The usual sounds of summer in Philadelphia — kids splashing in public pools, diners crowding into bars and restaurants, singers crooning at outdoor concerts — have been muted by the coronavirus pandemic and replaced by a steady nighttime beat: the rumble and pop of fireworks erupting in every corner of the city.
Fireworks have always been a part of the neighborhood racket this time of year, but the blasts are growing more powerful and more frequent, adding to the uneasiness that some people feel from the one-two punch of months of pandemic fears, and the emotional anguish and unrest that followed the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.
Between May 29 and June 29, Philadelphia police fielded 8,526 complaints about fireworks, according to data that the department shared with The Inquirer. It is an eye-popping number, one that means different things to different people.
Some argue that the disruptions are more than a mere nuisance for people needing sleep and those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and for residents who have pets or small children who are easily frightened.
Others shrug that fireworks are one of the few ways to have fun outdoors at a time when many pre-pandemic hobbies are still off-limits.
Patrol officers have ventured out on 947 calls about fireworks, city officials say.
Every police district in the city has been inundated with complaints about fireworks. The 22nd District, in North Philadelphia, has had 686 complaints and the highest rate per resident, while the Seventh District, in the Far Northeast, has recorded the fewest, with 80 complaints.
The deluge of complaints comes a year after Mayor Jim Kenney amended the city’s fire code so that it would mirror a 2017 state law that allowed residents to purchase and detonate “consumer-grade” fireworks, including Roman candles and bottle rockets. (The city is unable to ban the sale of fireworks.)
In a handful of recent tweets, Kenney emphasized that fireworks can’t be fired within 150 feet of occupied structures — which would seemingly rule out any being set off on narrow city streets — and that M-class explosives, like M-80s and M-100s, are still illegal.
Perhaps Kenney’s Twitter account isn’t as widely read as he might have hoped.
Police have received a dozen complaints concerning Third and Christian Streets in Queen Village. Jonathan Dunsay, who lives nearby, said Tuesday that he called the police recently after noticing that someone was setting off fireworks that were climbing high enough in the air to clear the tops of houses nearby before exploding.
“Is it going to hit someone’s roof?” he asked. “That concerns me.”
Three miles away, at Fifth and Master Streets in North Philadelphia, Christine Dayse has a clear view from her front porch of the Cruz Recreation Center, which has been the source of 19 fireworks complaints.
“Firecrackers are not the problem, as long as they do it over there,” she said, gesturing toward the wide expanse of playground. “When they use bigger ones, like cannonballs, that’s what scares you.”
Dayse said the fireworks start some nights at 8 and can last until 2 a.m. She, too, worries about an errant firework landing on someone’s porch or roof, a scenario that’s reminiscent of a 2014 house fire in Southwest Philadelphia that claimed the lives of four children, and was rumored to have been started by a firecracker landing on a front-porch sofa. (Fire Department officials were unable to determine the cause.)
“We are always concerned about the safety of our residents, especially when it comes to fireworks,” said Kelly Cofrancisco, a city spokesperson. “High-explosive fireworks are incredibly dangerous and are still illegal in Philadelphia. Residents should remember to leave the fireworks to the professionals.”
For police, the ongoing complaints — which seem primed to increase over the Fourth of July weekend, which won’t feature city-organized fireworks this year — are a problem without an easy solution.
Setting off fireworks illegally is a summary offense, punishable with a fine up to $100. But one police commander noted that by the time patrol officers usually arrive at the scene of a complaint, whoever was setting off the fireworks has left.
There’s also a question of whether the department wants to be seen as using a heavy hand to address what amounts to a nuisance issue amid national calls for law enforcement reforms and weeks of protests about unjust policing.
Fire Department officials say there were just three documented instances of Philadelphians being injured by fireworks between May 21 and June 21. Firefighters responded to 18 “fireworks-related incidents” during that time, but none were structure fires.
Still, lawmakers are proposing legislation that would prohibit fireworks from being set off after 10 p.m., and pose stiffer financial penalties for violators.
That sort of chatter seems like overkill to people who view fireworks as a simple way to have some fun.
“We just love fireworks. That’s it. We would wish we could do it all year long,” said Don, a 50-year-old man who was lighting fireworks in the playground of Harrington School, on Baltimore Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia, on Monday night while a few children watched with delight.
Don — who, asked for his last name, answered, “I don’t do all that” — said that the move to legalize powerful fireworks had enabled him to indulge more this year than in the past.
He spent $700 on fireworks during a two-for-one sale that got him $1,400 worth of aerial fireworks that could be seen blocks away, as well as sparklers and noisy explosives he tossed along the cracked pavement.
It was the family’s fourth night enjoying the DIY show, and they had not been disturbed by police nor heard any complaints from neighbors.
“I don’t think nobody would say nothing to me anyway,” Don said. “I ain’t nobody to be played with.”
He lit another one. “Get back — this is a big one,” he warned, and scrambled away seconds before the next explosion.