In recent weeks, I’ve been agitating for reduced restrictions by the City of Petaluma on block parties. As I’ve written before, I’ll admit that block parties aren’t truly urbanism. But block parties are a one-day sampling of urbanism, which can be a fine thing. A neighborhood enjoying a block party is far more ready to consider an urbanist future than a neighborhood sitting in their individual recliners watching “American Idol”.
To summarize my recent history with block parties, a frequent reader in Petaluma asked me about the process for securing a block party permit. I checked with the key person in the Petaluma Police Department and found that permits can be issued only for block parties on cul-de-sacs, causing the organizer to abandon his plans.
On several levels, I found that restriction ill-conceived. So I began advocating for a change. I also began contacting various people within city government.
My crusade came at a fortuitous time with the Fourth of July, reportedly the most common day for Petaluma block parties, quickly approaching. So I asked for information about local block parties, both legal and illegal. A couple of folks responded. I made a plan to visit those parties and to cruise other neighborhoods, seeing if I could spot more parties.
My wandering went well. In addition to the two parties to which I was already invited, I came across another three parties, one of which elated me.
The first two parties were in cul-de-sacs. Although the Municipal Code specifically allows block parties in cul-de-sacs, it still requires a permit for those parties. It also requires provision for emergency vehicle access as a requirement for the permit.
One of the cul-de-sac parties had made reasonable provision for emergency access; the other not so much. I don’t know if either party secured a permit. (As of publication, my inquiry to the Petaluma Police about the number of Fourth of July block party permits issued, if any, hadn’t been answered.)
I then headed to first of the parties to which I’d been invited. I knew the subdivision moderately well, so didn’t bother to recheck the street location, expecting that I would come across the party with little effort.
And I was apparently right. Only a couple of blocks into the subdivision, I spotted a party with over 200 people, a dunking tank, an inflatable water slide, and food and beverage everywhere. It was exactly what a block party should be.
After parking more than a block away because of the throng, I wandered through the party, enjoying the children having fun and the adults engaged in neighborly chats.
Eventually, I asked about the woman who had invited me to stop by. The first few folks to whom I spoke didn’t know her, which puzzled me. I then found a woman who had the scoop. The party I was seeking was about four blocks away. I was at the wrong party! I’d come across a vibrant 200-person block party by chance! Days later, I still marvel at the odds. Or perhaps it’s a sign that there are so many block parties out there that it’s not unusual to stumble across a great one.
My bearings reestablished, I chatted with the organizer for another couple of minutes. She happily offered the history of the party, the organizational effort, and her communication with the Petaluma Police. She even invited me to have some food, although as an interloper, I felt that I really should move on.
The second neighborhood party was nearly as good as the first. It only had about 50 participants, being in its first year compared to the eighth year for the other party, but there was good enthusiasm and a sense that the block party would gain momentum in future years.
Having been invited to this party, I hung around and talked longer with folks. The organizer told me that none of the neighbors had objected to the party and only a couple of families had opted out of participating. And even the opt-out families had been willing to move their cars out of the street to accommodate the party.
Another neighbor, who had gone door-to-door to collect signatures of concurrence, told me that he had lived on the street for nine years, but had neighbors with whom his only interaction until recently had been waves as they drove by. Now, through the party organizing effort, everyone on the street was on a first name basis. He expected that other social gatherings would follow.
To end my day, I visited the block park for which my permitting assistance had been sought, alerting me to the unfortunate provision in the Municipal Code.
After the police turndown, the neighbors had fallen back to a lesser plan of barbecues and picnic tables in their driveways. But absent the bounce houses and water slides in the street, the momentum toward a day-long celebration was lost.
With scenes of vibrant block parties still fresh in my head, I approached the site with unease, fearing the extent to my effort had inadvertently robbed the party of vitality.
My discomfort was quickly justified. The party organizer was hanging out by himself, barbecuing turkey legs in his driveway. To be fair, he expected twenty people later in the afternoon. Also, a few neighbors began wandering by as he and I chatted, but it was still a pale event compared to the others I’d visited.
I felt badly. I’d heard of people who could kill parties by their presence, but never thought that I’d be one.
To the credit of the organizer, he was still willing to invite me to his event and to offer me a beer. Even more importantly, he remained hopeful of future block parties. He had recently moved to Petaluma because he liked the feel of the community and wasn’t about to let one setback change his impression of the town. He was eager for the block party rules to be tidied up so he could plan a big Fourth of July 2015 in-the-street block party for his neighborhood. He’s the kind of person that communities need.
As I concluded my tour, one final image lingered. As I was talking with a party organizer at one of the earlier parties, we both noted a boy, perhaps eight years old, who had climbed into a chair near us. He was exhausted by the non-stop fun and had fallen fast asleep wearing only his bathing suit. The organizer put our conversation on hold to look for a towel with which to cover him.
When she’s finished, I’d asked if the young man was her son. “No,” she replied,” I don’t know to whom he belongs. But he must live here in the neighborhood and I didn’t want him to awake sunburned.”
And that’s what block parties should be, a day when kids belong not to a family but to a neighborhood. That type of party is a far better event than someone barbecuing turkey legs alone.
Before closing the block party topic, I have a few final notes to share. I’ll cover those in my next post, before moving onto other urbanist topics.
As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (email@example.com)