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Block parties: A recipe for creating community

I know a recipe for instant community. No, I’m not kidding. It works! First you have a few of your friendly neighbors over to your house from your block and the block next to you. You add laughter and refreshments and chat your way into organizing a block party. If you don’t know your neighbors yet, you can make this simple recipe all by yourself and you will have accomplished a very good deed.

Twenty-five years ago a few of us met and planned our first gathering, which included dividing up simple tasks. Most important is for one or two people to go door to door and meet each resident, talk up the event, and also gain acceptance to close the street for a few hours by applying for a permit with the city. Then make posters to take door-to-door, and provide chairs, tables, grills and recycling for the event.

After all these years we pretty much know our assignments. Because we now have a well-oiled machine, we smoothly gather with friends, family and most importantly for me, folks that have just moved into our two block area. I love that no one has to feel isolated. Newcomers can quickly make lots of connections before the winter rains set in and we all become moles in our homes!

Most important is for one or two people to go door to door and meet each resident, talk up the event…

It is a fun thing to be able to take back the street for a time and the city is supportive of such community-building encounters. They have been 100% consistent with dropping off barriers at the ends of the street well before our event. Ownership of the asphalt provides room for whatever activities you like. We always have a potluck and barbecue, followed by acoustical music and singing. Some years we have children’s activities such as a painted children parade and chalk drawing. One year we even had instruction in Tango dancing and last year we had a good clothing exchange.

Before we block the street, we have a huge yard sale from 9am-2pm at Mary’s house. Those in the ‘hood who want to sell items get a letter from our master of accounting, Doug. You mark your items with the letter. Different people volunteer to take money and everything you sell is noted under your letter. This in itself is a fun social time as we gather to take turns at the checkout table, eat scones made by Keith and Alice, and purchase each others items. There is a running joke that we purchase our items back every few years. There is truth to it because I have done it!

Ok, I admit our Block Party is a bit of a marathon and as we have gotten older we actually note on our poster that from 3-5 pm we have Relaxation time which is code for a nap if we need it! But your block party does not have to be as intense. It can and should be whatever you like.

Being our 25th year, I thought it would be interesting to interview some of our participants young and not-so-young. Greg enjoys rolling out his grill and cooking, and also loves to play music and get people singing. He said, “We meet the kids that live on our block and can look out for them during the course of the year and appreciate seeing them going to school or playing in the neighborhood.” Also “Our yard sale is a great way for items to be reused thus improving our environment. We take items left over to the Free Store at the Olympia Westside Co-op or to Goodwill.”

A number of people mentioned that much of the time everyone on the block is so busy going to work or somewhere that the block party gives people a chance to just relax and spend time together. Nine- year old Aaliyah says “Even in my family everyone including my grandmother, mom and sisters are always busy and this way we get to hang out with each other too.”

Mary, who graciously hosts the yard sale every year, said “Getting to know each other leads to more friendliness and caring. If we didn’t know each other we could not create a support system. I hold the Block party as very special and I don’t take it lightly.”

Sadie, who lives two doors up from Mary, said “I like to hear the Grateful Dead and Neil Young songs. And the homemade food and the fresh fruit pies are great!” (The fresh fruit pies were mentioned by several people.) Sadie also thought it was neat that her daughter Nani got the chance to run free in the street.

Nani, age 10, said “I like the music, the good food, and it brings people together that you don’t know.” At one of the block parties Molly, a violin player who loves to come and play music, introduced Nani to her instrument. It became one of the reasons she has taken violin classes in school this year. Other tips for having a block party

  • The city’s computer access to the permit process is a little fussy. I suggest googling ‘Block Parties City of Olympia’ and calling the present facilitator, Marygrace Goddu, who is very helpful, at 360-753-8031
  • Don’t feel like you have failed if not everyone comes. There will be some people who never come, some that sometimes come, and those that will come for part of the event.

Hopefully many will join with you to grow a safer, stronger, healthier, and happier neighborhood because after all, we are social beings.

Robin Ivey-Black is an Olympia writer, artist and community builder.

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