Trouble Waits In The Wings For Liberty's Birthday Fete

Posted: July 03, 1986

NEW YORK — After a drab, gray morning of rain pelting the increasingly crowded streets of lower Manhattan, the sun finally made its grand entrance late yesterday afternoon. Grim-faced tourists waiting under umbrellas outside the tall ships moored at the South Street Seaport broke into applause.

In the final, hectic hours before the opening today of the four-day celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty, forecasters' prediction that the skies would remain clear through at least the first two days was one very welcome piece of good news.

Because elsewhere, some last-minute brushfires were breaking out:

* Despite an 11th-hour meeting with city officials, many of New York's taxi drivers remained adamant in their threat to stage a 30-hour protest strike beginning this afternoon and running through the end of the day tomorrow. There has been no taxi fare increase in New York for six years, and the cabbies are angry. As many as 8,000 of the city's 12,000 hacks are expected to take part in the wildcat action. "It's okay with us," a city spokesman said, "the less traffic on the street the better. Besides, it will just encourage people to take the subway, which is what we want them to do."

* Protesters, angry with the treatment of America's homeless, set up a small shantytown in Battery Park late Monday, a ragtag cluster of cardboard hovels meant to provide a suitable eyesore for the early throngs of Liberty Weekend tourists. They stayed through the rain but began decamping yesterday afternoon, although they had permits to remain until this morning. A spokesman for the Coalition for the Homeless said they had made their point. The Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke to them yesterday, charging that the weekend celebration was merely a party for the rich. "Lady Liberty was designed to welcome the poor and the huddled masses who yearn to breathe free," he said. "They are not just in the past tense, they are in the present tense and they are in the future tense. A celebration of liberty without justice is incomplete."

* Hundreds of gay protesters stormed onto Sixth Avenue near Sheridan Square in the West Village late Monday, closing it to traffic and denouncing the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision upholding a Georgia anti-sodomy law. "One- two-three-four, civil rights or civil war," they shouted. Some protesters promised to "close down Sixth Avenue" during today's opening festivities and even jam the turnstiles at the Sheridan Square subway stop to bring the underground trains to a halt.

* A Liberty Weekend spokesman acknowledged that the event's organizers had received complaints from professional Elvis Presley impersonators, who argued that the 200 "Elvis sing-a-likes" who will be a part of the closing ceremonies on Sunday night are not really Elvis impersonators - they're only impersonating Elvis impersonators. The spokesman said it was too late to do anything about it.

The biggest problem facing the extravaganza was resolved last night, when liability insurance was obtained for tomorrow night's mammoth fireworks display, a torrent of 40,000 explosive devices to be shot from 20 barges anchored off the tip of Manhattan that will be "the largest fireworks show in the history of the United States," organizers said.

Spokesman Henning Nielsen of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation Inc. refused in a telephone conversation to disclose the cost of the liability insurance policy or the names of the insurance companies providing it.

"We're not going to disclose the policies, the carriers or any of that,

because that's normal business practice," he said. Asked whose practice, he said the foundation's.

Negotiations lasted into last night because "insurance is very complicated," Hollywood producer David L. Wolper, organizer of the Liberty Weekend events, said before the talks were concluded. "But I cannot believe in my heart that the fireworks will be canceled in this country on the Fourth of July because of an insurance problem."

Hoping to get a jump on the four-day celebration, thousands of tourists slogged through the streets of lower Manhattan yesterday. Most of them congregated either at Battery Park, which affords the best view of the Statue of Liberty, or around the South Street Seaport complex.

Crews from several of the international tall ships were taking in the sights - beginning today, they'll be back aboard ship taking part in the Parade of Sail (a gathering of 273 sailing ships, including 22 so-called tall ships) and the International Naval Review (a collection of more than 50 warships from 35 nations, including the gigantic USS John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier already moored in the harbor off Manhattan).

Although all the sailors had been shown a special film about the dangers of New York City, urging them to take in a museum instead of a strip show, many visited the Times Square area. Sidewalk barkers yelled after them "kinky show, right here, kinky show!" and one group of baby-faced Norwegian sailors disappeared into a subterranean sex palace on Eighth Avenue.

Edgar Hanley, a Manhattan advertising copywriter, shook his head as he watched them descend.

"They're doomed," he said.

In the cavernous second-floor of the New York Coliseum on Columbus Circle, the Harlem Boys Choir was practicing yesterday for its part in Sunday's closing ceremonies while the members of the Paris Boys Choir watched from the sidelines, waiting their turn and sucking on fresh grapefruit.

Other outdoor rehearsals, including one for Shirley MacLaine's number at Giants Stadium, were canceled by the rain, though last-minute cleanup and construction on Liberty and Governors islands continued through the downpour.

"We can't let the rain stop us," a National Park Service spokesman said. ''We've got a deadline to meet."

At 8:30 a.m. today, the 273 sailing ships moored at the South Street Seaport and at various Long Island Sound yacht clubs will make their way down the East River, through the harbor and under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to overnight anchorages in the lower bay.

Around 11:30 a.m., the armada will make its way from the open sea to the ships' moorings in the upper bay and along the western banks of the Hudson River opposite Midtown Manhattan.

Cardinal John J. O'Connor will lead an ecumenical service at St. Patrick's Cathedral at 11 a.m., followed by a ceremonial bell-ringing on the church steps at noon (Bob Hope will do the honors, ringing a replica of the Liberty Bell).

The official opening ceremonies on Governors Island, to be attended by President Reagan, French President Francois Mitterrand and several hundred spectators who paid $5,000 apiece to be there, will begin at 8:30 p.m.

After some inspirational readings, brief speeches, songs, films and the presentation of the Medal of Liberty to 12 distinguished naturalized Americans, Reagan will throw a switch sending a laser beam shooting across the harbor to Liberty Island and commencing the official relighting of the Statue of Liberty.

On nearby Ellis Island, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger will administer the oath of citizenship to 250 immigrants while 12,500 others follow along via satellite television from five other locations around the country.

Finally - at 10:53 p.m., according to the schedule - Reagan will throw another switch relighting Liberty's newly gilded torch, commencing a brief fireworks display.

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