It Takes a Village: The Greenwich Village Halloween Parade
In New York City you can indulge your fantasies on a daily basis. Stroll up Fifth Avenue peering in the plate glass windows like Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's; spike your hair and blend in among the neo-neo punks of St. Mark's Place; let out your inner wild child and dance with abandon at any number of downtown dance clubs that cater to light stick carrying kids of all ages. Every day can be a chance for the brave to express themselves in the city that most likely has seen it all. However, one day stands out for those of us who need a little extra motivation to express ourselves so freely, Halloween.
Once a pagan holiday symbolizing the passing of summer into fall and winter, many of us remember it fondly from childhood as the one night a year we would head out into our neighborhoods, plastic masks tied on with elastics that inevitably broke before night's end, demanding candy from all our neighbors. As adults, Halloween can be an occasion to step outside our ordinary lives and personas and into the night as something entirely different. There is perhaps no greater mass expression of that very spirit of Halloween than the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade in New York City.
Now in its 36th year, the Parade was originated in 1973 by Ralph Lee, an artist, puppet maker and resident of the Village, and began humbly enough as a children's Halloween puppet show and stroll through the neighborhood. Today according to the parade's official website it is the largest Halloween celebration in the world including over two million participants and spectators. Although it has grown exponentially in size, the parade has stayed true to its roots within the New York City theatre community with one of the most unique features being the extravagant puppets that reflect the artisan handiwork of their makers.
Professional puppeteers along with volunteers craft these larger than life creations in large workshops outside the City months before Halloween. The puppets along with the thousands of extravagantly and innovatively costumed participants exemplify the imagination, artistry and creativity behind the parade. An inclusive affair, the parade's mission statement refers to the belief that expression and performance can have transformative powers, for both the performers and those who watch them.
Unlike other large-scale New York City parades like the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and the St. Patrick's Day Parade, which originate uptown and march with organized precision along their daytime routes; the Village Halloween parade is a more organic creature. Anyone is welcome to participate as long as they join the lineup at the starting point with no pre-registration, group affiliation or special skills necessary. As the parade makes its evening procession up 6th Avenue to 21st Street, it does so with the feel of a communal and joyous celebration where the line between participant and spectator is oftentimes blurred.
The parade route begins in the Village at Spring Street, in a part of the city where the streets start to feel more compressed and the uniform grid-like layout of mid/uptown falls away into a confused jumble of crooked roads and narrow pathways. This staunch nonconformity of Village streets to city planning is just one expression of the bohemian spirit of the area and suits the street performers, puppet masters, spectators, exhibitionists and more who come out Halloween night to share their own artistic and bohemian spirit with the world.
Parade director Jeanne Fleming describes Terra Incognita (Unknown World), the theme for this year's parade, on the parade's official web site, "Terra Incognita reminds us that we have faced the unknown before, and that just beyond the Dragons, always lie possibilities." This theme takes the usual Halloween practice of transforming oneself into an otherworldly creature or showcasing a hidden or taboo side and applies it even more poignantly to the large scale changes our city, our country and our world have undergone in the past year. At a time when the economic crash has turned rich men into poor men, poor men into paupers and national and international chaos seems to be brewing around every headline, the power of transformation is being keenly felt by many.
In the face of the unknown, many are reevaluating career choices, life goals and ambitions and as a nation and world trying to find new ways to chart rough waters. Superior Concept Monsters, the puppet makers for this year's parade will bring that theme to life with a virtual sea of change floating up the avenue as described on the parade's website. The parade has been there as a rallying point for New York City and the world during times of crisis and devastation before, 9/11 and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are two somber examples. Now, in 2009, the parade will hopefully remind us at the twilight of what has been a very dark year for some that change and transformation are not only inevitable, but can be positive and hopeful as well.
The unknown world that is looming before us is our own futures in these uncertain times and our ability to transform and change with the times will likely predict our success. New York City is still a place to live out your fantasies; the fantasies may just take on a different shape and form these days. The Greenwich Village Halloween Parade is a celebration of the artistic, erotic, exotic and innovative individual choices and possibilities in the face of such large-scale change. It offers us a reminder of the small amidst the big; the personal and unique amid the commercial and commonplace; the village within the city.
About the author
Jessica Horani has lived in NYC off and on for over ten years since first coming to Manhattan as a 21-year-old law student. After a slightly traumatic address mix up in Greenwich Village on her first night, she fell in love with the City over a slice of pizza and the sparkling January night air. The love affair never ended and after a period of working for the Public Defender's office in Miami, she has returned to live in Brooklyn and pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a writer. The roaring New York of her twenties remains a fond and sometimes bittersweet memory, like an old lover,but there is another New York; one of serene beauty, historical importance and vibrant diversity that she is discovering anew every day. She hopes to share her love for New York City, both new and old, and the personal journeys it can take you on with the visitors to NYCfoto.com.
Jessica Horani is an Editor-at-Large of NYCfoto.com