The way of life is wonderful; it is by abandonment. – Emerson
The restoration of once-neglected Patterson Park is one of the most successful of Baltimore’s urban renewal projects. Now dubbed "Baltimore’s Best Backyard," the park hums with recreational sports leagues, community gardens, karate classes, art seminars, winter skating, summer swimming, and various festivals, attracting assorted bird watchers, dog walkers, picnic goers, joggers, bicyclists, strollers, and, in sum, all those who enjoy life’s gentler pleasures.
Presiding serenely over the park is a quirky edifice that has come to symbolize this renewed spirit of civic pride, the Patterson Park Pagoda. Originally built as an observation tower in the 1890s, the quaint Victorian structure had fallen into decay and was closed in the 1950s, but, after a lengthy renovation, was reopened last year to great fanfare (literally), with 100 saxophonists serenading visitors at the opening ceremony.
Riding the wave of Pagoda enthusiasm, the Friends of Patterson Park and the Creative Alliance planned a 2002 Halloween celebration of a correspondingly ambitious nature. Part whimsical parade, part performance art, the Great Halloween Lantern Parade was quintessentially Baltimorean.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect the Saturday evening before Halloween, as I made my way toward the corner of Patterson and Lombard Streets, the staging area for the parade. While I’d come to watch, it was obvious that the line between onlooker and participant had been erased. Marshaled near a statue at the far end of the park, a small army of volunteers was busy organizing the assembling masses. Weeks, if not months, of preparation had clearly gone into this event. Hundreds of colorful hand-made lanterns made of paper and balsa wood had been prepared, along with banners, balloons, and scores of noise makers such as kazoos and whistles. Volunteers had also constructed large effigies made of tissue paper and wood: several human figures, a miniature replica in red tissue paper of the Pagoda, assorted whimsical objects, and, most impressively, an enormous creature that I gaped at for a moment before realizing, with delight, was a giant squid.
A giant squid? Fascinated, I inched forward to watch several people put the finishing touches on the creation, installing battery-operated lights to illuminate it from within. "I just watched a Discovery Channel special on squid," I blurted to a young man rigging lights behind the platter-like eyes of the squid. Beaming, he turned around, "I saw that, too!" Soon we were deep in an enthusiastic discussion of the mysteries of deep sea life, interrupted only when a woman came up and asked if I’d mind carrying a flag during the parade.
Before long, several hundred people had been organized into a rough marching order, each person carrying a lantern or perhaps some sort of musical instrument or noise-maker, while others carried banners or helped hoist one of the effigies. It took a mass effort to launch the squid, while another group gently lifted the miniature pagoda borne on a regal palanquin. I was surprised to find there weren’t many traditional Halloween costumes--few monsters, ghouls, witches, or vampires. Instead, in keeping with the more innocent themes of lanterns and light, people had come dressed in flamboyant carnival-style costumes, some with immense headpieces, silvery breastplates, or gossamer wings. It was if a costume designer for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream had gotten a little confused and scheduled a dress rehearsal outdoors in October.
Into this swirl of organized chaos, a sense of happy anticipation built and bubbled over, inciting impromptu saxophone solos and giddy dancing. Someone standing near the squid suddenly declaimed, "Long live the squid!" A few more people took up the cry. "Long live the squid!" A phalanx of kazoo players began tootling in cadence, "Long live the squid!" A bass drum pounded the rhythm, "Long live the squid!" as the parade, like a vast caterpillar, began to crawl forward, lanterns bobbing, flags waving, feet shuffling. "Long live the squid!"
Patterson Park is vast, with winding asphalt paths snaking past tennis courts and pavilions, through groves of mature trees and up gentle hills. The lantern parade followed the most direct (but, in truth, rather circuitous) route through the park toward the Pagoda, which sits on the highest aspect of the park, with commanding views over east Baltimore and the dock areas. By this time, it was completely dark, save for the gentle glow of the lanterns, and so as the parade marched into the heart of the park it seemed to the more imaginative that perhaps the path was meandering through an enchanted forest.
By chance I found myself marching alongside a shepherdess, in flounced skirt and bonnet, her crooked staff decked in colorful ribbons and likewise the neck of her very fat and preternaturally calm sheep. "Nice sheep," I commented by way of a conversation opener. "Oh, thank you," replied the shepherdess, "She seems to be having a good time tonight." (And, indeed, I’d never seen a sheep that was as content looking or, for that matter, as well behaved.) A young man with beautifully braided hair, looking like a cross between Adonis and Kunta Kinte, joined us in our admiration of the sheep, which seemed to bask in the glow of our praise. "Long live the sheep!" we cheered, in a minor counterpoint to the larger cry supporting the squid.
After some twenty minutes, the parade approached its final rallying point, the Pagoda, perched beacon-like on the summit of a hill. Just beside the Pagoda, a second structure had been erected, a tall, narrow scaffold covered with white sheeting, below which a small stage had been constructed. As the parade spilled up the hill, musicians on the stage began playing an indescribable theme--driving and insistent, yet loose and ethereal--encompassing the marchers in an ocean of sound. At the same time, the scaffolding screen came alive with a strange pantomime cast in shadow puppetry, an ambitious son et lumiere spectacle.
There was a vague narrative thread to the light show, which involved a boy living in a house populated with sinister figures. This desolate urban vision alternated with images of sea life--octopi, fish, and jellyfish. As the music rose and wailed, the light images grew more random and frenetic, morphing into images of the sun, moon and stars; now the boy was on board a hot-air balloon, rising in the heavens. This theme of ascent was echoed by white "balloon" lanterns that rose along guy wires rigged to the stage and by fluttering white bird-like objects that appeared spot-lit in nearby trees.
Then, as the maelstrom of light, images, and sound climaxed, a blizzard of confetti suddenly burst over the crowd, greeted by ecstatic cheers and whistles. Just as suddenly, all the lights were extinguished and the music stopped. Only the cheering went on for some minutes, until the audience was completely spent.
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The following morning, I returned to the pagoda in the clear light of a peaceful Sunday morning. The air was crisp with that delightful tang of late October, and the sunlight gilded the late autumn foliage of the trees. I can’t say exactly why I’d come back here, but I think it might have been to assure myself that what happened the previous night had been real.
I was surprised--and yet, at the same time not surprised--to find a small cleanup crew hard at work, their task nearly completed. Little remained of the confetti snowstorm and the scaffolding had already been disassembled. The previous night the Pagoda had been thronged and I’d been frustrated in my attempt to make my way to the top to look out over the city. The following morning, however, only a small group of people was inside, talking animatedly about the previous evening’s festivities. I recognized two of them: the shepherdess, minus her sheep, and the black Adonis, with his trademark dreadlocks. We greeted each other like old friends. After a time, I broke off from the group and climbed, alone, up the circular stairs to the top of the Pagoda.
Ah, Baltimore. How beautiful you can be.