Sunday, September 24, 2006

How-to - Ledger - Organizing block parties

Published in the Star-Ledger, Sunday, September 24, 2006

Meet the neighbors
Block parties help busy people get together

Star-Ledger Staff

When Fabiola Campbell moved to Montclair three years ago, her neighborhood didn't have an annual block party. There'd been one years ago, she was told, but it had fallen by the wayside.

"Oh, no," she said, "we're doing it."

Today, her block's yearly bash has a theme, a budget ($1,500 this year), outside entertainment (ponies and "an inflatable jumpy thing"), a talent show by the children, a visit by one of the town's fire trucks, and so many other details that it requires a full nine months to plan.

"I call myself the CEO of the block," said Campbell, who with a friend ("my CFO") meets in January over a lunch of sushi to begin sketching out ideas for the next party. For their Labor Day bash, they collected $25 per adult and $10 per child over 2.

Big or small, block parties offer residents a chance to watch kids have fun, catch up on the latest gossip and rail about the new sewer tax. But they're also an opportunity to establish lasting ties with neighbors in an era when we often know one another only as well as a passing nod allows.

It's a situation that isn't lost on police departments, which see block parties as a way to create awareness and reduce or prevent crime.

"People don't know who their neighbors are anymore," said Detective Jim Gangi of the North Arlington Police. " Kids don't walk to school, they get driven; people keep to themselves more."

In August, his department helped sponsor six block parties on National Crime Prevention Night; the town's police chief attended each one, said Gangi, as did McGruff the Crime Dog.

"We look at it as a partnership between the police and the neighborhood," he said.

Block parties require their own partnership in the form of an organizing committee, or one or two people who bang out an announcement and stick it in every mailbox on the street (although e-mail announcements are becoming popular, too). Linda Smith of Pompton Plains organized her neighborhood's gathering.

"If you're looking for a block party with ponies or face painters, we don't have any of that," she said with a laugh. "We just set up tables and a tent, bring our food and our drink and meet in the center of the street at 5 p.m."

Her street's gathering -- one of five held in the community this year -- is called Octoberfest and is intentionally low key; for instance, they don't collect money from the residents.

"It's not organized at all," she said, but rather counts on the spontaneity of its participants, such as last year, when it got dark and someone brought out a fire pit, where they roasted marshmallows and made s'mores.

Although, Smith did learn a few lessons from last year's gathering, only the second party the block had held since she moved onto the street in 1998.

This year the party -- scheduled for Saturday -- will start at 5 instead of 3 p.m., a bow to families with children who play sports, and Smith has asked residents on one side of the street to bring a dessert and residents on the other side of the street to bring an appetizer as a way of making sure the entire spectrum of menu possibilities is covered. Everyone brings an entrée and beverages.

"I think it's just a great time talking to your neighbor you don't get a chance to talk to (during the week)," she said.

George McDermott asked $10 from each house for the block party he organized in North Arlington, and for a first-timer he was pleased with the outcome.

"It almost seemed like we'd been doing it for years. It's something we're definitely going to do again," he said. "I mean, you walk by and you see someone and you're cordial and say hello, but (at the block party) we got a chance to meet and say hello and get to have a conversation and get to know them better."

It's hard to imagine a block party in Christine Armstrong's old neighborhood. Talking to her neighbors is something she didn't get to do much when she lived in Monmouth County, where her home sat on 2 acres. But a few weeks after her son was born in the summer of 2003, she stopped to show the baby to a neighborhood couple on her driveway.

"I didn't even know you were pregnant," said the woman.

"I was taken aback," said Armstrong. "It's hard to know your neighbors when you're so disconnected from everyone."

When she and her husband decided to move closer to their Manhattan jobs and relatives, Armstrong knew what she was looking for.

In May, they moved to Montclair -- home of 100 block parties a year -- and just recently attended what was essentially their coming-out event. For a few hours on a Saturday afternoon, the street was closed to traffic so bicycles -- not cars -- ruled the road, residents loaded folding tables with homemade food and set up grills for the burgers and dogs -- the cost of which was covered by the neighborhood association's annual dues: $20 a family. And Armstrong? She and her husband spent the day introducing themselves, and being introduced, to the 20 families who live in the neighborhood.

As Armstrong spoke, her daughter, Olivia, 4, pulled at her mother's arm eager to get to the table set up for painting bird houses on a nearby driveway, and her son, Patrick 3, was in search of a juice box stashed in a cooler on the street.

"This was more like the neighborhood I grew up in," said Armstrong later. "I could yell to my best friend out my window" from her family's house on Chicago's South Side.

It's just that sort of experience that Campbell hopes her children grow up with, and at its core, is what she thinks a block party -- no matter what the size -- is really all about.

"It brings the block together," she said. "I feel if one of my kids needed anything they could go to anyone on the street and they'd be okay. It gives them a sense of community, which is something that's lost these days."

How to start a block party

Star-Ledger Staff

Throwing a block party can be as simple as putting tables out on a lawn or as involved as hiring entertainment. In either case, organizers say the key to a successful neighborhood bash is, well, organization. What follows is a list of things to consider as you plan your gathering.

1. Find a volunteer to organize the party.

This job generally entails the creation and distribution of a flier announcing the date of the party, as well as keeping tabs on what needs to be done. Some neighborhoods form committees to handle the details, more typically someone says, "Hey, let's have a block party!" and presto, they're in charge.

Chat with your neighbors about the best date, but keep in mind that summer weekends are packed with activities and vacations; post-Labor Day gatherings -- while also competing with sports and weekend get-aways -- often have better attendance.

2. Ask for help.

The first job of any good organizer is delegation. Include in your flier a request for volunteers, as well as a list of items the party will need, including tables, chairs, grills, arts supplies for kids, etc. Don't forget to put your phone number and/or e-mail address on the flier for RSVPs, and have rain date, as well.

3. How many green salads do you need?

At some block parties, people show up with whatever strikes their fancy, but seriously, how many green salads do you need? In your flier, try assigning desserts to homes on one side of the street and appetizers to homes on the other side (or do it based on odd/even house numbers). Everyone can bring an entrée or something to grill, as well as their beverage of choice.

4. Donation$.

Throwing a block party doesn't have to cost a penny if everyone brings their own food and drink. Organizers can create a list of the items the party is likely to need and ask residents to sign up for one or more (i.e. paper plates, plastic forks/knives/spoons, napkins, tablecloths, trash cans, garbage bags).

But some blocks ask every house to kick in $8 or $10 or more toward the party. Some fees are per person, others are per family. The money may be used to purchase paper products (which are put into a large box at the end of the party and saved for the following year) or some basic food items like hamburgers and hot dogs.

5. Close off the street.

Get a permit application from the municipal clerk's office or police department to block off the street to traffic. The request will typically be reviewed by the police department and then, barring any safety issues, it will issue the permit. The permit covers you for any complaints about noise and is good for 24 hours and a rain date.

While the closing allows the neighborhood some wide-open space in which to gather, it also allows children a chance to ride their bikes in the street (without getting yelled at). Of course, it also allows for basketball and volleyball games, Wiffle ball, chalking -- you name it -- but without fail, veteran organizers said the chance to ride bikes in the street is the key to imbuing the day with a kind of magic that has kids talking about the event all year.

6. Activities for the kids

Smaller children should not be forgotten in the mix, and here an art table works wonders. Put out some crayons, paper and paints and whatever is left in your art box at home and those whose legs aren't long enough to bike will be happy at play. If you have some seashells left over from the beach, you can paint those, too. Other ideas include frosting cupcakes, balloon catch, relay races, Simon Says or Red Light/Green Light.

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Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.