By Maria Gorshin
The annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Balloon Inflation wasn’t always an event that drew tens of thousands of visitors to the Upper West Side. It used to be something semi-secret that took place in the dark and cold one night each year just around the corner from Central Park West.
For decades the night before Thanksgiving on the Upper West Side was festive but low-key and local. It was a great night to meet friends at neighborhood restaurants, in the bars you’d loved all through college and, with any luck, at the cocktail parties taking place in apartments above where Macy’s balloon crews worked through the night on West 77th Street.
At the end of the night, it was always fun to stop by for a few minutes to catch sight of Snoopy, Underdog and Casper the Friendly Ghost billowing into shape in the dark. If it wasn’t too cold you might find yourself sharing the sidewalks near the American Museum of Natural History with a few hundred neighbors spaced along the stretch of street between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West.
We would watch the progress with a thrill at being “backstage” for a few moments and sometimes shout “helpful” comments to the Macy’s teams above the hiss of air and whine of generators – “That side needs more air!” “That patch might need work!” Then move on ready for a little rest and warmth before the big morning ahead.
It wasn’t until just before sunrise each Thanksgiving Day that Upper West Side streets would begin to fill with parade-goers making their way toward Central Park West.
As start-time approached, both sides of the parade route were lined with people standing in the cold, fidgeting to stay warm, faces pointed north toward where the parade would soon begin, everyone eager to be the first to shout, “It’s starting!!” at the first sign that the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was on the move.
As great as the start of the parade was, it wasn’t until that moment when the first balloon peeked and bumped its way around the corner at 77th Street that the crowd came alive. A wave of happy, thrilled sounds rolled down the avenue, growing as it reached each crowd on each block and everyone recognized what was coming toward them. For me it signaled the official start of Thanksgiving each year.
The Upper West Side on pre-Thanksgiving eve is no longer low key. Instead, tens of thousands of people crowd the neighborhood’s sidewalks for hours for an event that has become a must-do holiday tradition for all.
There’s no more casual stopping by West 77th Street on the Wednesday prior to the parade – there’s a wait, a line and a strict order to things that didn’t exist before. Even on Thanksgiving Day things are much different – there’s no more just showing up early to grab your favorite spot with your back to the sun. That side of Central Park West, the east, is now seating reserved for Macy’s associates and assorted VIPs only. Everyone else can stand squinting into the sun. (I remember when that side of the avenue was lined with families elbowing for room behind wooden barricades and children sat along the curb waiting for the parade to start – the time before metal bleachers occupied that space.)
Still, the magic of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade endures, carrying with it the power to make everyone feel like a child and even the most hard-edged New Yorker feel giddy and optimistic. I highly recommend doing it all – the Balloon Inflation the night before if you can tolerate massive crowds, and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, even if you think you would rather avoid the whole ordeal.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
Photo by bondidwhat.