Forget Coachella. Move over Met Gala. The start of the endless slew of summer BBQs, block parties, and festivals hosted by Hudson County politicians is here, and I got a chance to attend the official “it” party that will launch a thousand others. Last night I attended the free Union City block party Brian Stack/Phil Murphy extravaganza, which lived up to its hype and reputation, and will likely make all other Hudson County summer parties pale in comparison.
Let’s start with the invitation.
The 8 ½ x 11 glossy, full color, double-sided bilingual flyer announcing the “concert, rally, & street festival” was distributed by hand to, as far as I can tell, every household in both Union City and Jersey City. By a rough estimate, this includes 330,000+ people over 22 square miles – just getting the invitations out was a huge task.
The top row declares the party to be hosted by not only Brian Stack, but also Gov. Phil Murphy. This is pretty darn classy of Stack – far as I can tell, Murphy had little to nothing to do with the planning or execution of this event, and yet he’s gracious enough to include the Governor with equal hosting credit. Well, he is the Governor after all… but still, this easily could have been just a Brian Stack party. Wait – what is the occasion of this party, anyway? Nobody knows. Maybe it’s Memorial Day weekend; maybe it’s simply welcoming the Governor to Union City (which one assumes he’s been to many times before?). Whatever, who knows.
If the performers listed are unfamiliar to you, that’s probably because you don’t listen to Spanish-language radio. Sensation, Rosario, and Veras are big deals; a quick Google search reveals Sensation and Rosario’s booking fee for events start at $10k each, and that Sensation has a net worth of over $2 million. Normal local street festivals have the local Rotary Club singing a few songs or something; this is in another league entirely. This is the kind of event people are used to paying to attend. The last line on the flyer lets you know the event is paid for by Union City First, a private organization (also the name of the slate Stack endorsed for a recent city council election, so one assumes they’re connected)
The party was originally scheduled for Thursday the 23rd, but had to be called off due to impending violent thunderstorms that were predicted for that evening. Bad, although not nearly as dire, weather was also predicted for Tuesday evening, but the show went on (note: I was there from about 6:15 – 7pm; by 9pm tornado warnings were being posted for the area and crazy downpours were happening, so I assume it wrapped up a little early. Stack doesn’t control the weather yet, but someday he will).
Upon arriving (I got there via a circuitous route, so I may not have entered where I was supposed to), I was greeted by the kind of sign one would expect in some small town in Ohio when the President came for a visit, rather than a densely populated Democratic stronghold on a non-election year welcoming the Governor:
Don’t let this picture lead you to think that the festival was sparsely populated; it was only a reprieve from the insanity happening on either side of it. To the left was the main stage with the A list performers; to the right was a secondary, overflow stage broadcasting footage of the main stage for those unwilling to plow into the massive crowd gathered in front of the main one. And to the right of that was the children’s stage which, I ask you: have you seen Mickey Mouse, Snow White, and the Starkist Tuna (I think?) dancing to “Baby Shark”? No? Well you, my friend, have never lived:
Kids were mesmerized; for those too restless for a live performance, there were not one but two bounce houses and loads of junk food (popcorn and your choice of either blue or pink cotton candy). Everything was free. Free! Ok, the lines were long to get into all of them, but come on. For a working class family out on a random Tuesday, this is gold.
I feel the need to point out that we’re talking about hundreds of people at this thing, most likely a couple thousand, and I was there way early. It was intense. Pressing closer to the main stage, I only caught a glimpse of the warm up acts as I was crushed next to a Spanish-language radio station and a Spanish-language television channel’s booth. Remember, I was at the slow build up, so I didn’t see the cool performers; but I did see a killer guy named Dr. Disco dancing to the Village People in a shiny metal helmet.
The strangest thing about the whole event was the posters.
Hand held, full color, 14 x 22″ glossy posters were ubiquitous, with hundreds, probably thousands of posters distributed to the crowd before I arrived. They had a picture of Stack and Murphy on one side and “we support Governor Phil Murphy” on the other. Was the Governor… in some sort of trouble? Was there some reason why people might not support him? I don’t think so, but the posters were sort of ominous.
Whatever – the crowd didn’t mind. They waved them overhead while dancing and used them as fans in the sticky temperature. Absolutely no one seemed taken aback by them as I was, so I chalked this up to my being a paranoid cynic who has forgotten how to have normal people fun. Hell, on the way home I noticed private homes with sun-faded pics of Stack – presumably from another similar event – taped to their front windows, like he was the Pope. No one is making anyone do this. There’s not even an election happening for the next few years.
But to truly understand this event, you must first accept that spring in Hudson County is the start of Freebie Season. This yearly ritual begins around Memorial Day, and as the summer months turn languorous, it’s impossible to set foot in a county park without being passed a hot dog and generic brand soda by an uncomfortable-looking politician in what might pass as casual wear. T-shirts, magnets, and any of a number of useless items are tossed at you as you try to enjoy your summer afternoon. By September, it’s free backpacks and notebooks for the kids – any kids, all kids; please, just take our backpacks. It reaches its crescendo in November, as politicians enter into a death match to be the one who has given away the most turkeys of them all. We’re talking a sick amount of turkeys here – tens of thousands of them, just piles and piles of frozen dead birds, come and help yourself. Scarcely a bird in Hudson County escapes the wrath of Freebie Season. Things quiet down a bit after that, but then before you know it, here comes spring and the whole thing starts up again.
Critics often find this practice unsavory. They often complain that this show of “voter appreciation” amounts to buying votes. Shouldn’t voters champion candidates who represent them on the issues, rather than just giving them free stuff? Well, sure. But I submit to you that if the streets of Union City weren’t spotless (they are) and if the other services the city provided weren’t good (they also are), Stack would probably stop winning elections. Meanwhile, it’s 2019 and the entire world is crumbling all around us; if I’m going to be worried about something, it’s not going to be about the ethics of a free street festival people were enjoying or someone getting a free turkey.
Anyway. Love it or hate it, Stack does this season better than anyone. His event felt authentic and fun and like a true reflection of Union City. He gets it; he knows how to throw a party. And it was nice to spend an evening with so many people just enjoying themselves. I missed the headliners, but just being around happy people enjoying a free evening was enough.
One party down; many more to come. Freebie Season is upon us.