York has lived on the same block almost his entire life -- nearly 40 years -- but, as his wife teased him, he didn't really know his neighbors. One big reason is that York lives on a block near Lake Michigan that primarily is home to condo buildings, rather than the single-family bungalows or three-story greystones and A-frame homes that characterize many Chicago neighborhoods. Without a front stoop, or even their own front doors, neighbors can easily become invisible to one another.
When York became president of his neighborhood group, he realized how much easier it is to solve community problems if you know your neighbors. He decided to throw a block party after talking to the staff at his local alderman's office to see what was entailed.
York's block party was a huge success, attracting about 200 people from his block. This Instructable recreates how he turned those strangers into neighbors.
Step 1: Organize a Team of 10 to 12 Volunteers
You may want to organize your volunteers into committees, by task. Here are four basic committees every block party needs:
food and drinks
set up and clean up
Step 2: If Necessary, Apply for a Permit
So York and his band of volunteers took on task #1: getting those John Hancocks. They went door to door collecting signatures, and since 30 isn't that high a number, it wasn't too onerous, says York.
If you don't know your alderman, visit civicfootprint.org to find him or her.
It's definitely worth it to apply for a block party permit in Chicago, according to York. In addition to freebies -- like free use of a Jumping Jack for the kids, a visit from a city fire truck, and a pinata! -- having a permit allows party throwers to block off their street with city-issued sawhorses and post No Parking signs to clear the street of vehicular traffic the day of the event.
As York put it, "Some of the most enjoyable moments kids have is when they're playing in the street without the cars."
One more thing: your alderman's office can help you determine the best date to have the party. They'll know about city-wide and neighborhood-wide festivals taking place, which are good dates to avoid if you want a good turnout.
Step 3: Create Some Buzz and Sign People Up
They had two fairly large weather-proof signs printed up, one to hang on a post at each end of the block, announcing the date and time, cost, and other block party details. Attached to the signs, they hung plastic folders stocked with sign-up forms.
By mid-June, they had more than 130 people sign up for the party. More than 200 people ultimately attended.
It's important that pre-event publicity and the sign-up forms 1. create excitement about the event by including fun details about food, games, entertainment, etc.; and 2. provide clear information about registering for the event, including a contact name and phone number, as well as a note about what guests will need to bring to the event (for instance, their IDs, if alcohol will be provided; their talents, if there's a talent show; or a side dish if a potluck is involved, as it was in York's case.)
You might also consider setting a deadline for pre-registration. Deadlines motivate people who might sit on the fence forever to go ahead and decide to attend. Also, by requiring pre-payment by a certain date, you can raise the money needed to cover expenses without having to dip into your own nest egg.
York's group did not require pre-registration, though they did encourage it by making day-of prices a tad bit more expensive.
They also used pre-registration as a way to manage food and drinks. Paid guests were issued folders with nametages and ID bracelets for guests of legal age. To eat and drink the day of the event, party goers needed to don their nametags and bracelets when approaching the food and beverage stations.
One more suggestion: ask folks to provide their e-mails when they register. This will allow you to remind them about the block party as it approaches, and send periodic e-mails to build excitement for the event. You might also consider starting a community listserv that can carry on as a communications vehicle for the neighborhood long after the block party.
Step 4: Set Up a Wiki to Keep Your Volunteers on Track
Setting up a wiki is a great way to foster efficient collaboration between your block party organizers, and York highly recommends it. The wiki proved to be an effective and strategic way for York's team to stay in touch and put out calls for assistance.
Step 5: Find Creative Solutions to Your Storage Problems
He found a creative solution to both problems.
Someone in York's group has a good relationship with a local restaurateur, whose eatery happens to be just around the block from York's. Instead of renting a refrigerated cooling truck or buying hundreds of pounds of ice to keep cool the hamburger patties, brats and other perishable foods, the group reached out to the restaurateur, who agreed to let them have access to his cooler for the day.
(Bonus tip: The restaurateur went the extra mile by offering to order the food and beverages for the block party through his wholesaler. York and his group paid for the order, but by getting it wholesale, they saved a bundle.)
Because his block is in one Chicago's most densely populated neighborhoods, parking can be a nightmare. To ease the frustrations of people on the block who would have to move their cars for the day, York struck a deal with the owner of a local parking garage.
Step 6: Don't Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth
However, some donations fell in his lap. A local photographer agreed to capture the event on film free of charge, and even posted the pictures on a Web site for neighbors to view and download. And a dogwalker from the neighborhood donated gift bags for winners of a pet parade. In addition, the local alderman's office was in the midst of a city-wide compact fluorescent lightbulb giveaway and had boxes of lightbulbs to give away to local residents. And the Blue Man group, which has been running at a local theater near York's block for years, offered pair of tickets.
By advertising the block party in such a public way (remember those signs at the end of his block?), York attracted donations from marketing-savvy local entrepreneurs without even having to ask! He thanked them by posting a sign at the event recognizing his sponsors.
Step 7: Plan Inexpensive Events, Games and Entertainment
In order to keep costs down, York and his team planned fun, inexpensive events, games and entertainment.
The aforementioned pet parade was a huge hit, attracting furry friends and even a feathered friend (see photo).
Cornhole -- a popular game in Chicago, in which players try to score points by tossing a beanbag in a hole -- was set up to add some friendly competition to the party.
A cheap way to give the party a soundtrack is to download songs onto your iPod, then broadcast them through your stereo speakers. Even if you pay to download some of the tunes, you'll still get away a lot cheaper than if you hire a band or even a DJ.
And a bake-off is great, not only to discover the hidden culinary geniuses on your block, but also to stock that food table with free -- and sugary -- offerings!
Step 8: Enjoy Your Party!
With one block party under his belt, York says his life is like that episode of Seinfeld when Kramer collects pictures of people in his building to post in the hallway. "The process of walking down the street can take an hour, because we're always running into people we now know!"
Step 9: Don't Leave a Mess
Step 10: Get Feedback From Partygoers
You can use Web sites like Zoomerang.com to create online surveys and compile responses free of charge. If you collected your guests' e-mails when they registered, it's an easy way to disseminate the survey. Try to have this ready to go within one week of the event, so people can provide fresh feedback.