hours every year, four of the five bridges across and all the surface street near the water close to traffic while hundreds of thousands of people lie on blankets and sit on concrete steps, balconies, or lawn chairs on the river banks—even lounge on boats moored in the temporary lagoon—to watch half an hour of explosions.
Started in 1977 by then-flailing radio station WEBN as a publicity stunt, the event has turned into a community affair, endorsed by the local authorities and featured in all the media outlets. Streets close three hours before the event, meaning that the whole area around the river becomes a pedestrian zone filled with parties and picnics (though without booze). An hour before the start, the sort of barges that plow the Ohio every day arrives, filled with fireworks, to much applause. Ten minutes before the event come the obligatory "crowd wars," as the WEBN DJ tries to whip the masses on the opposite banks into a frenzy (it never works that well). Then the explosions start.
I am a sucker for fireworks. Just standing there watching the expanding array of colors, the tracery of light, and the showers of sparks, turns me into a little kid oohing and aahing. The effects' scale matches that of the river and the skyline, blossoming and dripping forms at a vast scale all over the night sky. It seems as if the very skyscrapers turn and arc backward to view this momentary magnificence.
The show unfolds according to WEBN's soundtrack, which you can hear from countless radios, boom boxes and sound systems. We watched the affair from our friend's balcony, five stories over the Kentucky esplanade, where speakers surrounded us with the sound. It is a heavy rock concert that has a different theme every year. This year, in which WEBN's corporate parent Clear Channel took control of the event and imported an outside DJ, was hokey and uninspiring. What do zombies have to do with fireworks, no matter how many blockbusters and TV series have that theme? The images, however, were more beautiful than ever.
What was even better was the way in which the event transformed the city. Many of my friends stayed away, complaining of the traffic and the hassles of the crowd. I think they missed the chance to, at least once a year, be part of a truly urban experience. It is one that crosses not just state, but class and race lines, which is itself a rarity in the Cincinnati area. Once a year, our cell phones as well as our eyes and ears all turn to one place. Once a year, we gather around one space that is truly public in a manner that is social. Once a year, we all become young and innocent again, watching something beautiful unfold over us.
Top image courtesy a Creative Commons license with Flickr user Mark Dumont.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.