Flag Day celebration (and quiz)! How one PA steel town bravely recognizes its past.

It’s Flag Day!  And it’s kind of remarkable how, given my blog’s fixation with flags over the years (including some very creative flag reimagining), I’ve never really covered this 75-year-old holiday, commemorating the 247th anniversary of a distinct American flag.  Yes, it was June 14th in 1777 that the Second Continental Congress adopted an official flag of the United States, triumphantly abandoning the Grand Union Flag that proliferated in the earliest days of the Revolutionary War.  (The presence of the Union Jack in the Grand Union Flag’s canton predictably contributed to its rapid demise.)  This June 14th declaration in ‘77 was more verbal than illustrative; the design apocryphally attributed to Betsy Ross only achieved cogency as “the first US flag” in subsequent years.

The swirl of events that brought about the most famous original US flag and its ring of 13 stars is too murky to warrant its own celebratory day.  The declaration of a flag, however, indisputably took place on June 14th.  President Woodrow Wilson designated it a commemorative day in 1916; Congress codified this proclamation in 1949, though it did not result in a federal holiday.  Individual states have the freedom to decide exactly how to recognize Flag Day.  And while many do, the diffuse observation makes Flag Day feel more regional in nature.  Its low significance across most of the country (who remain aware of it because it appears in nearly all calendars) has relegated the day to a bit of a joke—kind of a shame, because flags are rich in symbolic content, both in the imagery depicted and how the flag’s possessor flies it.

These symbolic underpinnings help set the stage for this Flag Day rumination in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, a once-mighty company town founded by American Bridge Company (hence the name) about a thirty minute drive northwest from the heart of Pittsburgh.

Like many old steel towns that surround the ‘Burgh, Ambridge suffered mightily with the collapse of the industry—the borough’s primary reason for being.  Peaking at over 20,000 people in the 1930 census (a mere 25 years after its incorporation), Ambridge reported just under 7,000 people in 2020.  Merchant Street, the primary commercial corridor in the photo above, stretches several blocks that parallel the nearby Ohio River; based on the street’s occupancy levels, I’d wager it has about three times as many buildings as it needs.  At least the nearby Ambridge Aliquippa Bridge over the Ohio (Ambridge’s signature fabrication) looks muscular, competent, and well used.  The still operative American Bridge Company welcomes people into the borough through its brand.

Ambridge shows signs of entrepreneurial efforts to breathe life back into Merchant Street; its just not happening enough to contend with a place built for 20,000 people that now claims over 60% fewer than those 1920s-era developers (largely the American Bridge Company Itself) intended.

Like many post-industrial towns striving for reinvention, Ambridge has sought to aestheticize its main street  And among those increasingly popular strategies is to endow the crosswalks with some color.

Recognizing Flag Day with heart shaped national symbols in an Ambridge PA crosswalk

I can find no evidence that Ambridge does anything particularly special for Flag Day, like most of the country.  But the borough seems to have deployed the tried-and-true tactic of offering a panoply of flags to showcase the town’s cultural heritage.  This crosswalk, on the eastern side of Merchant Street, looks pretty worn down by time and age.  Not a recent initiative.  Or is it?  The most recent Google Street View of Merchant Street Ambridge shows nothing yet painted on the crosswalk in August 2022; either these sort of efforts wear down very quickly or the public works department used unusually cheap paint.  It’s not even two years old.

That said, I have tried to quiz myself on the flags nestled within these heart shapes.  Starting with the one closest to where I was standing and then working my way outward, I’m going to guess (no cheating):

  1. Slovakia
  2. Hungary
  3. Greece
  4. Poland
  5. Lithuania
  6. …um…Netherlands?

Reviewing my results, I got four of the six right.  Number 5 and 6 are wrong, but man are they hard to see.  I now believe the second-farthest (#5) is Germany; what I thought was a dark green is actually black.  (Lithuania does use green, red, and gold, but not in the sequence depicted here.)  And that last flag (#6) is most likely a reference to Serbia, given the sequence of the colors from top to bottom.  But it is not the exact contemporary Serbian tricolor because it lacks the coat of arms.  All in all, Netherlands was a bad guess on my part.  Throughout metropolitan Pittsburgh, the bulk of historic immigration came from Slavic and other eastern European nations; just a block off of Merchant Street, Ambridge hosts at least one prominent Eastern-rite orthodox church.

Now I’ll party like the Flag Day junkie I am by playing taking the same quiz with the crosswalk on the western side of Merchant Street.

Recognizing Flag Day with heart shaped national symbols in an Ambridge PA crosswalk

Starting with the one closest to me, we have the following:

  1. Israel
  2. Russia
  3. Pan-African
  4. Bulgaria
  5. Ukraine
  6. Italy

Okay, now checking my answers: this time, probably a five out of six.  The Bulgaria one is wrong; presuming I am looking at red, white, and green, I had the right colors but in the wrong order.  The only one I can find that uses green, white, and then red (from top to bottom) is the German state of North-Rhine Westphalia.  This isn’t likely.  Maybe that green is once again actually black, so it goes black, white, and red?  If that were the case, it does not reference any flag for a country that currently exists.  I’m scratching my head.

To conclude this riotous Flag Day celebration, this duality of crosswalks with heart-shaped flags clearly intends to showcase cultural heritage and allegiances.  But with no further context, it becomes as nebulous as those two flag-hearts that I cannot corroborate.  To add insult to injury, these crosswalks, implemented no earlier than fall of 2022, already juxtaposed Russia and Ukraine at a time the former had invaded the latter.  Awkward!  And, in the last eight months or so, the flag of Israel has become a greater source of contention.

I don’t seek to wade any further into political waters.  As prematurely aged as these crosswalks appear, they’re already aging poorly based on recent international conflict.  If a community must react to a sudden geopolitical change reflective of the flags that the community showcases, it’s a whole lot easier to edit when the flag is fabric appended to a pole, rather than painted on a public right-of-way.  And, considering that flags generally are little more than a piece of cloth, it’s amazing how the positioning of a few colors and shapes can elicit such acrimony.  Maybe this explains why Flag Day has taken such a back seat amidst all those national holidays.  And why so few people care.

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4 thoughts on “Flag Day celebration (and quiz)! How one PA steel town bravely recognizes its past.

  1. DianaLeigh

    I enjoyed your flag-inspired blog: you captured the nonchalant attitude we often have for this day. My quiz-taking on the heart renditions of flags would have been poor, but I appreciate what the city was attempting.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Until I did the research for this article, I didn’t realize it was a fixed-number day each year! I thought it was something like the “second Tuesday of June”. Though national in scale, Flag Day is really only widely celebrated in certain localities. I’m not sure there are any national-level celebrations. Certainly none in DC that I’m aware of.

      Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          Little did I know…and I lived there for 2+ years. I guess Philly is as good of a place as any. And not only has the city been celebrating Flag Day since the late 19th century, but the festivities are a week long. I would say, “Who knew?” but apparently many Philadelphians do!

          Reply

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