Heavy rains don’t stop crowds, Mary J. Blige, fireworks for July 4th in Philly

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Exactly 241 years since America declared its independence in this very city, locals and visitors alike spent their July Fourth holiday doing exactly what Philadelphians do best: Eating, drinking, and even enduring some heavy weather.

In a daylong celebration centered on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and across the city’s Old City district, tens of thousands of people were estimated to have turned out for this year’s Wawa Welcome America! celebration — despite heavy rains that momentarily put a damper on Tuesday’s festivities mid-evening.

For the most part, authorities said, Independence Day in Philadelphia remained peaceful: There were no reported arrests at the festivities and crime elsewhere across the city remained minimal.

Which meant that, for the rest of the city, July Fourth was exactly as it should have been: a day for celebration.

And celebrate, Philadelphia did.

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After a day filled with food trucks, arcade games, pop-up beer gardens, and more, the merriment Tuesday was capped by a massive concert set in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. One of the first headliners on stage was the city’s own Boyz II Men. But around 8:30 p.m., moments before the “Queen of Hip-Hop” Mary J. Blige was scheduled to go on, a deluge of rain began, sending attendees running for cover underneath trucks and awnings. As they ran, many hoisted folding chairs above their heads to protect themselves from the downpour. Other soaked listeners packed up, ready to head home.

“This isn’t rain,” said Joseph Holder, 23, of Fishtown, as he exited the parkway. “This is rain on steroids.”

He and his friends pulled up walking directions on their phone and on the count of three ran from the awning they were huddled under and off through the storm.

But not all attendees were deterred. By about 9 p.m., after the rain had stopped, those left behind on the Parkway were some of Blige’s staunchest fans, who were ready to see her — no matter the wait.

“We were kind of ready because we knew it might rain,” said Joe McNeil, 41, of Phoenixville, who still remained on the Parkway after the rain had passed. “We had [a] tarp, we all grabbed a corner and put it up.” Then, he invited strangers to take cover.

“We love the fireworks and wanted to see if Mary came on,” McNeil said, “so we figured it was worth it.”

Finally, by 9:15 p.m., Blige had sent word: Through NBC10 reporters at the scene, she thanked everyone for waiting. Along the parkway, announcers proclaimed they were only on a rain delay — and that the show would go on. And finally, at 9:24, one hour after the rain began, Blige took to the stage, and began belting out her hit “Love Yourself.”

“Philly, thank you all for standing in the rain,” Blige shouted to the crowd about halfway through her set. “…Thank you so much.”

As she sang hit after hit, fans in the crowd shimmied and danced, and shouted along to lyrics. And those who stayed were rewarded: Thinner crowds meant fans who initially found spots toward the back of the street were able to push their way closer.

“It worked out for us,” joked Darryl Wilkins, 55, who found cover under a tent during the rain. And by the time fireworks erupted at 10:40 p.m. after Blige’s performance, fans such as Wilkins had the perfect seats.

But hours before rainfall delayed festivities, the city paid homage to America’s history — from the Revolutionary era to today.

Around 10 a.m., Mayor Kenney opened the day at Independence Mall with the “Celebration of Freedom” ceremony featuring Boyz II Men — this time with the group reading portions of the Declaration of Independence.

Yet the day also had more reverent moments. At the Independence Mall event, Kenney presented Ralph Galati, a war hero, former prisoner of war and currently, the director of veterans services at St. Joseph’s University, with the Magis Award, recognizing his work with veterans.

Galati was imprisoned in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” prison in Vietnam with Sen. John McCain. In a videotaped message broadcast during the ceremony, McCain said Galati had been in solitary confinement, but his “immense love of country enabled him to persevere.” Galati received rousing applause.

“Go out, call and find a vet, talk to a vet, thank a vet and get right in their face and ask if they’re getting their full benefits,” Galati said in a speech after accepting the award. “Don’t accept a flaky answer.”

And later in the day, at the Betsy Ross House, nearly a dozen children took part in a naturalization ceremony, raising their hands around 1:30 p.m., and swearing allegiance to the United States.

For the most part, however, Tuesday was a day of revelry. Food truck vendors such as Baby Blues BBQ and Hai Street Kitchen witnessed high volumes of traffic, and many families spent the day camped out on blankets and on chairs, watching the parade go by.

For some, it was an annual tradition — attendees such as Lorraine Harris, 86, of Chester City attended for her 42nd year.

“I came by car, then trolley, then subway,” said the retired nurse, nodding at all the bands that marched during the parade. She waved at her son, Gregory, 50, who was carrying a flag while marching with the 2nd Colored Calvary, one of the first African American regiments.

For others, such as Tanesha Williams, 32, it was the start of newer traditions: watching Blige with her 7-year-old son, Syaire.

“I love the concert and the fact that everyone comes out in the city,” Williams said. “It’s one time that the city can come together, no drama. … Everyone’s having a good time and enjoying themselves.”

And for a smaller segment of the crowds, it was a chance to do something new entirely: a zip line over a portion of the city, set up near Logan Circle.

Mike Jacobs, who owns the Delaware County-based Zip and Bounce, said the zip line was such a hit at April’s NFL draft that organizers decided to bring it back. On Tuesday, they charged $15 a ride.

And such folks as Fred Waller, 43, of Lancaster, just could not resist.

With his 14-year-old daughter, Kylee, watching underneath, Waller screamed as he took his journey down along the rope. Kylee videotaped him on her phone.

“I loved it,” Waller said once he was back on the ground. “I was a little scared once I got up there, but there’s no refunds.”

He turned to Kylee and asked whether she wanted to try. She wasn’t feeling it today, she said.

“Are you sure? We can put it on Snapchat or ‘the gram’ [Instagram] or something,” he said with a laugh.

Staff writers Michael Burke, Colt Shaw and Adia Robinson contributed to this article.

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