WHEN I WAS A KID growing up in Calumet City, Illinois, the big event was the Memorial Day Parade. An hour before noon on the last Monday of May, I’d walk to the corner with my brother and mother and father and neighbors, and we’d set up nylon lawn chairs on the grass median along Wentworth Avenue, Cal City’s main drag. There we’d share root beer and conversation as we waited for the six-block-long parade, which featured appearances by the high school marching band and Mayor Bob, who waved like a jowly JFK from the back of a convertible Cadillac festooned with paper carnations. My brother and I always walked away sated, our pockets bulging with mini Tootsie Rolls and cellophane-wrapped butterscotch and peppermints. It was a tradition—a yearly reminder to us kids that summer was imminent and a confirmation to our parents that all was well with our city.

Now that I have two grade-schoolers of my own, you’d think I’d be the first person out at the curb to see the KeyBank Grand Floral Parade, the Portland Rose Festival’s main event. Attracting a crowd of 400,000, it’s the second-largest floral parade in the country (behind Pasadena, California’s Rose Parade). But in the 10 years since my wife and I arrived from New York City, the closest we’ve ever come to watching the parade is a passing glimpse of the marching bands queuing on N Interstate Avenue near our home.

Why, when our family has embraced so much else about this city, have we shrugged our shoulders at what is supposed to be Portland’s signature event? Because the Grand Floral Parade is not my parade. Nor is it really Portland’s anymore. In the 100 years since it was conceived of as a community-built procession showcasing the bounty of the city’s gardens, it’s devolved into a spectacle that, sadly, has lost its identity. Today the parade, and the festival that revolves around it, are in desperate need of an overhaul.

The kind of grassroots effort that spawned the first Grand Floral Parade is precisely what’s missing from today’s Rose Festival.

The Rose Festival got its start as a grassroots civic celebration, staged by Portlanders and for Portlanders in homage to our signature flower. At least that’s the message that resonates in From One Rose, a retrospective documentary that the Rose Festival Association commissioned to commemorate its centennial last year. The 90-minute documentary (showing at the Hollywood Theatre June 7) tells the story of the Rose Festival’s birth in 1907, when John Carroll, who relocated from Denver to publish the Portland Evening Telegram, dared the city to stage a “rose carnival and fiesta” that would cement Portland’s newly adopted nickname. The highlight would be a “Parade of the Roses” resplendent with locally harvested blooms. The day before the main event, the Evening Telegram and other newspapers published frantic appeals, urging the community to donate as many flowers as it could spare. Across the city, people cut thousands of roses and other blooms from their gardens and handed them off to trolley conductors, who delivered the donations to the Armory downtown, overwhelming a squad of 125 volunteer float builders.

The June 21, 1907, evening edition of the Oregon Journal newspaper splashed a triumphant recap of the parade across its front page: “Miles of rose-wreathed cars and cabs crawling at procession pace through the streets lined with thousands of rose-bedecked celebrators,” it read. “The whole city, spurred on by the notable success of yesterday, has lent its aid in making complete in every detail the unprecedented display of floral beauty.”

The kind of grassroots effort—in which the citizenry unites to create a singular spectacle—that spawned the first Grand Floral Parade is precisely what’s missing from today’s Rose Festival. Over the decades, festival organizers embellished, and eventually smothered, the main event with ever more elaborate pageantry and programming: an air show in 1933, a kids’ parade in 1936, the Waterfront Park carnival in 1972, the Starlight Parade in 1976, Indy races in 1984. By 1989, the Rose Festival, which had begun as a weekend celebration centered on a parade, stretched on for weeks, and, with affiliated events, well into the summer, until it seemed that the festival had ballooned into a never-ending party—but nobody seemed to recall what the party was for. It’s as though the parade has become an afterthought.

The Rose Restival floats are no longer decked with flowers grown in Portland—or even Oregon.

Moreover, while the creation of the entire parade—from the theme to the design and construction of the floats—
was handed over to a local professional parade company (Studio Concepts, a Northwest Portland float-building company) in 1996, the floats are no longer decked with flowers grown in Portland—or even Oregon. The tens of thousands of roses needed for the floats come from South America or Mexico, wherever Studio Concepts owner Gene Dent’s wholesaler can find the cheapest price.

In losing sight of its roots, the Rose Festival has lost its soul, and is casting about for ways to lure the droves of Portland newcomers, many of whom have no understanding of the festival’s history or even why Portland was called the “Rose City” in the first place (to celebrate the thousands of rose bushes that had been planted curbside throughout the city in honor of the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition). But in that respect, the Rose Festival is hardly alone. Steve Schmader, president of the International Festivals & Events Association, a membership organization for more than 3,000 festivals around the world, says that organizers of practically every major public event—from California’s Tournament of Roses to the Kentucky Derby—are struggling with ways to attract a new generation of fairgoers.

Rose Festival organizers, too, realize that something is wrong. “We understand that the event needs to evolve,” says Jeff Curtis, the Portland Rose Festival Foundation’s executive director and a former marketing account executive for the Seattle Mariners. “But we don’t have all the answers.”

Design firm Ziba suggests chucking the rose theme altogether.

The public relations maestros at Ziba Design, the firm behind the transformation of Umpqua Bank from a stodgy old-school lender to a sleek, modern bank, have a few suggestions. In order to return to what made the Rose Festival a true Portland celebration, Ziba’s executive creative director Steve McCallion says, the event would do well to return to its original vision: Keep the parade, but ask the community to help create it.

That doesn’t necessarily mean, however, clinging nostalgically to last-century notions of beauty. If McCallion had his way, he’d chuck the rose theme altogether, for, as Ziba founder Sohrab Vossoughi puts it, “Who cares about roses anymore? It’s not roses that are bringing people here.” Then McCallion would rebrand the event as the Portland Festival, with MarchFourth Marching Band leading the parade (local architecture and design firms could create the floats), and the City Repair Project—a nonprofit that builds spaces that encourage community interaction—running the carnival down at the waterfront. Alternatively, McCallion says, if the rose theme were kept, organizers should send out a call to local gardeners and re-create that first community-made parade.

The thing is, organizers tried that already. In 2003, float maker Dent broadcast public service messages urging gardeners to donate flowers for a community float, but he didn’t receive anywhere near the thousands of blooms that rolled in back in 1907. He received less than 100—all of them from six people.

“It’s harder and harder to get people to volunteer,” Dent says. “People are busier than they used to be.”

Which seems to suggest that perhaps it isn’t the Rose Festival that’s lost touch with the community. Maybe the festival’s fractured focus is simply a reflection of today’s citizens: A population of arrivistes like me, who might claim to have been drawn to this city for its DIY spirit, its local loyalty, and its civic activism, but who, when asked to cut roses from our gardens—never mind take the time to help build floats or, God forbid, actually come to the curb and watch the parade—would rather simply ignore it.