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Clean Sweep

While most of Holland, Michigan, sat in classrooms and offices on an average Wednesday morning, the mayor and city council were blowing the lid off a civic crisis looming downtown. With only a handful of onlookers nearby, the leaders donned white gloves, bent low over the street, swiped their hands on the asphalt and declared it unacceptably filthy. This set in motion a crisis response that had me and a team of other first responders on-scene and working hard within four hours.

Good thing Holland has worked out a system for this over 85 years.

Tulip Time doesn’t happen—has never happened—on dirty streets. Not when 250,000 or so people are coming to watch three parades, hundreds of Dutch dancers and millions of tulips that will hopefully erupt in blooms before the crowds show up. That’s why I joined a team of state and local VIPs in sweeping the streets at the start of Wednesday’s big parade. Leading the way were Holland’s mayor, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and the governor’s daughter. Each was dressed in traditional Dutch outfits and pushing a stiff-bristled broom that left the asphalt pristine in their wake. Just in case they missed a spot, about 30 more of us followed with brooms and buckets of water. (Yes, there was a downpour an hour before parade time, but you can’t be too careful.)

The signature sound of our team of “scrubbers” was the clomp of our wooden shoes, made surprisingly comfortable with six pairs of thick socks and a preemptive layer of moleskin across the top of the foot. In fact, the wooden thud of the shoes bounces off every wall in Holland during Tulip Time. Businesses post signs politely asking folks to remove wooden shoes before entering. And locals, who start wearing the clogs as soon as they start walking, suggest you take them off before attempting a trip down any staircase.

In the evenings, the shoes echo throughout downtown as Dutch dancers put on a show in the streets. From my crowded street corner, the dance team initially looked like around 40 people wheeling about to tinny Old World music coming from overhead speakers. But when I stepped into the street for a photo, I realized that the line of dancers extended as far as I could see in either direction. I later learned that 800 dancers show up each night. They stretched across the town, performing the same routine their grandparents practiced decades ago.

It’s not the 1,600 dancers that used to perform, back before girls’ sports came along and started competing for participants. And in today’s Holland, only about a third of the population actually comes from Dutch heritage. But Tulip Time long ago became a thing about being from Holland, not just about descending from someone born in the Netherlands. And even newcomers like me quickly pick up the important points. During the Dutch dancers’ routine, I notice that I missed a spot of asphalt that’s a little dingy looking, right in the middle of the action. Don’t tell the mayor.

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