A few young men in Crown Heights pulled a couple of boxes of fireworks into the street on Tuesday night and unfurled a long roll of firecrackers to make one neat line. Their friends crowded to the edge of the street and pulled out their phones. It was around 10 p.m. and dark, but they knew that wouldn’t matter soon.
As they waited for a couple of cars to pass, the group heard some competing pops and sizzles a few blocks away. “They’re gonna ruin our show,” one joked.
They had already been at it for an hour or so, and now it was the time for the big finale. “Y'all ready?” one asked, lighter in hand. They had piled the rest of their haul into the street, and someone said, “All right, go.” Four people lit the fireworks all at once and a thunderous mix of pops and booms filled the block.
This is how it works, at least from what I could find biking around Brooklyn on Tuesday night, chasing flares. These fireworks — reported in cities around the country — were not some elaborate psyops conducted by government officials to discredit the national protest movement. They were not being set off by police. They were not “professional” grade.
But the fireworks have become a source of ire for New Yorkers, and complaints to 311 are up since last year. Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced a task force that will start sting operations to crack down on illegal fireworks in New York City.
“I heard about that,” one of the friends told me. “I don’t know why they want to stop fireworks. They don’t last that long.”
“It’s just a way for us to stay out of trouble,” said another. BuzzFeed News is not naming the men because the activity is illegal in New York City.
According to the young men and a purported corner fireworks broker I spoke with, it’s pretty simple: Fireworks are in demand and there’s a surplus of coronavirus-inspired boredom.
Two of the boxes hauled out Tuesday night are called 500-gram cakes, or repeaters, from a Pennsylvania chain called Keystone Fireworks. It’s the largest firework that a consumer can buy in the US. The boxes have bright packaging and come with names like “heavy duty” or “red white and boom.” You just have to light one fuse on the outside, and it sets off a series of explosions through interconnected tubes inside — one match gets you a whole amateur show.
The demand for fireworks has been so high that dealers are reselling them on the streets of Brooklyn. At the border of Crown Heights and Brownsville, an entire block was celebrating on Tuesday night. As clusters of fireworks exploded, groups of friends clustered around stoops, music played from speakers and the hoods of cars acted as makeshift bar tops with bottles of beer or liquor.
“Look they’re coming from Pennsylvania,” a man who identified himself as a fireworks seller in Brooklyn told me. “They’re cheap. If I had $500 worth of fireworks right now, I can resell them for $1,500.”
The math to him was simple. If he can buy them from someone coming from Pennsylvania and then resell them: “We both eat,” he said.
“A lot of people have lost their jobs,” he said, “but people still find money.”
He pointed out that someone on every nearby street was setting off fireworks. He estimates they are likely being resold once or twice before they find someone willing to light them up.
Nearby, a pair of NYPD officers on the corner in front of a storefront said they’ve been instructed not to police the situation. A firework whistled through the air just across the street as we spoke. The officer clarified that de Blasio’s task force would focus on stopping shipments into the city, but by the time they got to the streets, there was nothing much for them to do.
Still, de Blasio’s crackdown has already begun.
On Tuesday, FDNY fire marshalls arrested two men in Staten Island for allegedly bringing in $6,000 worth of fireworks from out of state. The New York City Sheriff's Office also reported that two officers arrested men in East Flatbush for allegedly dealing $2,500 worth of fireworks trafficked from Pennsylvania.
Kevin Shaub, one of the owners of Keystone Fireworks, told me over the phone that his buy one, get one deal was nothing different from previous years. But in 2020, he said, there is pent-up demand because his stores were closed in late May and early June because of the pandemic — and people just want to celebrate.
“We’re seeing a lot more enthusiasm for fireworks this year,” he said.
Initially, the fireworks industry was preparing for a slow season. Most fireworks are produced in China, and because of the coronavirus, manufacturing largely was on pause early in the year. It was unclear they would even be able to get shipments into the US, said Bruce Zoldan, who owns Phantom Fireworks, which has about 80 locations across the country.
Still, he said, they managed to get their inventory in and business has been great.
“We’re up 100 or 200% every day,” Zoldan explained. Phantom Fireworks products were also found on the streets of Brooklyn. “It’s the new toilet paper or the hand sanitizer of the coronavirus,” he said. “People can’t go anywhere so they’re celebrating in their backyards.”
Both Zoldan and Shaub said their prices haven’t dropped this year.
Just before the group of young men set off their last explosions on Tuesday night, a woman walked down from the end of the block to introduce herself.
“Look, I have a newborn,” she told the group. “It’s been two weeks of this. I just want to know what’s going on.”
“I have a 4-year-old son,” said one of the men, pointing to his kid. “He loves it.”
“My 9-year-olds love it too, don’t get me wrong,” she said. “But does it go all summer? Is it a Juneteenth to 4th of July thing?”
Zoldan has her answer: He thinks supply is already running out.
“No one prepared for this kind of demand,” Zoldan said, saying fireworks take weeks to manufacture and ship and are not an on-demand product. “Who knows how much we’ll even have in four days. I don’t know if we’ll make it to July 4th.”