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Crowds flock to Harbor fireworks, area parades

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Braving sweltering heat, strident warnings of roving gangs and a killjoy calendar that let the Fourth of July fall midweek, Marylanders and visitors from around the world flocked to the Inner Harbor Wednesday night to catch their share of rockets' red glare.

As the first fireworks soared skyward at 9:30 p.m., a crowd of a couple of hundred thousand seemed to be in high spirits — reassured by a highly visible but conspicuously laid-back police presence.

Instead of a warning to people to stay away from the Inner Harbor — the site of some violent incidents after some recent large gatherings — the message tweeted by the Baltimore Police Department was something along the lines of "Come on down and join us."

Lt. Col. Ross Buzzuro, Area One Commander and the man in charge of Wednesday night's security operation, said just before the fireworks went off that the evening was off to a great start.

"So far it's been a wonderful night. Maybe a little too hot, but if that's the worst of our issues ...," he said.

Buzzuro said as of 11:30 p.m., police had made only a handful of arrests for disorderly conduct.

Some of those arrests occurred about 8:40 p.m. in front of the Maryland Science Center, where a handful of young men got a bit rowdy. In a flash, they were swarmed by about a dozen of the same officers who had just been chatting amiably with members of the public and whisked away from the scene.

Buzzuro said neither the relaxed vibe nor the quick response were accidents, but part of a plan devised by the department to keep the celebration from becoming a disruption.

"The bottom line is professionalism," he said. "We just want everyone to have the best possible experience."

That is, until it's time to go. Buzzuro said the plan was to encourage visitors to leave quickly through a highly visible police presence. After that, he said, police would more forcefully suggest to stragglers that it was time to go home.

The department released a statement Wednesday night declaring the Central District, which includes the Inner Harbor, a temporary curfew zone in which juveniles lingering after 11 p.m. could be arrested.

The robust police response comes after several recent downtown gatherings that have turned violent as they broke up — notably last July 4 and on St. Patrick's Day night.

The incidents have bruised the city's image and led to criticism from outside. In April, Del. Patrick McDonough, a Baltimore County Republican, issued a statement in which he blamed the violence on "black youth mobs" and urged that the Inner Harbor be declared a "no-travel zone."

Apparently a lot of Marylanders didn't get the message — flocking from as far afield as Prince George's County, Kent Island and Damascus to watch a superior class of fireworks and enjoy a funkier atmosphere than in locations closer to their homes.

Of course, the Inner Harbor fireworks weren't the only show in town on Independence Day.

Earlier in the day, before Federal Hill became crowded with fireworks-watcher, the neighborhood was so overflowing with patriotic fervor that it supported two Fourth of July parades in the same place and beginning at the same time.

On the east side of the park Wednesday morning was the American Visionary Art Museum's pet parade. It boasted four dozen costumed dogs and one costumed tortoise, a game of musical chairs in which the contestants must sit on command, and a talent competition.

Meanwhile, on the west side of the park was the Federal Hill Neighborhood Parade, complete with marching bands, the Statue of Liberty on stilts, homemade floats, and residents wearing traditional Colonial garb.

In the pet talent show, a much-loved mutt named Tillie won the musical chairs championship for the second year in a row. Her rear touched the ground almost before the command to sit left the mouth of her owner, Michael Lisicky, 47, of Fells Point.

Catonsville's 66th annual parade had a theme (the War of 1812), guest dignitaries such as Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, plenty to look at (more than 120 entries, including a dozen marching bands), and a mile-long parade route.

In fact, it so perfectly fit Nancy Kerr's vision of what a Fourth of July parade should be that she made the long drive from her home in Arlington, Va., with her 2-year-old daughter, Hailey.

"This is Hailey's first parade, and I love the old-town feeling that Catonsville has," Kerr said.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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