Weather permitting there is nothing more enjoyable than a block party—walking through a crowd on blocked off streets with the aroma of food and the sound of a band playing somewhere. Have you ever thought about organizing one?
My focus here is the small-scale block party, the kind hosted by a congregation, faith-based organization, or circle of friends, not the larger festivals sponsored by city government.
A block party is a great way to meet neighbors and get a sense of the surrounding community.
Too often we are isolated behind locked doors, walls, and hedges and divided by driveways, sidewalks and busy streets. A block party can break down the isolation a bit. A city congregation I know of, whose members commute to worship from beyond the neighborhood, organizes a street party every year in order to connect with the surrounding community. I also know a suburban family that sponsors a block party every time they move into a new neighborhood (which is often) in order to get acquainted.
This “let’s get to know you” function for block parties is certainly important, but if you feel more ambitious, consider taking it a bit further by developing a simple theme (a color, a holiday) or highlighting a social issue the community needs to mobilize around (“Save our community garden”).
Here are seven steps for organizing a block party. (Adapted from Benjamin Shepard, Community Projects as Social Activism, Thousand Oaks, CA, 2015, pp. 20-23.)
1: Have a Clear Goal
Most block parties have a general purpose: to enjoy music, food, conversation, games or dance so that we can get to know our neighbors. Especially if it’s the first party you are planning, this might be enough. Yet a party can have a theme as well, such as a focus on children, ethnic food or a holiday. With a little imagination, the focus could become more specific: is there a particular issue in the community that you want to highlight (for example: schools, policing, parking, community pride). In New York City, Time’s Up!, a non-profit working on alternative transportation, used street parties to celebrate bicycles as an alternative to fossil fuel burning vehicles.
Step 2: Do a Little Research
Get in tune with your neighbors. Even before you set a time and date, talk one to one with people you know about a theme. Or find someone who seems to know everyone in the neighborhood and ask for help in networking. If the party idea is yours alone, maybe it’s time to gather a group to help with organizing. Answer the basic planning questions, first, such as location—in a street or park or elsewhere? If you decide to be more ambitious and plan a specific theme or address a community issue, ask for input from neighbors to help narrow the focus.
Step 3: Invite Your Neighbors
In some neighborhoods, it may be possible to go door to door passing flyers with the time, date and location. If that is not possible, consider using email, social media, neighborhood newsletters or posters to get the word out. If there is someone in the neighborhood who seems to know everyone, this person recruited for help with networking.
Congregations or faith-based organizations may have more resources here. Have a media team ready to take photos and videos to communicate that this is not just a block party but a means of community change, such as saving the community gardens.
Step 4: Mobilize People Around Food
Food is central to block party’s success. If you have limited resources, a potluck meal may be the best way to go. Michele Johansen writes: “The cheapest and easiest way to host a block party is to make it a potluck. Have one of the block party workers handle the task of assigning a food to each neighbor who RSVPs. Think appetizers, main dishes, side dishes, desserts, fruit, chips, dips, beverages, napkins, plates, utensils, and cups. This will eliminate the possibility of having more than enough of one type of dish and not enough of another. A week or so before the block party, have the worker in charge of food contact each family to offer a reminder about assigned dishes.” (“Throw a Block Party Without Going Crazy” at Cozy.com)
A congregation or faith-based organization with the resources may want to show its generosity to the community by offering a free meal. It is important that no strings be attached. There must be only one message: “We care about our neighbors and here is how we show it.”
If you choose to focus on a community issue, consider using the visual arts—a banner or perhaps musicians, dancers or street performers, to communicate your ideas. Benjamin Shepard writes: “A well-selected banner or perhaps grass or chairs can transform a street corner into a living room or even a community garden. . .Connect the visuals with the message of the party. Art is part of getting the ideas out there.” (pp. 21-22) Consider drafting a press release to blogs, social media and other media outlets to explain how the party connects to the campaign you are organizing.
Step 5: Add Music and Games to the Mix
In addition to food, music and games are key ingredients to a successful party. If you are located in a park and children are a focus, consider summer picnic games like horseshoes, relay races, sack games and wheelbarrow games. If the street is your locale, then bicycle decorating contests and scavenger hunts might be more appropriate. Add music, both live and recorded, to the mix, and be sure to provide a sturdy sound system.
Step 6: Stay Legal
Many municipalities require a permit for block parties, and if an organization such as a congregation or faith-based organization is the sponsor, an insurance certificate covering liability may be required. Also, pay attention to noise ordinances before the music gets too cranked up.
Step 7: Don’t Be Afraid to Improvise
Even for relatively small-scale events, block parties require a lot of planning. It’s important to prepare for the worst case. Do you know what to do in case of a medical emergency? Yet finally day arrives and the party begins. People arrive or not. There is enough food or not. It rains or not. In the end, block parties are a form of group play. Don’t be afraid to improvise and don’t forget to have fun!
Photo: North Charleston Harvest Festival and Block Party, 10.25.14. Flickr Creative Commons.