A Night With the New York City Fireworks Crews

The pervasive displays have been called “mysterious” and “unexplained.” They’re not really.

A man in Brooklyn New York holds a firework stick in his hands as it explodes.
Aymann Ismail

It’s been loud in New York City. Fireworks complaints have already reached past 10,000 for the first half of the year, up from barely 50 total in the first half of 2019. Residents of some neighborhoods are rattled, and others have proffered hazy conspiracies about police involvement. Mayor Bill De Blasio has pledged a “huge sting operation” to go after suppliers, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, not to be outdone, said Monday that he would get the New York State Police involved to cut off fireworks from New York’s more pyrotechnic neighbors in Pennsylvania.

These nightly displays have been called “mysterious” in multiple outlets, but they’re not really. On a balcony at a friend’s house in Brooklyn last weekend, we chatted as fireworks crackled all around us. Some too close for comfort. He pointed to the building just behind his, and told me he’s seen teenagers setting them off. “Those kids are fine,” he said, telling me they stop around 9 p.m. “It’s those guys who go all night,” pointing down the block.

A large red firework explodes over an apartment building in Brooklyn New York
Aymann Ismail

I spent the next few hours roaming the streets, trying to pinpoint various fireworks’ launch spots. All consumer fireworks are illegal in New York City—even sparklers—but they weren’t hard to find. Every few minutes, another burst shot into the sky. People outside gazed and smiled. Many people were enjoying it—unless they were trying to sleep.

I asked someone sitting outside near where I saw some if he knew where they were coming from. He smiled and pointed me to just further down the block. “You won’t miss them,” he said, just as another one went off.

He was right. It was obvious for the huge number of spent fireworks containers and cardboard boxes. There were about 10 people parked outside of an apartment building. One held a long tube firework in his hand and was just about to light it. I quickly told him I’m a journalist and asked if I could take pictures. “It’s a free country,” he said. “Do what you want. So long as you’re not a cop.”

It was a surreal sight. The fireworks they shot looked like the type you’d only see as part of the Macy’s display, which this year won’t look much different than these one-off shows. They went up just enough to clear the six-story buildings and explode. In a city that often feels claustrophobic, everyone was looking up at the sky.

The loud pops and crackles didn’t interrupt the laughing and conversations. After vehicle traffic slowed down, the same guy who posed for pictures walked out into the street and set up a plastic tube to shoot off a big one. He ran to the side of the street, and they all watched as it lit up the night. Some said they had been social distancing, but no one was wearing a mask. “Corona is corny,” one of them said.

Men step back from lit fireworks in Brooklyn.
Aymann Ismail

An undercover police car did roll through, an all-black car with discreet sirens. No one was fazed: “Is this the part where you come out with your gun?” they asked loud enough for the cops to hear. The car stopped, and for a moment it looked like it might turn into a standoff. But the car slowly pulled away.

“I love this shit. I want to be a demolition man,” a guy said as he shot off another. I asked him where he was getting all of them. He told me they get them from people who bring them in from Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. I asked him if he’d seen the videos of some NYPD officers setting off fireworks. He was aware of the conspiracy theories, but he dismissed them: “They get them from us!” he told me. “Sometimes they’ll come and confiscate them and give them to their kids. I guess they want to have fun too.”

Soon after, another car pulled up. This one parked right in front of the group and popped the trunk. It was full of fireworks. The man was clearly from out of town and was selling them for cash, from $5 to more than $100. He wouldn’t speak to me—he was only there to make a quick sale. The group I’m standing with bought more. One guy pointed to a group further down the block and said “Try them.” He gives them a nod, then pulls away.

The party went on: “Check this out, I’ma shoot two at a time.” I told them I was going to keep walking and find more groups to photograph. One guy invited me back, and said this was nothing compared to what they have planned for July 4.

I found another crew almost immediately. They were very excited: “You came here just in time! We’re about to set off a big one.” The box has a cat on it, with the phrase “SAY WHAT???” on it. This one was going to be big. A younger person in the group couldn’t wait—he set it down right where they were standing. They yelled at him to move it across the street, where it’s safer.

He lit it and ran back across the street, and told me to stand way back: “I don’t want you getting hurt.”

The fireworks banged and the sky lit up. It was all smiles. I showed them the pictures I got, and they were excited. I scrolled through and showed them some of the others from the area. They recognized each other. I asked them if there’s a sense of competition between the groups around Brooklyn. “Nah, we’re just having fun,” he told me. “What else should we be doing?”

Fireworks over the city.
Aymann Ismail