NEW YORK -- Summertime in the city, when activities that would have seemed strange a generation ago (a gay pride parade) take on the appearance of normality, and the normal (eating hot dogs) is taken to amusing extremes.
The gay parade late last month followed passage of a same-sex marriage bill by the Democrat-dominated New York Assembly (the lower house of the state legislature). That political victory set the tone for a show of strength: The parade was like the Union Army marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington in 1865 following the Civil War's conclusion, a display of overwhelming force and a warning to the recalcitrant that it's time to give in.
The first marchers in the parade were contingents from assorted denominations, followed by a whole slew of Episcopalians from churches named after probably discomforted saints: Clement, George, Mark, Bart, Michael, Luke. Signs sought religious respectability: "God made us Queer," "Deacons in Drag," "Dykes for Christ," "Gay by the grace of God," "Called out," etc.
Conservatives like to pass around videos of San Francisco gay paraders dressed as nuns or flaunting whips and chains, but the New York parade emphasized gay sports activities -- softball, soccer, sailing, and so forth -- and normally dressed contingents from colleges, businesses and governmental groups. Some floats did reflect a harsher reality: a dozen health groups advertised their HIV testing and demands for government-provided medical insurance and lower-cost pharmaceuticals.
Those pleas for government action showed that the gay movement's success is still highly tied to the potency of its lobbying, political contributions, media connections and support from judges. The movement needs government power to force Christian adoption agencies to place children with gay parents, to forbid "hate speech" critical of homosexuality and to require schools to teach that all kinds of "families" are equally beneficial.
The 91st annual Nathan's Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest was different. You may have read that the Coney Island event produced a new champion, Californian Joey Chestnut, who dethroned Takeru Kobayashi, the six-time Japanese winner. But the 50,000 spectators were also witnessing a neighborhood beginning a comeback from decades of government planning.
Coney Island, part of New York City, is famous in American literature and film. In "The Great Gatsby," Gatsby invites Nick to go to Coney Island, and in Clara Bow's 1927 silent film "It," the neighborhood's amusement park is practically a co-star. After 1950, though, waves of officials such as New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses looked down on the "tawdry" amusements that characterized the boardwalk area. They pulled strings to substitute tawdry housing projects that became gang havens.
Coney Island went through bad decades, but even bureaucrats can't take away the ocean, and the beachfront location has inspired some entrepreneurs to ignore planners' sandcastles and attempt to develop new small businesses and privately owned housing. The Nathan's contest is another kind of bottom-up competition: The first contest arose in 1916 when four immigrants agreed to judge who was the most patriotic by stuffing themselves with the most American of foods.
The contest then grew, an authentic piece of red-white-and-chew popular culture. It was fun to see last week the good humor of a crowd made up of many races and nationalities, polarized not by politics but by mock-fierce cheers for Kobayashi and chants of "USA, USA" for Chestnut, who won by eating 66 hot dugs and buns in 12 minutes, setting a new world record and winning $10,000 plus a mustard-yellow belt.
I'm not wild about competitive eating as a sport. When the announcer introduced one contestant as a direct descendant of Daniel Boone -- "He doesn't explore the woods, he explores the malls of America ... the paths to the food court" -- I wondered if we're making progress. But I do tend to applaud initiatives that do not demand government's heavy hand.