Monday, July 6, 2015

Bucking the Rules on the Fourth of July

Long-time readers may recall my crusade over Petaluma’s block party rules, but I’ll recap the background for new readers.  Deep in the Petaluma Municipal Code is a provision that disallows block party permits anywhere except on cul-de-sacs, a prohibition that effectively eliminates many streets and even entire neighborhoods from engaging in an effective way of building neighborhood cohesiveness.

Admittedly, the Police Department generally doesn’t enforce the rule, instead turning a blind eye toward block parties or even giving tacit, unwritten approvals.

Nonetheless, block party organizers, who are trying to do the right thing for their neighborhoods, find themselves uneasy and unsure.

In more than a year of intermittently pushing the issue, I’ve gotten the Police Chief and the entire City Council to acknowledge that they endorse block parties, but that hasn’t translated into Municipal Code edits.   And now another block party season is upon us.

I first became aware of the offending Municipal Code clause when a neighborhood activist contacted me about a block party he hoped to organize for the Fourth of July 2014.  The organizer, who is a regular reader, asked me who at City Hall he should contact for a party approval.

I didn’t know the answer to his question, so asked a few folks at City Hall and managed to find the one City employee who interpreted the Municipal Code provision strictly by the letter.  Neither the organizer nor I knew of the flexibility being shown by others at City Hall so the organizer’s proposed 2014 block party became a driveway party, pleasant but without the camaraderie of neighbors meeting in the shared space of the street.

Over the past year, the organizer read my updates as I became aware that person with whom I’d spoken, although well-intentioned, was the outlier and that Petaluma was generally casual about enforcing the troublesome provision.

So, for 2015, the organizer again planned a Fourth of July party, this time without asking for permission.  And to show that he bore no ill will over my failed intercession of a year before, he invited me to drop by, which I happily did.

It wasn’t the biggest block party in Petaluma, but it was well-organized and well-enjoyed.  Traffic cones blocked the street at the intersections at both ends of the party, shade structures were set up in street for cooking and eating, fathers were pitching wiffle balls to sons, kids were kicking a soccer ball around, and all seemed to be having a fine time.  Also, everything in the street was arranged so that emergency access was continually available if needed.  It was what a Petaluma block party should be.

The organizer, who polled the neighborhood both on-line and door-to-door while planning the party, told me that almost everyone participated and fully everyone was willing to move their cars off the street for the day.

Hearing just that part of the story, some might think that Petaluma block parties are doing just fine and that the Municipal Code needn’t be changed.  But that’s because I haven’t yet shared two elements of the story.

First, up until a few days before the party, some neighbors were uncomfortable about the lack of City sanction and suggested that the party again be limited to the driveways.  The organizer held firm that the City wasn’t an issue and that street as shared space was essential to the success of the party, positions on which he was fully correct.

(As the organizer was recounting this part of his story, the soccer ball bounced loose and bounded down the driveway toward the organizer’s garage.  A young girl, perhaps eight years old, began running to retrieve the ball before recollecting that she was now in someone’s driveway.  She abruptly stopped and asked permission to get the ball, which was of course granted.  And then the organizer and I laughed about even eight year olds understanding the difference between shared and private spaces, validating the organizer’s insistence on the party occupying the street.)

Also, a key element of the party was a bounce house.  But when the bounce house rental folks arrived, they wouldn’t put the bounce house in the street without a copy of the City block party permit, which of course didn’t exist.  A quick negotiation resulted in the bounce house being set up in a neighbor’s driveway, where it was still well enjoyed.  But the party setting would have been more festive with the bounce house in the street.

So the block party culture is alive and well in Petaluma.  But the City’s ill-conceived rule still sends small clouds across the sky on otherwise sunny days.

Before closing, I should note that the block party wasn’t the only event of the day in the organizer’s neighborhood.  The day began with a Fourth of July parade through the entire subdivision, with an estimated 150 children following an antique fire engine in festive garb and on decorated bikes.  (I was invited to watch the parade, but was unfortunately given the wrong start time.  Seeing no one assembling, I departed in puzzled disappointment thirty minutes before the parade started.)

The block party organizer attended the parade, with his children joining the parade.  As he described the event to me, the biggest benefit was the new acquaintances that were made.  He reported there had long been a divide between those whose homes had been built before the recent recession and those whose homes were built afterwards.  It was another version of the frequent old-timers versus newcomers animosity.  Standing on the sidewalk and watching their children parade past gave an opportunity for new introductions to continue healing the breach.

I didn’t ask whether the parade had secured a city permit.  But I have my suspicions.

In my next post, I’ll write about where urbanism falls on the political spectrum.   It’s a more complex question than many seem to grasp.

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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