Just before Jennifer Hudson took the stage to kick off Wawa Welcome America’s concert, Parks and Recreation worker Hakeem Muhammad, of North Philadelphia, was enjoying a quiet moment in a folding chair at the edge of Eakins Oval, sitting apart from a sea of people clad in red-white-and-blue apparel.
The 53-year-old’s shift: noon to 7 a.m. His responsibility: Make sure the Oval looks pristine by the time he leaves on Friday morning.
As far as Parkway events go, he expected this to be an easy cleanup — there were lots of trash cans. It’s nowhere near something like the Eagles parade, where they had to bring out leaf blowers to collect the trash.
“I love this event,” Muhammad said. “We get to have access to see the show, we make sure it stays clean — and, of course, it’s overtime.” There are about 30 Parks and Rec workers here, he said, plus Streets and Sanitation.
A crowd of about 200,000 was expected to pass through the Parkway over the course of 9½ hours, according to Welcome America CEO Michael DelBene. Pulling off a Fourth of July party of this scale — a multimillion-dollar event — requires thousands of workers laboring long hours over several days.
Crews working 18-hour shifts began setting up the Welcome America stage at Eakins Oval 10 days prior to the main event. “It grows in layers,” DelBene said. “It’s kind of like an onion.”
At about 4 a.m. Thursday, 2,500 workers began finalizing preparation efforts for the Welcome America’s long list of events, which began in earnest at noon: the Celebration of Freedom Ceremony at Independence Hall followed by the Independence Day Parade, a birthday party at the Betsy Ross House (complete with a cake from Termini Bros.), a ceremonial tapping of the Liberty Bell.
The planned festivities were held up momentarily, when more than 30 protesters formed a human chain across Market Street, blocking the parade route through Center City. They were among nearly 300 people who had gathered outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility near Eighth and Cherry Streets seeking to bring attention to the treatment of undocumented immigrants in detention centers.
But the parade eventually went on, with members of the Mattatuck Drum Band, from Waterbury, Conn., plucking out “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Yankee Doodle,” and other patriotic classics on fifes and drums. The 19 musicians sweated as they played in wool coats, but they stayed in good spirits.
“Come on,” David Petro-Roy, a member of the group since January, said when asked why they perform at the parade. “It’s Independence Day, and where better to celebrate than in the city where it all began?”
But the epicenter of the event was the Parkway, where thousands turned out from the city, suburbs, and well beyond.
Jason Milano, 49, of Metuchen, N.J., was debating whether to take Maria Camila Escobar, 32, a native of Colombia, to New York City or Philadelphia for her first-ever Independence Day. In the end it was no contest: “New York is such a hassle. There’s no space,” Milano said. “Having a street party like this is really special.”
John and Maria Kelly were visiting Philly from Bergen County, N.J. It was hard to miss John: He donned an Uncle Sam-style outfit, and a top hat with red-white-and-blue dreadlocks. The couple also visit in December, dressed as Santa and Mrs. Claus, to hand out toys by City Hall.
To them, the Fourth is about unity. “Today is the day you show your true American pride,” John Kelly said. (The number-one question of his day: Are you hot? But people want their picture with him, too.)
“It don’t matter the color, it don’t matter the political choice,” Maria Kelly said, her manicured nails painted in an American-flag motif. “We’re all American.”
Whether you’re “black, white, Hispanic, LGBTQ … pro-Trump, anti-Trump,” she said.
By late afternoon, during a series of downpours, Fire Department crews on the Parkway refueled with Red Bull.
Sgts. Edward Ammons and George Rechner of the Philadelphia Police Department reported it had been a quiet day.
“It’s great!” Ammons said. “No problems at all — this is the City of Brotherly Love!”
“You know what’s weird,” Rechner added. “I haven’t smelled pot. I haven’t even heard people cursing. Usually with numbers this big, you get that. But that’s how great the crowd is.”
The two officers said they would be there “until the last person leaves.”
Rechner acknowledged it’s not his dream shift. “Would I rather be down the Shore with my family? Yes.”
Things did get a bit testy late Thursday night on South Street, where police responded to reports of bad behavior by closing a stretch of the street. Officers responded on bicycles and horses to keep the peace.
But earlier on the Parkway, Josh Flowers, a paramedic with the Philadelphia Fire Department, rocked back and forth on a Segway outfitted with first-aid supplies and a defibrillator. He posed for photos like a futuristic superhero. “It’s a different experience. I wouldn’t say fun but different,” he said of working the Fourth. “I wouldn’t say patriotic. It’s what we do for a living.”
The low-key energy at the Parkway picked up when Hudson took the stage around 7 p.m. Fans held tiny American flags and Wawa-branded hats aloft, waving them as she opened with “Love You I Do,” the lead song from the 2006 musical that rocketed her to fame.
“You all remember that song from Dreamgirls? That was about 15 years ago,” the Oscar-winning actress joked to the audience. “But I’ll be singing these songs for the rest of my life.”
As she walked offstage before an encore following “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” a blast of confetti showered over the audience — ensuring the grounds crew members would earn their overtime.