The West Indian Day Parade will shimmy into its 45th year on Eastern Parkway this Labor Day, bringing with it the usual abundance of feathers and glitter and a healthy dose of gut-thumping bass. Yet, despite the parade's long tradition and the more than 1 million spectators, many newcomers to the quickly shifting neighborhoods along Eastern Parkway have never have experienced the borough's biggest celebration.
To help them out, a few old hands shared their tips for enjoying the party like a local.
With thousands of participants and about a million attendees expected (not to mention thousands of police officers, Parks Department officials and Sanitation workers), it's easy to get stuck, lost, or just overwhelmed by the scale of the celebration. Even the costumes are big — the headdresses are 12 feet tall and the performers wear stilts.
"There are as many groups as there are countries [in the Caribbean]," said West Indian American Day Carnival Association President Thomas Bailey. "Eastern Parkway is lined with vendors, and you're free to sample any and every one."
The one thing you won't want to do, though, is try to drive in or around the parade route on Labor Day. The city routinely tows hundreds of cars from the blocks around Eastern Parkway, and traffic is totally shut down from Buffalo Avenue to Washington Avenue north of Empire Boulevard.
"If you're going to go east, you're going to get a lot of traffic," said Officer Vincent Martinos, a community affairs officer from Crown Heights' 71st Precinct." A 10-minute trip turns into two hours."
The route alone stretches from Schenectady Avenue to Grand Army Plaza, but the festivities go on much longer, and run from Thursday to Monday morning.
"Labor Day's not that special to me because it's too short," said costume designer Ava Jack, who runs the group Gemz Konnektion, one of nearly 50 adult bands that will cavort down Eastern Parkway during Monday's Parade. "I'm accustomed to carnivals going for days on end."
While the celebration might seem short to some, the days of festivities leading up to Labor Day may come as a surprise to the uninitiated. Beginning on Thursday evening with a costume competition behind the Brooklyn Museum, the party features concerts all day Friday, a children's parade and a steel drum competition on Saturday, a kids' costume competition on Sunday and, of course, the traditional pre-dawn dance party J'ouvert along Empire Boulevard and Nostrand Avenue on Monday morning.
"The music is at a decibel level I've never heard before," Martinos said of the parade. "Each one of these floats is an 18-wheeler packed with stereo speakers."
IT'S A REALLY BIG DEAL
"We've been working on this since September of last year," said Ava Jack, speaking largely of the costumes she and her sister were busy sewing in advance of the parade. "Right now, I know what I'm going to do next year."
Celebrants like Jack routinely spend thousands of dollars on the ornate and highly-revealing costumes that help to make the West Indian Day Parade so popular.
At the same time she and her cohort are busy sewing, more than a dozen steel drum bands spend every evening from June through August perfecting their sound.
"I've been playing pans since I was 14 years old," said Glen Murray, 42, of the U.S.A. East Side Symphony. "The pan season, the competition is what we prepare for."