Commentary: Newport is slowly taking back the Fourth

Boy, do some of those little kids have good arms.

Having been dunked about 20 times within 10 minutes, I spent the rest of the morning smiling at what a special place West Newport Beach is. This was our third annual "family friendly Fourth" celebration.

Three years ago, it was the brainchild of people like Lori Morris, Cindy Koller and Drew Wetherholt, who asked, "Why can't our families have some fun on July 4 instead of just hunkering down and trying to ward off the hooligans?"

The Fourth of July is for Families strategy was born that year, with the urging of Councilman Mike Henn. Three years ago, I sat there on Balboa Boulevard and 38th Street about 10 minutes before the parade was supposed to start with some of our recreation staff wondering, "What if we gave a parade and no one came?"

But lots of folks did come — they came out of the woodwork and filled the street. Within minutes, hundreds of people appeared — parents, kids, teenagers, single twentysomethings, grandparents. They got the word — they dressed up, they dressed up their dogs (and babies and bikes), they were in wagons and on skateboards, and they were smiling.

People really were hungry for some reason to enjoy the day — even just the morning, before the streets closed at noon.

Since 2011, with the community's help, we've been able to slowly take back the day from those who would come to West Newport Beach to disrespect it. Yes, the "loud and unruly gathering" ordinance helped. The police equestrians who arrived in 2013 helped some more. No one messes with horses.

I give great credit to Police Chief Jay Johnson and his crew, who brought those ideas from other places back here. But so too did the community itself help.

Sharon Boles, Jim Miller, Paul Watkins, Joe Stapleton, George Schroeder and others brought even more enthusiasm to the parade and festival. That first year, we were happy if we just had three hours of family fun. Now it's grown and stabilized to a place where the fun continues on open streets, with happy but not out-of-control revelers.

Yes, we still have too many arrests. And we're rolling into a few challenging years when July 4 will fall on weekend days. But you can actually travel down Balboa Boulevard now in the afternoon.

We have an iconic (if slightly goofy) parade that's proud to attract people who show up three minutes before it starts. And we have families who now have a reason to stay in town and celebrate like any neighborhood.

From the dunk tank to the food booths to face-painting to patriotic songs and bounce houses, West Newport can be a fun — and sane — place to be on Independence Day. Even though my ears still have water in them, I am so glad Drew, Lori and Cindy asked that question three years ago.

DAVE KIFF is city manager of Newport Beach.

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