Will the Parade Pass Us By?

During the worst recession in 80 years, with an unemployment rate inching up like holiday weight gain, you might think that whether the City of Philadelphia funds or doesn’t fund the St. Patrick’s Day parade is a non-issue. Petty. Paltry. Pale by comparison.

But not to parade director Michael Bradley. Nor to the thousands who plan their last Sunday before March 17 around the nation’s second oldest (starting in 1771, it has marched continuously every year) St. Paddy’s Day Parade. Traditions are by their very nature part of our history, allowing us to mark time or relive the past–a rare gift, which is what makes it so hard for us to let go of them.

So Bradley will be fighting City Hall again this year—not to have the city pick up the entire freight for the parade, but to give the Irish and all the other ethnic groups who march every year down the Parkway, Broad Street, or through a neighborhood, a break on the bill.

“We’re not out to get the city to cover 100 percent of everything,” says the Delware County businessman, who also runs the Irish Festival on Penn’s Landing in June. “Everyone should kick in. I proposed that the city provide $125,000 and the state another $125,000 and that will cover the expenses for all the ethnic parades. We need everyone to compromise. It can’t be us 100% and them zero.”

Bradley will be testifying next Tuesday before City Council which is holding hearings on the parade costs, which are higher than in most large cities. In Chicago, for example, the city not only allows parade organizers (the local plumbers union) to dye the Chicago River green, it only tags them with an $8,000 bill, says director Kevin Sherlock. The organizers make up the rest of the money they need—including $27,000 for “terrorist insurance”—at an annual fundraiser in January

“For $8,000 we get a lot,” says Sherlock, who is vice president of the Chicago Journeyman Plumbers Union Local 130. “I can’t complain. The street sweepers keep the streets spotlessly clean, the city supplies port-a-potties all over the place, they close the streets down for us, set up the staging area, all traffic is stopped. We get a tremendous amount of help and support from the city.”

Along with Michael Blichasz, co-host of the Pulaski Day March, Bradley formed a group called Ethnic Americans United which includes representatives from the Puerto Rican, Italian, German, Greek, and other ethnic communities whose parades might not get off the curb this year. Or ever again. As Blichasz said in a letter to Mayor Michael Nutter, “the unaffordable fees being charged this year threaten the parades’ continued existence.”

That was certainly true for the Columbus Day parade. It didn’t happen this year. Though the Mummer’s Parade is expected to march down Broad Street as usual, the city will be delivering organizers a bill too—one much larger than last year, when the last-minute announcement that the city wasn’t going to pick up the tab nearly caused the strutting to stop dead on Two Street. Last minute donations and fundraisers—and the gesture by the city to forgive $300,000 in costs because of the short notice– saved the Mummers’ parade. The city will not be so forgiving this year. Last year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade was also shortened to save thousands in police and sanitation bills, and shortfalls were made up by donations and 11th hour fundraisers.

Bradley has also asked for an accounting from the city on the fees they’re charging for items like portable rest rooms, police, and bleachers. “I looked at the sanitation fees and I felt they were fair,” says Bradley. “But I contacted the port-a-potty vendor and their price was half what the city is charging us. I’m also concerned about the security costs. The police are wonderful, but I can’t believe that some of them can’t be working straight time. They can’t all be on overtime.”

He pointed to the last year’s Phillies’ World Series parade which, he said, cost the city $1 million. “I was told they bring lots of money to the city,” he says, “but so do we. We hold all our meetings in Center City, put up out-of-town bands in the city, bring people into the city for the day where they spend money. I want some acknowledgement of that.”

Though some have suggested that the parade be moved out into the suburbs, Bradley doesn’t think it’s a good idea. Many suburban communities now have their own parades. And for 239 years—before the Declaration of Independence was signed–it’s been the Philadelphia St. Patrick’s Day Parade. “All of these ethnic parades celebrate city neighborhoods,” he argues. “We don’t want to see these traditions go by the wayside.”

What can you do? Write a letter to Mayor Nutter or the Philadelphia City Council in support of the efforts of Ethnic Americans United before next Tuesday’s City Council meeting.

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