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‘It hasn’t really stopped, it’s just been adjusted’: Towson, Catonsville residents keep Independence Day spirit alive

Every Independence Day for the past seven years, John Barber has awakened early to park his dad’s 1975 Pontiac Grand Ville convertible on Bosley Avenue hours before Towson’s Fourth of July Parade begins.

By arriving at 7 a.m., the Towson resident is usually the first in the line of vintage cars that cruise along the parade route after the elected officials and before the live bands and floats.

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That tradition started one year after Barber’s father, an avid car enthusiast who took pride in his work on the Pontiac, died of lung cancer.

“The Fourth of July was one his of his favorite holidays, and mine,” Barber said. His parents would often drive down from his hometown of Syracuse, New York, to watch the Towson parade.

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Barber’s favorite part, he said, is the crowd yelling in elation when he rounds the corner and starts honking the horn. “They just go insane, and it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, I wish my dad could see this,’ ” Barber said.

Driving the car through the parade “was just, like, my tribute to him,” he added.

Like Independence Day event organizers nationwide, the Towson Chamber of Commerce, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, canceled what would have been its 137th annual parade and fireworks show, a daylong celebration that typically draws at least 65,000 people to the county seat.

Likewise, Catonsville residents who usually participate in the community’s infamous battle of chairs — so well known that the tradition was even commemorated last year with its own beer flavor — will not have to tussle for the ideal spot to view the parade along its route on Frederick Road.

In previous years, “you’d have two-thirds of Frederick Road filled with chairs for the parade already,” said Joe Pallozzi, chair of Catonsville’s Fourth of July committee. “And you don’t see any out there now. They would’ve started being put out June 1.”

Pallozzi has missed about three or four Fourth of July celebrations in the decades he and his wife have lived in the southwestern Baltimore County community. For the past seven years, he has led planning efforts for the parade.

”It’s affecting the community bigtime,” he said, but “we’ll be back. Catonsville will be back.”

Fundraising efforts for Catonsville’s parade were stymied before they could really begin, with the statewide order in mid-March that shut down most businesses and prohibited large gatherings, Pallozzi said. In prior years, Catonsville’s parade has drawn up to 30,000 visitors, the committee has said.

And in Towson, six months of prep work for the parade has essentially gone to waste.

“Like all of our events, when March came, we were locked and loaded, everything was ready to go,” said Nancy Hafford, executive director of the Towson Chamber of Commerce.

With all of its popular spring and summer events canceled or postponed, including the Towsontown Spring Festival and Gardens Day, the Towson chamber is losing $125,000, most of which would have gone to fund community programs like cleaning and beautification projects, Hafford said.

“We lost a huge amount,” she said.

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Forging ahead

Despite the lack of (organized) fireworks displays, community members are still finding ways to keep the spirit of Independence Day alive.

Although Barber won’t hear his friends and family shouting his name from the perimeter of Towson’s parade route, he still plans to drive the Pontiac through the Knollwood neighborhood of Towson, where he lives.

His neighbor, Knollwood Association president David Riley, will be dressed as Uncle Sam, and Riley’s wife will be dressed as Lady Liberty.

“It’s important to do something positive and fun right now,” Riley said. With the parade canceled, “it’s really up to individuals to take up the slack in some way.”

The trio expects to toss out candy, a Towson parade tradition, throughout the neighborhood and drive the parade route along Bosley, Allegheny and Washington avenues and Towsontown Boulevard.

Barber said this year’s Fourth of July celebration “hasn’t really stopped, it’s just been adjusted.”

In Catonsville, Charlie Murphy still plans to bicycle the 20-mile route through Baltimore City to Fort McHenry, like he has for the Past decade, despite canceling the ride that usually draws upward of 100 cyclists, he said.

Keeping 6 feet apart is difficult for a large group of cyclists, Murphy said. And since Baltimore City has been slower to reopen than the state, Murphy said the group didn’t want to flout social-distancing guidelines.

Murphy in the past has canceled very few bike rides, he said. On one ride during a storm along the Gwynn Falls Trail, the group of about 40 cyclists would stop to haul their bikes over fallen trees before pedaling onward, Murphy said.

“COVID is the first thing that’s kind of stopped us,” he said.

Although Towson resident Patricia Anderson is self-quarantining with her husband and three children, as long as her family remains healthy she expects to have a small socially distanced barbecue with her parents.

Anderson’s family has been staying home for the past week out of an abundance of caution after being exposed to someone who tested negative for coronavirus, but was presenting symptoms.

A socially distanced barbecue means sitting about 10 feet apart and wearing masks when not eating, Anderson said.

“We’re gonna have to see what the day brings, what we feel would be safe for us,” Anderson said. For certain, though, Anderson said her family will be watching the musical “Hamilton” when it’s released on Disney Plus on July 4.

Although living during a pandemic “makes everything feel different,” Anderson said the things she stands for, and the reasons why she celebrates Independence Day, haven’t changed.

“I’m proud to be American,” she said. “I’m proud to stand beside all Americans, not just the Americans who think exactly the same way I do.”

In Catonsville, Partistry Events, whose balloon artists last year won the Marie O’Day award for Best in Show at Catonsville’s parade, will again fashion a balloon creation positioned on Frederick Road for residents looking for a photo op, said Flavia Oleniewski, a balloon artist and owner of the business.

While disappointed, Oleniewski joked that she was looking on the bright side, that Partistry gets to hang onto the Best in Show award for another year.

The town’s parade committee has pivoted to a celebration of Catonsville’s recent high school and college graduates and first responders who have been on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.

The committee is selling signs at $10 each, and will place them along Frederick Road, where the parade would have taken place. Families can purchase a sign to recognize a graduate, first responder or someone else they think deserves an accolade. The proceeds raised from the signage will go to support Catonsville’s 75th Independence Day parade next year, Pallozzi said.

And Catonsville parade committee members will have their own car caravan throughout neighborhoods along Frederick Road.

“We have to keep on celebrating our flag — and our freedom,” Pallozzi said. “We have to celebrate our country.”

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