Monday, June 30, 2014

Advocating for Block Parties

A couple of months back, while fulminating about how cars have pushed other users of public rights-of-way to the periphery, I reported a disappointing fact of which I’d recently learned.  That Petaluma puts a surprising restriction on block parties.

Quoting from Section 13.32.090(K) of the Petaluma Municipal Code, “Block parties must be located in a cul-de-sac to be approved.”

(Note to grammarians: Yes, the sentence incorrectly combines the singular and the plural, but that’s not the disappointing part.  Code-writers sometimes struggle with the simplest rules of English, but don’t let it distract you.)

No, the disappointing part is that, with that one small sentence, much of the town, the neighborhoods built either before or after the cul-de-sac had its brief moment of favor, are barred from hosting block parties.

I found the restriction fundamentally wrong.  I thought that block parties were a fine example of community spirit and should be encouraged, not restricted.  And I thought that someone should undertake the task of changing the municipal code.

But I didn’t think that that someone should be me.  Instead, I concluded, “I’m not going to try to change the Petaluma Municipal Code.  I already have too many crusades and too little time.  But if someone else wants to take on the burden, I’ll happily join the rooting section.”

Then I headed off to Buffalo for CNU 22.  After spending four days surrounded by hundreds of fervent believers in the power of urbanism to change our world, I returned home, motivated to double my commitment.  In my words, “I’ll begin putting more effort into implementing some of the ideas that I offer.”

I know a young man who recently concluded a long career as an NFL kicker.  Coming out of high school, he was considered among the top prep kickers in the west and had his choice of universities, including much of the then Pac-10.  Despite a staid, conservative upbringing, he was drawn to my alma mater, the University of California, Berkeley despite its history of student uprisings and general weirdness.  He described his decision as “proof that God has a sense of humor”.

I understand his reaction.  Upon my return from Buffalo, the first opportunity for increased advocacy came when a new neighbor asked me about the possibility of hosting a block party in our neighborhood.  His query put me back in the swirl of trying to change the Petaluma Municipal Code, the exact task which I'd previously eschewed.  So yes, God does have a sense of humor.

Before writing about how my efforts have fared thus far, let me clarify that block parties are great, but only slightly related to urbanism.  If anything, they’re like a day of urbanism, when the neighbors all convert to walkability for a few hours.  Block parties give a hint of how a more walkable city would be.  But block parties don’t make a city more urban.  Instead, they’re one very small, temporary step in the right direction.  Although every step in the right direction is good.

I’ve now had exchanges with a number of folks in City Hall about the need for a change.  Those exchanges have all been over the board, resulting in my expectations for change veering wildly from day to day.

One contact was enthusiastic about making a change and about doing it as soon as possible.

The next liked the idea, but thought that the tightness of City resources would likely result in the change taking a year or more.

The first, advised of the timeline suggested by the second, proposed an alternative approach so the change could be accomplished with fewer resources.

A third contact sternly requested that I visit his office to discuss further.

A fourth liked the idea of making a change, but thought that many neighborhoods were already inadvertently flaunting the rule through lack of knowledge, so the effect might not be as great as I anticipated.

In the midst of all this, I learned, to my surprise, of a block party to be held a few blocks on my home.  On a street without a cul-de-sac.  I had a couple of conversations with the organizer who had an interesting story to tell.

Early this year, she approached the Police Department.  The officer advised her that block parties were only permitted on cul-de-sacs, but thought that he could ignore that restriction if she got the concurrence of most neighbors and prepared a plan for emergency access during the party.

She readily agreed to both, assembled the paperwork, and delivered it to the Police Department.  And never received a response.  As the date of the party approached, she decided to proceed as she had planned, in the absence of an approval.

The party came off well.  Nicely attended, with evident neighborhood spirit.  And with a well-defined emergency lane, secured by a handful of barricades that could be easily moved if needed.

So now there were three classes of Petalumans who can host block parties.  People who live on cul-de-sacs.  People who don’t know that they’re not allowed to host block parties unless they live on cul-de-sacs.  And people who proceed even when the Police Department fails to act on their application.  It all seemed a bit capricious.

I know that it may seem quixotic to the reader to change an obscure rule of which many are likely ignorant.  Heck, it feels quixotic to me much of the time.  But it’s a symbol of a more urban future, in which we’re more likely to traverse our neighborhoods on foot and in which we’re more likely to have bonds with our neighbors.

And I understand that City resources are constrained, making it difficult to implement changes.  But somehow this proposed change, with its fundamental spirit of the freedom to assemble and community building, seems worthy of being squeezed into the budget.

I’ll even note that people are more likely to support their communities when their ties to the community are stronger.  So a handful of block parties this summer may well lead to a crucial tax measure support in November.

Accordingly, I’ll continue to act like Don Quixote, tilting at the Petaluma Municipal Code windmill.

But I can use help.  First, I already have a trio of Sancho Panzas, folks who don’t live on cul-de-sacs, but are eager to host block parties this summer on through streets if the rule is changed.  But more would be good.  If you’d like to host a block party this summer and are willing to encourage City Hall to make a change, let me know.  I’ll add you to my list.

Also, I suspect that the observation that there are many technically illegal block parties is correct.  And it’s also likely that many of the illicit parties are held on the Fourth of July.  If you know of a block party on this coming Friday, let me know.  (My email address is below.)  I’m not looking for fireworks in the street, but for places where table, sunshades, barbecues, or jumphouses are placed in the street.

I’d like to come by.  Not to bum food or beverage and certainly not to inform the Police Department, but to see how the party is set up.  To see how broad the participation is.  And to see whether adequate provision has been made for emergency access.  If we’re going to change the rule, we should make the change correctly, based on real world observations.

I hope we can make a difference, no matter how small.  Perhaps we can even clean up the grammar of the rule.

Now, I must go find Rocinante.  She has wandered away.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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