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A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.


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May 9, 2016

The Tulips And The Tulip Queen

Lots of photos of that traditional rite of Spring, the
Tulip Festival in Washington Park

Every year I head over to Washington Park to check out the Tulip Festival, a sort of traditional rite of Spring for Albany. I make the rounds of the whole thing at least one day, cruising through the vendors, the art booths, the activist tables, the music performances, and I always pay too much for an Italian sausage on a bun but it tastes so good outdoors like that. And of course I always check out the tulips, this year they were totally on target for the event in bloom and at their peak.

This was the first time I’d caught the crowning of the Tulip Queen since 2007 back when Jerry Jennings was mayor. I was curious to see how the beauty pageant had evolved under a female mayor, and sure enough there were interesting subtle differences from what I saw the last time I watched nine years ago. But under Kathy Sheehan the format is essentially the same, you can tweak some venerable traditions but really, you have to follow the script if you want to continue to be traditional.

The Tulips Were Right On Target For The Tulip Festival This Year
The Tulips Were Right On Target For The Tulip Festival This Year

I believe I heard that there were 85,000 tulip bulbs planted in Washington Park this year, which is actually 15,000 less than last year. Every year there are worries that the flowers will bloom too early or too late depending on the weather, this year it looked like they would peak too early. But the weather the last few weeks had been overcast and a bit chilly, which appears to have slowed down the blooming just enough.

One Of The Few Design Plots
One Of The Few Design Plots

The layout of the flowers was not as imaginative as some years, I mean, I’m not one to complain because I know that laying out flower designs is a difficult thing to do. Some years, most notably 2011, we saw some impressive designs depicting recognizable things and scenes. But I’m more than happy to have these tulips blooming all at once so that all these non-residents of the City of Albany tromping around the park snapping pictures can see and admire my tax dollars at work.

Readable Signs
Readable Signs

One welcome improvement in recent years are large readable signs on the beds explaining what varieties of flowers we were looking at. For some reason there always used to be these little white stakes in the soil with a few flower variety names printed on them and it was your guess which name matched which flower. These days it doesn’t cost much to print up placards like you might see at a museum so why not.

Everyone Has To Take Pictures
Everyone Has To Take Pictures

This being the 68th officially sanctioned Tulip Festival there must be literally millions of photos out there of the tulips and of people posing with them going back to the 1940s. For those of you who don’t live around these parts, I should mention that these flowers, which originally came from Central Asia, are directly associated with The Netherlands. Albany, you see, is the second oldest City in the United States (behind St. Augustine Florida) founded in the 1600s by the Dutch shortly after the conclusion of their war for independence from Spain.

But the Dutch theme of the Tulip Festival has been grafted onto the original ancient Pinxter Festival, an informal underclass celebration that was hosted by Black slaves and servants. Back in the 1700s and into the early 1800s, Washington Park was a wildland outside the settled areas. Reading newspaper accounts of the time, this often rowdy festival had a decidedly West African theme that sounded like it may have been a remnant of the old country religion.

The occasion of the old festival was the blooming of the Pinxter flower on the site of the future park, a mildly poisonous azalea which was added to a big cauldron of hooch to give it a mind-bending kick. By the early 1800s the respectable people outlawed this festival, but as we can see it lived on. But instead of the unsavory native pinxter we now celebrate the much more respectable imported tulip.

The Mendelssohn Club Chorus Performs
The Mendelssohn Club Chorus Performs

So I checked out the Activist Ghetto, where the NY Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) graciously shared their table with The Wife, who has been promoting a new idea of hers. She had sewed a cloth banner covering her part of the table that read Ask A Muslim, and a series of Muslim women were beside her to answer any question. The questions asked ranged from thoughtful (“I’m trying to read the Koran, what’s the best way to go about it?”) to idiotic (“Are you born with that head scarf?” apparently asked in all seriousness.)

Plans are to set up this table at more local events, it appears to be a great way to promote familiarity. Muslims are a growing religious minority in this country, some 1% the last I’ve heard, just behind Jews who are at about 2%. Many of the attitudes and behaviors of Muslims may be strange to most Americans, but despite what some people would have us believe, American Muslims are no more likely to blow up your house than a Christian or a Jew... perhaps even less so.

After that I strolled over to the bandshell by the lake to see the Tulip Queen get crowned. I caught the end of a set of old popular songs performed by the Mendelssohn Club chorus, these some 50 guys were quite good. I understand that they perform here every year, they’re part of the tradition. Then an announcer from a local radio station told us the Tulip Queen Parade was approaching.

The Tulip Queen Procession Begins To Arrive
The Tulip Queen Procession Begins To Arrive

So now all the serious looking cops standing around swung into action and shooed all the people out of the way. First to arrive were three officers on motorcycles, followed by four officers on horses. Man, Martin Luther King doesn’t get that level of respect, on his day in January this year he only got two cops on horses and a patrol car with flashing lights.

The Tulip Queen Procession Begins To Arrive
Albany Public High School Falcons Marching Band

Behind the cops came the Albany Public High School Falcons drill squad carrying a banner and twirling tie-dye flags. Immediately behind came them the Falcons’ marching band playing and stepping with precision. To turn teenagers into a cooperating group like this you need public schools, the privatized “charter” schools have to generate profit so they always skimp on things like music programs.

Dutch Settlers Society Members
Dutch Settlers Society Members

After the Falcons’ marching band stepped past lively, there was a gap in the parade. Walking slowly, the members of the Dutch Settlers Society followed deliberately in their own good time. The banner they carried proclaimed two years, 1624 which is when Albany began as Fort Orange was established in the present day South End, and 1664 which is when the English forcibly took control of the thriving Dutch settlement and changed its name from Beverwyck to Albany.

Mayor Sheehan Accompanies 2015 Tulip Queen Alexandra Cronin On Her Way To Give Up Her Crown
Mayor Sheehan Accompanies 2015 Tulip Queen Alexandra Cronin On Her Way To Give Up Her Crown

And hard on their heels came a big vintage open top red Cadillac bearing City of Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan and the 2015 Tulip Queen Alexandra “Kate” Cronin. The reigning Queen had arrived to formally give up her crown to the new queen about to be chosen. Ms. Cronin, as most Tulip Queens do, had spent the past year as an ambassador for the City and doing charitable work.

Ms. Cronin is from from the suburban municipality of Selkirk, contestants for the coveted title have been allowed to come from outside the City of Albany since the 1990s. This is not meant as a disrespect for Ms. Cronin or for any of the other contestants, but it seems to me that an event that is so thoroughly Albany should only allow participants who reside in the City to become honorary monarch of our community. Surely there are enough qualified young women in our community, and surely this policy means that our own citizens have much less of a chance of being chosen to participate.

Mayor Sheehan Accompanies 2015 Tulip Queen Alexandra Cronin On Her Way To Give Up Her Crown
The Contestants Arrive

Each contender for the title arrived in her own open car provided for the event by a local auto dealer, waving and smiling to the crowds. They were all dressed in identical bright spring dresses and green sweaters. The seasonal dress and sweater are part of the tradition, the only noticeable difference this year in the outfits was that the hemlines were shorter than the last time I watched this event, well above the knees.

Contestant Arriving By Mini Cooper
Contestant Arriving By Mini Cooper

The first two contestants arrived in miniature Mercedes Benzes, the last three in Mini Coopers. In past years the cars have been vintage like the big old Cadillac that brought the Mayor and the reigning Queen, these little cars were a little surprising but of course these smaller cars are relatively more eco friendly, and I suppose they are cute. In future years I’d like to see some of those sporty electric Teslas, although I suppose expecting the ladies to arrive on top of an ELF electric tricycle would be too much.

The Uniformed Gentlemen Escorted The Ladies From Their Vehicles
The Uniformed Gentlemen Escorted
The Ladies From Their Vehicles

Five young gentlemen in military uniform stood shoulder to shoulder in front of the bandshell, at attention, expressionless with hands clasped with thumbs locked behind their backs. As each car arrived one of the gentlemen would help the contestant out of the car and escort her onto the stage. I’m not sure where these fellows studied, ROTC perhaps. But sad to say the ladies only had their services for the event, too bad the winner couldn’t keep her gentleman as an escort for her entire year reign, you know, to do the dishes, bring in an income, serve as a footstool and other things fitting for a reigning queen.

As each young lady exited her car on the arm of her gentleman, partisans in the crowd in the bleachers cheered lustily. Each contestant then ascended the stairs to the stage, gave a brief speech and then sat down to wait, smiling and nervous.

The Tulip Queen Contenders
The Tulip Queen Contenders

A word about the contestants. Several of them were, well, not to be rude or anything, but they were rather... chubby. I mean that’s absolutely fine with me, but in past years when men were the mayors of the City it seemed that one of the qualifications for being a Tulip Queen candidate was that they should be quite thin. This informal and rather sexist qualification has clearly been discarded.

Without question this is one of the influences of having a female mayor, since pretty much the same committee has run the Tulip Queen selection for the past ten years going back well into the last administration. Without any evidence I’ve always suspected that the reason former mayor Jennings opened up the pageant to suburbanites was because the pool of skinny white girls living in the City had become too small. Well, I suppose there were some other good reasons for Jerry to have opened up the pageant to outsiders, I just can’t think of any at the moment.

As for Mayor Sheehan, she was clearly having a grand time presiding over the event, basking in the ceremonial good feelings and declaring how the pageant promotes women’s empowerment, which is something that would never have occurred to any of the 74 males who held office before her. Driving through Washington Park on the Friday before the Tulip Festival started, I was impressed by the large numbers of port-a-potties ready for use, another advantage of having a female mayor.

Adaviah Ward Of Albany, 2016 Tulip Queen, At The Moment She Won
Adaviah Ward Of Albany, 2016 Tulip Queen,
At The Moment She Won

The mayor opened the envelope, and when Adaviah Ward, who lives in Albany, heard her name she threw her head back, and then threw her head forward into her lap. I got the impression that she totally did not expect to win. A few moments later she seemed to be in shock and flubbed her acceptance speech, but she got through it with grace.

The Old Queen Crowns The New Tulip Queen
The Old Queen Crowns The New Tulip Queen

After Ms. Ward was crowned by Ms. Cronin, the uniformed young gentlemen escorted the contestants off the stage, including the winner. Before Ms. Sheehan the man-mayor always escorted the new queen like a groom bearing his trophy bride, but I guess that would never do for Ms. Sheehan. Instead the mayor descended the stairs with her own uniformed young escort, another of those subtle changes in the tradition.

Big Crowds On Sunday Afternoon
Big Crowds On Sunday Afternoon

Sunday started out miserable and rainy but by afternoon the skies turned bright blue, so I made my way back over to the park for a little bit. The crowds, as they always are on Mother’s Day in the sunshine, were tremendous, even though the mostly local rock bands playing at the big stage were nothing to go out of your way for. Past years there have been acts such as Joan Jett and John Mayall. Now it seems that rock music is old people music, mostly gray heads were bopping to the bands playing.

But what do you want for free. Alcohol has been banned which makes things a lot more orderly, but if dogs are still banned it sure wasn’t being enforced. But hey, as I was walking around I saw a mob of little children watched by frowning parents, who were having a grand time rolling down a grassy slope, climbing back up and rolling some more. As far as I’m concerned, that’s reason enough to spend my tax dollars to have this annual festival in the park.

Kids Rolling Down A Hill In Washington Park
Kids Rolling Down A Hill In Washington Park

 


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