Introduction: The Basic Block Party
A start-to-finish guide to throwing a laid-back block party, based on advice from Arnold in Chicago
Step 1: Decide You Want to Throw a Block Party With Your Neighbors
Maybe you've just moved to your block, or maybe you've lived there for several years but still don't know most of your neighbors. Deciding to organize a party in the street with your neighbors is a great way to help create community on your block. Not only will you get to know the people who help you organize the party, but you'll get to know everyone who decides to attend.
Even a relatively laid-back block party needs planning. Arnold in Chicago helped organize a block party that 75 people on his block attended, free of charge. He suggests starting to plan your party about three months before you want to host it. He also recommends gathering the following, for maximum enjoyment at minimum cost:
-- a group of five to seven dedicated volunteers;
-- a city permit (necessary in some communities, and usually free; check with your local representative)
-- free food and soft drinks, provided by billing your party as a potluck
-- tables to hold the food and drinks;
-- a keg or two, and lots of ice;
-- some signage, for before and during the party;
-- ice cream, preferably donated from a local creamery or provided at a discount (Ice cream probably isn't necessary, but come on, who doesn't like ice cream?)
Step 2: Organize a Group of Dedicated Volunteers to Plan the Party
To throw a laid-back block party, you'll probably need a team of at least six volunteers. More helpers can always be put to use, but you'll definitely need people to:
-- apply for the permit (if need-be), promote the party to people living on the block, and take sign-ups (2 people)
-- organize the potluck, and manage the food table and the keg the day of the party (at least 2 people)
-- post "No Parking" signs the day before, and set up and clean up the day of (at least 2 people)
If you're already know some of your neighbors, start by asking them if they're willing to help. If you don't know any of your neighbors, try posting signs on the street posts at the ends of your block, asking for volunteers to meet at a given date and time at a local gathering place. If you still come up short, you may have to go door-to-door.
Step 3: Apply for a Permit and Pick a Date
If your community requires a permit to hold a block party, you'll need to have the date chosen before going to apply for the permit. In Chicago, you should stop by, call or e-mail your alderman's office to get a permit application. Use civicfootprint.org to find your alderman.
Here's a cool reason to check with your local alderman to find out whether block party permits are required in your area: Some cities provide free stuff with the permit! For instance, Arnold lives in Chicago, where free block party permits include a complementary Jumpy Jack (those big, balloon-like things kids can jump around inside) and a pinata, as well as a visit from a Chicago Fire Department truck. (These freebies are in addition to "No Parking" signs provided by the city, as well as city-tagged sawhorses to block off the ends of the street from car traffic the day of the event.)
Arnold applied for his block party permit about three months before his party, mainly to ensure the Jumpy Jack and Fire Dept. would be available on the chosen date.
Most alderman in Chicago require that first time applicants gather signatures from their neighbors to show that there's support for the party on the block. The number of signatures required varies from ward to ward. So if you're a first-time applicant, you'll need to gather signatures by going door-to-door. Ask your volunteers to help you with this since it can be daunting to do this alone if you've never knocked on doors before. People who've thrown block parties on their street before usually don't need to gather signatures of support.
Though you can never predict the weather, you may want to take it and other things into consideration when choosing a date. Arnold's block party group chose July because the summer season in Chicago is at its peak, and most families wait to go on vacation until August. You may also want to avoid picking a date that competes with a major local event, like a music festival or church picnic happening in your neighborhood. Your alderman's office will likely make this a requirement.
Step 4: Promote Your Party
There are a ton of ways to promote your block party, but here's a simple and direct approach, per the advice of our friend, Arnold:
Tape Save-the-Dates to everyone's front door on your block.
You'll want something colorful, like the accompanying example. However, you'll want to be sure to include the date of the party (conspicuously missing from this example), as well as contact information for the people you designated to take sign-ups.
If you're doing a potluck style party like Arnold's, you'll want to mention that, too. You also might want to use the Save-the-Date as a last-ditch attempt to beef up your team of volunteers. You'll be happy to have a few extra pairs of hands on party day.
One more tip: on the Save-the-Date, give people a deadline for signing up. Deadlines motivate people who might otherwise wait until the last minute to join the party, and you want to have a relatively solid count before the big day.
Step 5: Find That Ice Cream
So the ice cream may not be necessary, but Arnold says it's a real crowd-pleaser at his block party.
Arnold brokers a deal with a local ice cream shop: the proprietor doesn't make a flat-out donation, but the cost is reduced, and Arnold has the satisfaction of supporting a local business instead of buying piles of Krunchy Kones from his local KostKutter.
When it's ice cream time at the party, Arnold makes sure everyone knows the ice cream was provided by the local shop, a great way to thank local businesses that help defray the costs of your party.
If you're going to approach a local business for a donation, make sure to do it a few weeks before the event to give the owner time to think about your proposal. The best way to approach a local business owner is to walk in, have a written proposal, and be respectful. Most stores get a lot of donation requests, so be prepared to negotiate a deal that works for both you and the owner.
Step 6: Organize the Potluck
Arnold says a potluck is great because "it's more or less self-organizing." Well, sort of ...
If you've billed the event as a potluck on the Save-the-Dates, and your potluck organizers are the same as the people taking sign-ups, you've done two very smart things.
When people call to sign up for the block party, ask them what they'd like to bring to the potluck, and then ask them to commit to bringing that specific dish. If they say they don't know what to bring -- or if five people in a row pledge to bring chips and salsa -- start making suggestions. In the end, your suggestions will only make the block party more delicious and nutritious for everyone involved. If people seem truly afraid of the stove, put them on soft drink and ice duty.
That brings up a good point: definitely don't forget the ice. You'll need it for the kegs.
Step 7: Decide What to Do About the Beer
Arnold's party is free of charge, but all beer-drinkers are asked to chip in $5 for an "honor bar."
Kegs work out well for parties over a certain size. If you get a keg, you'll definitely need a large bucket and plenty of ice. Coolers with cans or bottles of beer also work.
Most years, says Arnold, there's a small surplus of cash leftover from the honor bar. Arnold's block party group uses the surplus to defray the costs of the following year's block party.
Step 8: Post Your "No Parking" Signs
It's a couple of days before your party. You've got a full list of attendees, organized a potluck worthy of the gods, and ordered that keg. For the safety and enjoyment of everyone at the party, it's time to post those "No Parking" signs.
Be sure to hang the signs in advance of the party, so car owners on the block have ample opportunity to move their vehicles.
In Chicago, Arnold -- and anyone else throwing a block party -- has the right to call the police and have cars towed if drivers do not move them off the street for the party. He says he and his neighbors choose not to do so. Though the party is much more fun -- not to mention safe -- when the kids can run in the street and the Jumpy Jack has space to breathe, Arnold believes it would cause more harm than good to tow his fellow neighbors. He is not, he says, above giving them the evil eye when they get in their cars and drive off through the crowd in the middle of the party.
Step 9: Clean Up
Be sure not to leave your block in a state of disarray. At the scheduled time, remove the parking signs and any traffic barriers that have been set up on the block. Take down tables used to hold the food, and pick up all trash.
Then, pay yourself on the back for planning a great, laid-back get-together for your block!
And post your own Instructable on how to throw a block party...