How to Organize a Successful Row House Block Party

One of the quintessential practices in urban row house living is to throw a block party. There are as many ways to throw a block party as there are blocks. This article touches on the basics and benefits.

In any urban area, a strong community is important and a strong community begins with great neighbors. A block party is probably the most fun way to get to know your neighbors. Often, the party is a perfect ice breaker and once you chat a little bit with your neighbors, over tasty treats and a beverage or two, you’ll find that it’s easier to be neighborly because you become more familiar with each other.

The idea of organizing a party for an entire city block might seem daunting but block parties are casual. Most of the time you can keep it very simple and certainly, if you are throwing the party for the first time, you may very well want to stick to the very basics which include neighbors, food, music, and beverages.

Getting Neighbors on Board

In order to make sure enough people on your block actually want a party, someone will have to knock on doors or make phone calls. Usually the person who is willing to talk to the neighbors, is probably best suited to be the party organizer. However, if the block is fairly big, a few people might be best to cover more area.

The process for choosing block party particulars should be democratic but it helps to have one person, or a small group, be the facilitator. Good communication is really key to a successful block party and it helps if residents can easily contact a point person.

Communicating With The Neighbors

Usually it’s hard to get all the neighbors to come out and chat together. Ways of communication with all the neighbors at once include collecting email addresses and using emails to send out memos about party updates, or doing things the old fashioned way and dropping notes into everyone’s mailbox, requesting for replies and sharing what information has been gathered previously. The nice thing about email and memos is that people can answer at their leisure, as opposed to using the phone.

A great way to keep things democratic is to utilize questionnaires. With a lot of neighbors’ opinions to coordinate, questionnaires can help keep issues organized. Responses can be tabulated which ensures decisions will suit the most people. Don’t be afraid to send out multiple questionnaires. Keeping them short makes it easy for people to respond in a timely manner. Definitely make sure that any time sensitive inquiries, like those relating to contractual items like hiring entertainment or a caterer, are clearly noted with a deadline for submitting responses. Finally, make sure people have enough time to respond.

Start the Ball Rolling

Typically it takes a few months to plan a block party. The more elaborate the party, the more time is needed for planning. A good rule of thumb is to start planning the party at least three months prior to the event. Some of the first things needed are to figure out a date by polling the residents and establishing the planners.

The street needs to be closed to traffic for the party. Most cities have a form available for download on their web sites. A majority of the residents have to sign the permit application. Even if neighbors aren’t going to attend the party, they can still sign the permit application. It’s best to collect the signatures well in advance of the deadline for submitting the application, starting even before a date has been picked. Most cities want the application submitted about a month in advance. Before the application is submitted, the date and any contractual decisions, like DJ or caterer, should be finalized. It’s much easier to postpone the date than to change contracts, especially with non-refundable deposits.

Food and Beverage

There is no party without food and beverage so these are two of the most important things to decide on, after the day of course. The good news is that almost any way of feeding people goes. Some blocks leave it to each family to set up camp in front of their own houses and feed themselves. Most of the time people make enough to share and there is random grazing from one house to the other that occurs. Another option is to organize a pot luck and have everyone sit together. For a more elaborate party, the block may coordinate finances and hire professional caterers. Most block parties are BYOB, however a more structured event might have communal beverage distribution, such as a keg.

Music and Entertainment

Having some music on in a nice touch for any block party. Depending on the size of the party, sometimes all that’s needed is someone’s stereo speakers turned outwards or a small boom box. Otherwise most DJs have packages for block parties. Double check with rules about noise levels to avoid complaints to the police.

If there are a lot of children on the block, chances are they’ll be ok with the novel idea of running around in the street without have to worry about being run over. Parents can chip in for budget-friendly art projects and volunteer for story time. Artistic neighbors might want to consider putting on a talent show or face painting. Otherwise any type of children’s entertainer suitable for birthday parties, will also be fun for a block party.

The Home Stretch

As the date approaches, the organizer should hold a block meeting to make sure all the residents are ok with the agenda and have a chance to voice any last minute concerns. If the party is more complex, the organizer might want to have additional meetings. By this time, residents should also be aware of what tasks they’ll be responsible for on the day of the party, such as clean up.

On the day of the party, close the block off as soon as possible. Sometimes the city will provide horses to block the street. However, using a row of garbage cans with a streamer between works well too. Depending on the street and city regulations, sometimes you can park a car in the street to block access. Once the street is blocked off, thoroughly sweep. After that it’s just a matter of setting up places for the entertainment and food and having a good time.

After the party, remember to clean the block. The organizer will have to be vigilant about forming a clean up committee or they might get stuck cleaning the entire block on their own. Usually, most of the neighbors readily help out and it’s not a problem.

Originally posted May 2008.

Beyond the Block Party: The Evolution of One Block’s Party

It isn’t hard to organize a block party (see our post about organizing block parties) and the benefits of neighbors getting to know each other is invaluable. So it’s not surprising when a block party instigates more community activities among neighbors. Craig LaBan, a food critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote an article on May 1, 2008, called “Rowhouse ritual: Block parties morphed into ‘family meals’ – three sets of busy neighbors taking turns making Monday-night dinner.” In the article, Craig, who lives in a 1860, three-storied row house in Philadelphia, explained how block parties have helped transitioned his block into a very close knit community.

During the ten years that Craig has lived on his block, he has seen a shift from older residents to more young families. As more families moved onto the block, the block parties have become more frequent with informal “parties” for most holidays as well as random celebrations prompted by neighbors who’ve made too much dinner, perhaps, and need to share with the others. Their community goes beyond the block and many even vacation at the shore together.

Specifically, Craig and two other households found that they were all too tired to make a decent dinner after their kids’ Monday night swim team practice. So they decided to cook for each other, in turn. Every Sunday someone makes enough food for all three families and passes the food to the others via casserole dishes and soup pots. When asked about the welfare of the dinnerware, some of which inevitability gets left behind, Craig said with neighbors living within feet of each other, it isn’t hard to track down M.I.A. items.

As for the menu, the choices are not complicated. Craig says “these are family dishes.” Aside from the main dishes, often the neighbors will make side dishes, desserts and salads as well. He says people put a little more effort than if they were just cooking for themselves and that the dinners have “brought out the best home cooks in us.” The pickiest eaters are often kids and Craig says the meals have expanded their horizons. Often having the food come from a neighbor will prompt them to try some to “be polite.” For the parents, it can be a friendly competition to see whose meatballs, for example, are better. But the best part is that it’s a nice way to have a home cooked meal on a busy night.

This will be the second year that LaBan and his neighbors participate in their ritual of Monday night meals, coinciding with the second season their kids are on the swim team. With this special exchange between only a few neighbors, do the other neighbors get jealous? Craig says that although there is a core of neighbors who do a lot together, all the neighbors on the block enjoy a cordial relationship with each other. “You always worry that someone feels excluded, but with everyone in the same swim class…[the dinners are meeting a] specific, practical [need].”

LaBan adds, “when you work with your neighbors, sharing food, there is a level of intimacy and involvement that goes beyond your normal neighbor relationship. I think it’s definitely part of the proximity of the row home neighborhood that makes this possible.”

Originally posted May 2008.