RALEIGH — Five-year-old Aryan Khowala, wearing blue underwear and a blue-and-white-striped shirt, paused in front of the quarter-inch piece of balsa wood held before him by martial arts master Julia Wegman of the Vision Martial Arts Academy in Raleigh.
Then, the boy delivered a karate chop that broke the board in half.
Ooooooh, the crowd murmured, impressed.
Thats a great age to start, Wegman said. We start them as soon as theyre potty trained.
Aryans martial arts feat was just one event held in downtown Raleigh Friday as part of the The Works street festival, a glorious melange of arts, high and low culture, food, professional wrestling with music, music and more music in celebration of this nations 238th birthday.
It has been three years since the city moved its Fourth of July fireworks from the State Fairgrounds to downtown Raleigh. As impressive or unimpressive, depending on who you ask as the night-ending rockets red glare is each year, the pyrotechnics display Friday night had to make room this year for a festival that is growing in diversity with offerings reflective of the regions international flavor.
The festival organizers tried to offer something for everyone, and good-old fashioned family fun was the signature statement. Its hard not to smile in anticipation of contests to gobble down the most hot dogs, eat lots of ice cream or spit watermelon seeds at impressive distances.
Meanwhile, Happy birthday America! and USA! USA! USA!, were the days catchphrases offered in greetings and patriotic affirmation by shopkeepers and festival patrons alike.
Traditional fare like hot dogs, watermelon, barbecue, bluegrass, beer and wrestling had to make room for African drumming, falafel, tabouleh and the voice of reggae icon Bob Marley encouraging festival-goers to Lively Up Yourself on Hargett Street.
Bonita Michael, 44, of Morrisville, and her daughters, Ashleigh Clark, 21, and Tiana Clark, 14, were blocks away from the festival when they heard the outdoor drumming on Fayetteville Street, the main artery of the event.
We heard it way down there, Michael said, while pointing to the other end of Fayetteville Street. We could feel the rhythm. It feels like something coming from the soul. Its a beautiful thing. Music is a source of energy.
That musical energy filled the air and commingled with the smells of funnel cakes, half hogs cooked all night on grills still on display, giant turkey legs, Polish sausage with fried onions and green peppers, watermelon and ice cream.
Employees of the Pit, a restaurant that specializes in pork barbecue with locations in Raleigh and Durham, set up four grills Thursday night to slow cook 10 hogs for the event.
Andrew Bruce, a sous chef at the restaurant, sported a Porky Pig tattoo on his forearm and monitored the meat still sizzling on the grills.
My job for the day is to talk to people about the 300-year-old cooking tradition that came from our descendants in the 15th century, he said. We cooked 10 hogs last night, and we will cook 10 more fresh ones for tonight.
Firefighters who work the downtown district hoisted an impressive 25-foot by 40-foot American flag onto a ladder truck. It flew overhead, blessing the celebration.
Fayetteville Street served as the main strip, but every cross-street along the thoroughfare, along with the nearby Red Hat Amphitheater, served up generous portions of entertainment and food.
Martin Street was transformed into a Kids Zone, where children and parents lined up to jump up and down inside bounce houses. One bounce house featured a giant slide and another targeted youthful bull riders.
DeWayne and Veronica Soles of Cary arrived downtown at 1 p.m. and waited in line with their daughters, Brooklyn, 8, and Devyn, 7, who wanted to climb up and then zoom down the giant slide.
We came here last year, Veronica Soles said.
We did? Brooklyn asked.
We always come to the downtown festivals, Veronica Soles answered. Its free, so its a good value and its good exercise because you get a lot of walking in.
And theres a lot of arts and culture, her husband chimed in.
Umm hmm, a lot of that, too, she agreed.
When it was Brooklyn and Devyns turn to climb the slide, they scampered off.
The parents opted not to participate.
My stomach cant handle that today, Veronica Soles said. Its all about the kids.
It was about the kids, but the holiday seemed to bring out the kid in everyone.
There was The RazzaMaJazz Dixieland Band, a musical quintet outfitted in white polo shirts with red and blue trim, along with trousers that featured red and white stripes on one leg and white stars with a blue background on the other, played patriotic, Dixieland jazz music on banjo, tuba, clarinet, trombone and washboard.
Street preachers shared space with street musicians. A hula hoop artist performed next to a magician, while the driver of a red train filled with passengers navigated his way through the thousands of people in milling about.
The celebration was also an opportunity for a good cause.
Kevin Sommers, a member the Rotary Club of Raleigh, was selling watermelon slices to benefit some of Wake Countys neediest citizens.
Waaatermelooon! he sang to passers-by at the intersection of Martin and Fayetteville streets.
Were helping out the city, but this is a fundraiser for us, he said. We are raising money thats committed to the Salvation Army on Capital Boulevard.
Sommers explained that the Rotary Club has committed to raising $200,000 towards the opening of a free dental clinic to be housed at a Salvation Army.
Its called Wake Smiles, Sommers said.
And, long before fireworks lit up the sky over The Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts on Friday night, there were a lot of smiles in downtown Raleigh.