First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton may have drawn the political players to the St. Patrick's Parade in Sunnyside and Woodside on Sunday, but what brought 4,000 ordinary people out to watch was something much closer to home.
Franklyn Solarte, a student at IS 125 in Sunnyside, sat on his bike and greeted the colorful parade marching along Skillman Avenue with a smile on his face and his friends at his side.
"It doesn't happen every day," he said. "It's a change in the neighborhood. It's nice, all the different colors."
Franklyn and his friends, Alberto Sanchez, Indroneel Dhar and Brian Salcedo, said they knew it was an Irish parade but liked the Korean, Native American and Chinese marchers as well.
"It's like, all our friends in the neighborhood," Franklyn said.
The boys giggled when asked if they noticed the gay and lesbian groups marching. Sunday's all-inclusive St. Patrick's celebration in Queens, unlike the larger march through Manhattan next week, allowed the groups to march.
"It's freedom," Franklyn said with a shrug. "It's OK."
The Sunday afternoon march, the first of its kind, capped months of organizing. Several local businesses that initially supported the parade pulled out after learning it accepted gay and lesbian marchers, prompting fears that the event might lose the backing of the community altogether.
But in the end, the parade attracted a crowd of 4,000 spectators along the 20-block route with no incidents or arrests, according to Capt. Michael Bryan of the 108th Precinct. A mix of groups from Queens and elsewhere participated, including the first lady, whose decision to march could strengthen her standing among potential supporters in her race for U.S. Senate.
"It's politics as well as to celebrate Irish Americans and Irish people," said Ellen Fields of Sunnyside. "Hillary's gaining support by coming to Sunnyside, and a lot of the woman and Irish people are going to support her now."
After emerging from her motorcade into a throng of politicians and cameras, Clinton was welcomed by a diverse group of local children. Parade co-organizer Brendan Fay of Astoria said the parade committee chose the children as symbolic grand marshals to reflect the parade's theme, "Cherishing all the children of the nation equally," a line from the Irish Republic Proclamation of 1916.
"I feel absolutely elated, very excited," said Flushing resident Ellen Duncan, Fay's co-organizer.
With this year's election season in full swing, the parade drew dozens of politicians, including three likely mayoral candidates - Public Advocate Mark Green, Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer and City Comptroller Alan Hevesi.
U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Jackson Heights), one of the most prominent Irish-Americans in Queens, had not committed to marching in the parade until just a few days before the event. He emphasized that the parade was a milestone for the community.
"It's a beautiful day, and it's the first one [parade] here," Crowley said. "I've always said that I'll march in any parade I'm invited to. This is an old Irish neighborhood."
Other officials supported the parade's political message more explicitly.
"It's an important parade and it's an inclusive parade," said U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Astoria). "It's important that we pass at the federal level the hate crimes bill, not only for gays and lesbians, but any discrimination based on gender or any other area."
The groups in the parade ran the gamut from the Flushing Letter Carriers Association, which led a large contingent of unions; to the Emerald Isle Immigration Center in Woodside, a non-profit group that helps recent immigrants from Ireland; to SAGE/Queens Clubhouse, a gay and lesbian senior center in Astoria; to the McAllister Family Justice campaign, an asylum effort for an Irish family from Bayside.
County associations representing Irish-Americans from different parts of Ireland and local churches chose not to participate in the march.
Members of the Falun Dafa, a Flushing-based branch of a Chinese meditation group, marched behind vibrant red and yellow banners while the Lavender and Green Alliance, an Irish gay and lesbian group in Queens, marched under a rainbow of lavender and green balloons. The Sunnyside Drum Corps waved its lemon-yellow flags against the bright afternoon sky, and bagpipers from several different groups filled the air with their music.
"It's great because traditionally Queens has been thought of as somewhat conservative," said Jimmy Van Bramer of Astoria. "Queens is welcoming and appreciative of its diversity."
Van Bramer, who works for the Queens Borough Public Library system, is openly gay and running as a delegate for Bill Bradley in this year's presidential primary. He was arrested last year while protesting the exclusion of gays from a parade in the Bronx.
"It's good to be celebrating as opposed to protesting," he said.
While the parade did not draw organized or large-scale protests, there were a few individual demonstrators scattered along the sidewalk, including a man and woman who stood saying prayers with rosary beads in hand. They declined to answer questions or identify themselves.
"It's a sacrilege and they're offending God by using one of his great saints to endorse homosexuality," said John Kladde of Yonkers, another protester.
But other Catholics supported the message of the parade.
Mychal Judge, a Franciscan brother from St. Francis Church in Manhattan, came to march with the Emerald Isle Immigration Center.
"We're in a new century in America now," Judge said. "If we can't all live and accept each other just as God has made us...well, then we're never going to have peace."
©2000 Community News Group
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