Start a Block Party Tradition

by Nina Peacock

Seth Price has hosted block parties in three different states, but his enthusiasm started when his grandparents organized neighborhood gatherings during his youth in the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens, New York.

“They’d close off the block, open up the fire hydrant and everyone would have a cookout in the street,” he said. “It was one of the more ... poignant memories that I have.”

When Price was a teenager, he persuaded his father to host a block party in their northern California neighborhood. As a young business owner he hosted block parties in the TriBeCa neighborhood of New York. As his family grew, he planned parties for his street in Providence, Rhode Island. He continues the block party tradition by cultivating enthusiasm in his four children.

“Every time we start talking about it, they get excited,” he said. “They love playing in the street. They don’t get an opportunity to play in the street because unless you block it off, we don’t let them go in the street.”

When families plant a neighborhood tradition, the yield is twofold: Parents and children benefit from relationships with their neighbors, and family bonds are strengthened when they work together to create a memorable event.

Getting the cars off the street and setting up some games in the street for the kids and a table for the stuff that people bring, that’s all you need.

Seth Price, a party-planning veteran

Block Parties Help Strengthen Neighborhoods

One reason to start a tradition of block parties is to make your neighborhood safer by getting to know your neighbors.

Eric Gustafson, assistant director of the Corcoran Neighborhood Organization in Minneapolis, said he looks for positive ways the blocks in Corcoran can meet “so that they can come together around just sharing some food and drink, rather than waiting to come together when the next ... bad thing happens.” The Corcoran blocks host parties on National Night Out, an annual event organized by the National Association of Town Watch held annually on the first Tuesday of August.

When families meet, they know who lives on their block, they know the block's usual activity and they can react when something is not normal. They can share contact information, Gustafson said, “so that when something of concern happens, they’re able to respond very quickly, and they’ve already gotten organized.

“[We can] do more than just throw a party," Gustafson said. "We can solve problems in our neighborhood.”

Organized neighbors can respond to crime and improve livability. In Corcoran, for example, block clubs' concerns about speeding cars led to a street mural installation to slow traffic.

In August 2011 vandals smashed windows of more than 100 vehicles in Minneapolis, some within Corcoran. Police alerted neighborhood watch groups, and tips from neighbors helped them catch the criminals the following night, said Karen Notsch, a crime prevention specialist for the Minneapolis Police Department.

In 2010, following an increase in the number of Corcoran block clubs, crimes such as rape, robbery, assaults and larceny dropped by 15 percent. While many factors contribute to crime rates, Notsch said block clubs have a great deal of impact on crime. "I think [crime] awareness has a huge impact on it," she said.

Block Parties Can Teach Responsibility

Teen life coach Melissa Kahn affectionately calls on a “little girl bicycle gang” to help her organize her neighborhood in Studio City, California, for the annual Fourth of July parade and block party.

The girls, from 6 to 8 years old, ride pink bicycles around the neighborhood. They help Kahn pass out fliers announcing the event. Young children and teenagers often assist with the party.

“Being in a community and doing these events really fosters a way of seeing your family members differently,” she said. “Kids can see their parents doing this cool thing. And then parents can see how their kids really are responsible and take initiative.”

Block parties present a chance for parents to give children responsibility in a fun setting. In Kahn’s neighborhood, children bake cupcakes for her party and participate in contests for the best dog costumes and bicycle decorations. Price said he is always able to rope kids into cleaning up. Gustafson suggested taking children door to door to invite guests.

For young teens who want independence, a block party is a safe place to be with their friends in the company of adults.

“It’s a really nice dynamic for these kids to grow up in this neighborhood and have this interaction with people who aren’t their parents,” Kahn said.

Throwing a Block Party

The first step to throwing a block party is generating interest among other families on your block, Price said. “If they’re excited about it, then I would start floating the idea with some other families in the neighborhood,” he said.

When Darlene Tenes organized a block party for National Night Out in the Alum Rock neighborhood of San Jose, California, she started with advice from her mother, a social activist, who told her to knock on every resident’s door, shake their hands and look them in the eyes. “Sure enough, just about everyone we actually met showed up at the event!” she said by email.

Second, pick a date. Weekends or holidays, when most people are off work, are best. Neighborhoods in temperate climates usually throw parties in summer, but residents of warmer climates could throw a party any time of the year.

Then, start making plans. “I would start small – you know, don’t make it a huge production,” Price said.

Parties can be successful when households simply drag their grills and trash cans outside, set up a picnic table in a driveway and hold the party at the end of a cul-de-sac. “Getting the cars off the street and setting up some games in the street for the kids and a table for the stuff that people bring, that’s all you need,” Price said.

On the other hand, Kahn’s neighborhood Fourth of July party has become such a grand tradition that residents start fundraising in May with a neighborhood yard sale. The party includes a parade and rented tables and chairs, and Kahn assigns every street a food to bring to the community meal.

Some communities require permits to shut down a street, so check with local authorities. Communities might waive permit fees for National Night Out.

To minimize work as the organizer, delegate. “I have a lot of chutzpah to ask people to do crazy things, but they’ve been pretty happy to do it,” Kahn said. She once asked a neighbor to fill up 50 water balloons.

Don’t worry too much about plans going awry, but make sure to cover your bases. Price recalled a neighbor who didn’t want to participate in the party.

“A woman that lives across the street decided to call the police on us because someone was on her lawn,” he said. “Fortunately, we had a permit.” The police calmed the neighbor, and the party continued.

Turning the Party Into a Tradition

Throwing a party every year will establish relationships with your neighbors, help maintain safety within your community and create an annual gathering to look forward to. Keep up enthusiasm by seeing your neighbors year-round.

Gustafson sees his block clubs getting together for happy hours hosted in each other’s homes. He calls one group the “Friday night flamingos” because the hostess puts pink flamingos in her yard when it’s time to gather.

Tenes organized a neighborhood produce share. Kahn established a garden club. Neighborhood watch groups keep communication flowing among families.

As children grow up and move away, they can carry their block party memories into their own events.

“Down the line there is ... the whole exercise of looking back at your childhood. I think that is a really special thing,” Kahn said. “I think when they leave home and live outside of this neighborhood, they’ll see how special it was.”

Block Party Checklist

Veteran organizers offered a list of must-haves and recommendations for a blow-out block party:

Meet local authority requirements: • Permits for closing the block and for loud music and rented equipment, if applicable. • Block party insurance, if your city requires it. • Street barricades. • Participation or permission from your neighbors.

Must-haves: • Food. “People just gather where food is near,” neighborhood organizer Eric Gustafson said. Pick one item to share (his block had root beer floats) or ask volunteers to bring dishes for a potluck. • Volunteers for setting up tables, flipping burgers and other jobs. • Trash cans and a clean-up crew. “You have to clean up really well because people will complain if you don’t,” veteran block party organizer Seth Price said. “Designate who’s gonna be a part of that early on.” • Advertisements and invitations, such as signs and fliers.

Recommendations: • Music or a local band. • Toys and games for kids and adults, such as volleyball, badminton, croquet, jump ropes, Hula-Hoops, water guns or balloons, or a bike rodeo. • Rented carnival-like activities, such as a bouncy house or dunking machine. • Local businesses' involvement as sponsors or contributors to a raffle. • Fire department or police visits to meet the community.

Photo Credits

  • iStock Photo

About the Author

Nina Peacock is an American based in Germany. Since 2004, she has contributed to publications such as the "Alaska Star," "American Way," "ELLE," "New York" and "Topic." Peacock holds a Bachelor of Arts in sociology from the Catholic University of America.