Not Just for the Fourth Anymore
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
For New York, fireworks aren’t just for the Fourth of July anymore.
While pyrotechnics are often associated with Independence Day, the city, following the 2003 death of the unofficial fireworks commissioner, George Plimpton, has been approving dozens of requests for fireworks displays throughout the year. Sponsors range from the retailer Target to Princess Cruises to the president of the Bronx.
The displays – each approved by the New York Fire Department’s Explosive Unit – often cause nighttime noise that has set some residents to complaining.
Detective Frank Bogucki, community affairs officer for the 17th precinct, which serves Manhattan’s Turtle Bay and Sutton Place among other communities, said that he gets a handful of complaints from residents who get startled after each fireworks show that “comes over our heads” from the East River. He added that the residents don’t like it because they think it’s something more serious.
“In these days, what we’re dealing with every day,” said Detective Bogucki, referring to the heightened worries of New Yorkers post-September 11, 2001, “it’s kind of concerning.”
A volunteer at the Turtle Bay Association, Olga Hoffman, said that the terrorist attacks of September 11 changed her attitude toward surprise fireworks displays. “Before it didn’t bother me,” she said. “After 9/11, it did.”
One recent event in particular disturbed residents of Brooklyn Heights, which is adjacent to New York Harbor, where many fireworks shows take place during the year. On Sunday, June 10, Target sponsored a full day of programming called Children’s Day and Fireworks at the South Street Seaport culminating in a show that began at 9:30 p.m. The event’s Web site billed it as “The Spectacular Target Fireworks!”
“It shook up the neighborhood,”said the executive assistant at the Brooklyn Heights Association, Irene Janner. “It was so loud. It scared everyone’s dogs and cats – sounded like we were under attack.”
A spokeswoman for Target, Lena Michaud, said that the event was well publicized, and that the fireworks lasted only 20 minutes. She added that she had not heard of any complaints. Repeated calls to Zambelli Fireworks Internationale, which produced the fireworks for the event, were not returned.
The executive director of the Brooklyn Heights Association, Judy Stanton, said that people she met on the street complained to her about the Children’s Day fireworks sponsored by Target.
A spokesman for the city’s Department of Information and Technology said that last year the 311 hotline fielded a total of 11 complaints of noise from permitted fireworks shows,and seven so far this year.
The permitted fireworks displays sponsored by businesses and government are taking place in the context of a police crackdown on individual purchases of illegal consumer fireworks, or firecrackers. The police department’s deputy commissioner for information, Paul Browne, said earlier this month that police had arrested 147 people so far this year in fireworks-related cases, and have seized 1,321 cases of fireworks and 43 vehicles.
A producer for Fireworks for Grucci, which does about 20 shows in New York City each year, M. Philip Butler, said that there has not been much of a slowdown of business since September 11, 2001. He said that even though there was a decline in shows in 2003 (although not in 2002 because corporate sponsors had already included those shows in their budget from the year before), they’ve since experienced a “great comeback.” “We have fireworks shows now in New York Harbor without any hesitation,” he said.
Mr. Butler classified his company as “neighborhood friendly,” and said they don’t use noise-making salutes – “the workhorse of the grand finale” of any fireworks show – except on the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve. He added that the Zambelli people “do not hold down the noise.”
The fire department says it notifies all the surrounding community boards before each event. But some people still don’t find out in advance. “The main problem for me is that there is no notification anywhere that these things are going on,” said Ms. Hoffmann of the Turtle Bay Association. “You get street fair notifications; the weatherman even tells you it might thunder and lightning.”
Some individuals, however, get personal warnings. Marta Marrero, the catering sales manager for Aramark, which is the official concessionaire for all events at Ellis Island, said that once a “sweet lady” from Jersey City, Denise Givens, complained about the fireworks from one of its shows. “Her dog reacts overwhelmingly” to the fireworks, Ms. Marrero said. So now, before each of the approximately 10 fireworks shows a year on Ellis Island, Ms. Marrero will give Ms. Givens a courtesy call to warn her.
The fire department does impose restrictions on the noise from fireworks. According to these rules, after 9:30 p.m., no one may use salutes or reports, devices that cause the biggest bangs during shows. All permitted shows in New York City must be accompanied by one or more fire department inspectors who oversee all the operations by the fireworks company from the moment they unload their fireworks until the show finishes. The price for one inspector is $210 an hour.
A spokesman for the fire department said that the Target show was not cited for any violations.
The decibel level of fireworks shells, including salutes and reports, exploding in air is typically in the range of 88 to 126 for a spectator standing 800 feet away from the explosions, according to a scientist and vice chairman of the International Symposium on Fireworks Society, Roger L.Schneider. The decibel level of a shell’s initial launch is typically in the range of 70 to 94 for the spectator 500 feet away. As a point of reference, a plane’s jet engine can produce a sound level of 140 decibels at 100 feet, and the threshold of pain is 120 decibels.
Plimpton was appointed fireworks commissioner by Mayor Lindsey. “I am supposed to resign each time there is a change of administration, but I don’t,” Plimpton said in an interview in the defunct Canadian literary journal Pagitica. The fireworks commissioner post has been vacant since Plimpton’s death in 2003.
Plimpton’s successor as editor of the Paris Review, Philip Gourevitch, said that for all he knows the title of fireworks commissioner belongs to Plimpton “for all eternity.” Last year, a New York Sun editorial recommended Mr. Gourevitch for the position. “I’m not sure that I’m qualified,” Mr. Gourevitch said recently. ‘I like explosions plenty. But I’ve never been involved in shaping, forming, or making them.”