Berlin Abruptly Cancels 4th of July Fireworks, Citing “Public Safety”

Mayor cites “many incidences of showing disrespect to police throughout our country” as part of the equation.

The bombs bursting in the air over Berlin, New Jersey on July 4, 2013, via Facebook.

The bombs bursting in the air over Berlin, New Jersey on July 4, 2013, via Facebook.

When I was a kid growing up in South Jersey, it seemed that every other town offered a 4th of July fireworks display. So no matter where you lived, you never had to travel far. Over the years, though, the field has thinned out. But Berlin, New Jersey, has always held strong. Until now. And the residents are none too happy.

The Berlin 4th of July fireworks were a joint production between Berlin Township (commonly known as West Berlin) and Berlin Borough, two areas that sit along the White Horse Pike in Camden County, about a third of the way between Philadelphia and Atlantic City. Last week, the township council voted unanimously to pull the plug on the annual fireworks. And then Berlin Borough followed suit four days later with a 5-to-1 vote in favor of canceling.

Naturally, this news hasn’t gone over well with many Berliners. And this being 2015, an anti-cancellation Facebook page quickly sprung up. Just five days after Protesting the Canceling of Berlin’s Fireworks was created, the page has nearly 1,200 supporters.

Why the relatively last-minute cancellation? Well, there are rumors going around town that the two Berlins just don’t have enough money in the coffers to pull it off. And then there are those that believe that the fireworks were canceled for political reasons, offering some vague conspiracy theories.

“None of that is true,” insists Berlin Township mayor Phyllis Magazzu. “How could it possibly be a political decision? We’re not going to get votes by canceling the fireworks.”

Magazzu explains that it all comes down to public safety. Because the nearby towns cancelled their fireworks over the years — and because Berlin’s fireworks were always so “spectacular,” in Mayor Magazzu’s words — Berlin became home to thousands of displaced 4th of July revelers. She says that crowds swelled, drunken fights ensued, bottles were thrown, and finally both towns decided that enough was enough.

The founder of the protest Facebook page emailed Magazzu for answers, and Magazzu’s response mirrored a lot of what she told us. But in that response, she also made note of the “many incidences of showing disrespect to police throughout our country” as of late.

“We haven’t had those kinds of problems quite to the point that you see in some towns,” Magazzu tells us. “But unfortunately, society now, they kind of test you to see how far you can go, and if something like that happened during the fireworks, that could be a big problem.”

Magazzu adds that Cherry Hill canceled their fireworks last year, and so that could make matters even worse for Berlin this year. Last year, she says, Berlin dodged a bullet thanks to a rainy Independence Day.

“We kind of lucked out,” she says. “Cherry Hill had cancelled theirs so a lot of people were planning to come to ours, but then because of the rain they didn’t think that we were going to have them.”

But even in an off year, Berlin’s 4th of July fireworks drew some 60,000 people in 2014, at least according to an estimate provided at a borough meeting last week. (The most recent census data puts the combined population of the two Berlins just shy of 13,000.)

This year, barring another lucky bad-weather day, Berlin expected a huge swell from Cherry Hill’s cancellation, and Berlin’s leaders weren’t willing to take a chance on the rain.

Some concerned Berliners have taken to social media to voice their concerns. One member of the protest group has called for an actual protest on the 4th in the park that normally hosts the fireworks, writing, “We should hold a real protest in person at the park and not just talk about it online… Who can think of a better day to stand up for liberty!”

Others have shared their fond memories of beautiful nights with their families beneath the bursting sky. 4th of July fireworks are, after all, a huge family tradition, especially in communities like Berlin.

“It’s been a tradition for my family also,” says Magazzu. “It’s sad. My grandparents came here in 1902, and we have always taken party in the community events. But I can’t make a personal decision here. It’s something that has to benefit the community.

Berlin Borough Councilman Len Badolato was the one dissenting vote across both towns. He admits that public safety is a huge issue and that the concerns over crowd control are valid. But, he argues, the decision to cancel was made too abruptly and without giving the matter the consideration it deserved.

“Why wasn’t this talked about and rectified after last year’s fireworks?” asks Badolato, who is also chairman of buildings and grounds in the borough. “If the people involved — the emergency people, council, the police — got together and tried to find a way to work this out… If we did that and then came up with nothing, then, yeah, maybe it would be right to cancel. But that’s not what happened.”

Follow @VictorFiorillo on Twitter.