Remembering The Bicentennial: July 4, 1976

A reader from Pennsylvania has sent us the following story:

Celebrating the Bicentennial–July 4th, 1976

The 200th anniversary of our nation–July 4th, 1976–had finally arrived.  It was early morning and New York City, known to residents as ‘The City,’ as if no other existed, was eerily quiet as the sun rose on a hot summer day.  Among the festivities planned for the Bicentennial was a procession of sailing ships–referred to as the “Tall Ships,”–on the Hudson River.  Would the actual event, the procession moving north along the Hudson River, live up to the hype that had been building for months?  I had to see for myself; I had to be part of an historic event.

Italian Ship Amerigo Vespucci, New York Harbor July 4, 1976 — NOAA Photo

Having taken the subway from Brooklyn into lower Manhattan before most people had even gotten up, I found a prime spot with a view across the harbor where I would be able to get a look at the ships as they first entered the river.  Standing along the actual shoreline, view unencumbered, I ate my NY-style breakfast, a bagel with cream cheese and a cup of coffee.

The City was waking and the people and visitors came slowly, but steadily, onto the shoreline and along other spots that provided a direct view.

And then, the ships came, one by one, for what seemed like a couple of hours.  Some of the ships were escorted upriver by an unofficial flotilla of pleasure craft of all sizes and shapes. There was a great festive atmosphere, with people cheering, laughing, gesturing, and just smiling as this procession passed our vantage point.  There was a sweet, almost naïve, bond amongst the people who had taken up positions beside me.   It was a magnificent event that captured the country’s attention and certainly outdid my expectations.  Glad I was there.

A Reader From New York Has Sent Us This Story:

New York Comes Back: July 4, 1976

I was at the Tall Ships Parade too! It really was a grand spectacle. I think of that day as marking the point that New York City started to come back from the dead. It had been such a mess for so long. I was a student in the City at the time, and New York had so many problems.

The City had defaulted on its bonds and was deeply in debt. Businesses and the middle class had abandoned the city for the suburbs, crime was rampant, city services had been slashed. The streets were dirty, garbage went uncollected, drug addicts and criminals owned the parks, homeless people camped openly on the sidewalks in front of vacant stores in the East Village, and on and on. It really was a very tough environment in which to live.

A relentless publicity campaign began months before the 4th. This was to be the largest gathering of sailing ships in New York Harbor since the 1800s. Ships were coming from all over the world, many of them historic vessels. New Yorkers were skeptical that the Tall Ships parade would come off without yet another disaster.

I was skeptical too, but on the morning of July 4th I woke up early and decided to go. There was an abandoned pier at Christopher Street that the Village community used as an unofficial park where I thought I might be able to get a good view of the Hudson River, and if the pier was too crowded, there were a couple of other spots close by where old warehouses had been torn down, leaving a clear view of the water.

At that time the Hudson river waterfront from the Battery to 42nd Street was lined with rotting piers and abandoned warehouses where no ship had called since the end of World War II, and it was cut off from the rest of Manhattan by the rusting hulk of the closed West Side Highway. Let’s just say it was not a user-friendly area. I remember that it was very early, and already very hot as I dragged my unwilling boyfriend through the nearly-deserted Greenwich Village streets toward the waterfront.

We picked a spot in a rubble-strewn waterfront lot where a warehouse had been demolished, and waited. The place was nearly deserted when we arrived, but slowly, the people began to trickle to the waterfront. The early arrivals all seemed to be seasoned city dwellers like my boyfriend and me. They kept their distance, didn’t make eye contact, didn’t smile. Like us, they appeared to be anticipating the worst. But as more and more people found their way to the water, the mood began to lighten. People showed up carrying little American flags and toting picnic coolers. Clearly tourists. Others came wearing foam Statue of Liberty crowns and carrying folding chairs with snap-on umbrellas. More tourists. Another group lit a barbeque grill, and despite the early hour, put on several dozen hot dogs and opened a cooler full of beer, inviting everyone nearby to help themselves. Very clearly tourists. But they were all so happy, and the mood was infectious. People who didn’t know each other began to talk, to joke, to laugh.

And then came the ships. Even from a distance, they were magnificent as they sailed up the Hudson, each accompanied by a small flotilla of pleasure boats. People in the crowd snapped pictures and shared binoculars. Everyone cheered as each new ship came into view. It really was a wonderful day. What I remember most, though, was the mellow, happy mood of the crowd in that rubble-strewn vacant lot.

When it was over, the positive mood seemed to continue. Everyone had been skeptical that the event would come off without a disaster, but it did, and made everyone feel really good and positive about the City for the first time in a long while. I think New York turned a corner on that day.

German Ship Gorch Fock, New York Harbor, July 4, 1976 — Maine Maritime Academy Photo

Were you at the Bicentennial Celebration?  We want to hear from you!  Please send your story, comment, or photo to us by e-mail at sitemanager@americansremember.com