The Local: The Annual Socioeconomic Rorschach Test

After trudging back and forth around a 30-block stretch of the Upper East Side on Sunday afternoon and talking to a handful of the estimated two million revelers who turned out for the Puerto Rican Day Parade, I ducked inside one of the few open stores on Madison Avenue for a break from the grimy, suffocating heat. As the suited guard standing sentry at the entrance of the upscale shoe boutique closed the door behind me, a woman decked out in denim and Puerto Rican flag garb, carrying a small child, shouted: “Any chance we can get in there for a second for some cold air, man?”

The guard shook his head and shut the door.

And so Manhattan’s annual Puerto Rican Day Parade came and went over the weekend much as it has on the second Sunday in June for 51 years. The parade often ignites controversy—as it did via a 1998 episode of Seinfeld where Kramer accidentally burns a Puerto Rican flag; in 2000, when dozens of girls claimed they were sexually harassed; and last year when the NYPD arrested more than 200 parade attendees, provoking criticism from civil liberties advocates. This year the event was tame, but, as always, threw New York City’s socioeconomic and linguistic divides into sharp relief.

For Puerto Ricans like Naida the parade is a time for families to come together to celebrate their culture.

“It’s the best event of the year,” she said as she watched an American Airlines float advertising flights to San Juan float by from her folding chair perched at 84th Street and Fifth Avenue. Since moving to New York City in 1985, she has not missed a parade; the family even went just two months after her mother passed away in May of 1993, and brought along her ashes.

On Sunday, Fifth and Madison avenues were awash in denim; red, white and blue; stars; and all sorts of creatively configured flag ensembles. Even the Fire Department festooned red golf carts with Puerto Rican flags for the occasion. Vendors sold whistles, wristbands, and T-shirts emblazoned with the flag. (My personal favorite was a woman’s tank top with a small Puerto Rican flag positioned over each breast that read “Stop Staring at My Flags.”) Salsa beats pulsed through the Upper East Side, food vendors lugged smoking carts through the streets, and people set up their own makeshift stands to feed the crowds.

“I haven’t been in five years because I was locked up, but before that I came every year,” said Raymond, a 25-year New York City resident who watched with his friend Calle, wearing a Roberto Clemente T-Shirt festooned with flags.

“It doesn’t make me feel homesick,” said Calle, who has lived in the city for just two years. “Having all these Latinos in one place makes me proud to be Puerto Rican.”

For Upper East Side residents, the parade falls somewhere between an inconvenience, a semi-amusing spectacle, an excuse to leave the city for the weekend, or what one long-time resident called “a mutated carte blanche for people to destroy Manhattan for a day.”

Each of the five doormen we spoke to from various buildings off Fifth Avenue said the Puerto Rican day parade is the biggest travel weekend of the summer, including Memorial Day and July 4.

“They say, ‘It’s a big parade so we’re going to leave,’” a doorman at 83rd and Fifth said. “I don’t blame them. If you’re barricaded into your apartment, can’t leave, can’t go to the park, of course you’re going to go away for the weekend if you have the means. I would, and I’m Puerto Rican.”

Even though by most accounts the parade has gotten quieter in the past six years, on the whole, Upper East Siders who do not leave town dread it.

One long-time resident recounted an argument she had with some stragglers after a parade five or so years ago.

“I was getting home at 10 p.m. and a group of men were lying on folding beach chairs on the corner of 83rd and Madison barbequing,” she said. “The music was playing loudly and garbage was cascading around them, so I said to them in my most sweet, lyrical voice, ‘O.K., guys, it’s time to go home now.’ They got up from their chairs and starting screaming at me in such a hostile way. I thought they were going to kill me until a police officer opened the barricade and told me to get inside.”

She admitted that there are other rowdy, messy parades over the course of the year, but “the Puerto Ricans come out in much larger numbers.

“We are happy that they love our country so much, but it’s inconvenient to be barricaded in your house,” she said later.

There are certainly exceptions. Robert Weiss watched the parade with a friend under the awning of his building at 1025 Fifth Avenue, behind the metal partition. For the past three years, he has made a point of staying in the city to watch the parade.

“I think it’s great. People are behaving nicely and making a statement,” Mr. Weiss said. “It’s part of America, why run away?”

At least half of the tony eateries and clothing shops lining Madison Avenue did not even bother to open, and remained shuttered Sunday. The outdoor tables that usually crowd the sidewalk in front of La Goulue on Madison Avenue and 65th were nowhere to be found. The windows were closed and the blinds drawn, but a sign on the front door that read “Restrooms for Customers only” in English and Spanish indicated that, unlike most of the neighboring restaurants and stores, La Goulue was open for business.

The few that remained open had makeshift signs taped in the windows to deter people from asking to use the restrooms. “No bathroom,” read the sign in Liza Healthy Nail Salon at 81st and Madison. “Restroom out of order,” read a handwritten sign in the window of the Juicy clothing shop.

In 1997, the Madison Avenue Business Improvement District came under fire for circulating fliers advising retailers to either close for the Puerto Rican Day Parade or remove valuables from the display cases.

One shop has stayed open every year since then “in the spirit of defiance."

“It used to be pretty wild five or six years ago, but even so there was something off about those fliers,” said the shop’s manager.

Before security was boosted, the official Fifth Avenue procession was accompanied by a de-facto parade on Madison Avenue, he recalled. Guys would drive their cars and motorcycles up the avenue and try to pick up girls. “Even then we didn’t get crowds of people," the manager said. "A guy might come in to borrow a pen so he could write down a phone number but that was really the extent of it.”

For smaller merchants, the parade is an opportunity to bring in extra money. The number of vendors on the Upper East Side mushrooms during any parade, no more so than Puerto Rican day.

Said Mohammad has lugged his shawarma stand from its usual spot in the Meatpacking District to the Upper East Side on the second Sunday in June for nine years. But he said this year would be his last parade.

“Police are giving us a very hard time," he said as his assistant grilled chicken skewers off Fifth Avenue on 77th Street. “Today they gave [an employee] a ticket before the cart was even open. I went up and asked the cop why he was giving him a ticket. He said, ‘You’re making a lot of money, so you can pay,’” Mr. Mohammad r

After asking the cop repeatedly to explain the source of the ticket, Mr. Mohammad said he was threatened.

“He said, ‘You talk to much. If you open your mouth again I’ll lock you up.’”

The cop handcuffed him for about 10 minutes before giving him a ticket, he said, retrieving a rumpled, pink citation from his pocket as evidence.

Oneida Murphy, a home healthcare provider from Putnam County, presided over a table of home-cooked Pollo Asado, meatloaf, and rice under the shade of some scaffolding across from the Frick. When she was eight years old, Ms. Murphy first helped her mother sell homemade food at the parade, beginning a family tradition that has lasted almost 40 years. On Sunday, she was joined by her own 19-year-old daughter, Jasmin Garcia.

A few things have changed since then–Ms. Murphy offers free PB&J and milk to kids and she has farther to travel now—but the parade is still an anchor for the family.

“I look forward to it every year,” said Ms. Garcia, the daughter. “It’s one of the only times that everyone gets together and there are no fights or arguments.” The Local: The Annual Socioeconomic Rorschach Test