Introduction: Block Party Blowout
Anil has been helping organize his block party for 15 years, but it's been running for more than 20. "We think we're the oldest contiguous block party permit in Chicago," he says. What's his motivation? "It's a way to get to meet people who you may not know who are also committed to staying in the neighborhood to set up institutions and norms and make it comfortable for people to stay."
A jaw-dropping 600 people attend Anil's block party, probably also making it one of the city's largest block get-togethers. In fact, by block party standards, Anil's block party is definitely classified as a "blowout." From a rented beer truck and hired DJ to a dunk tank and even port-o-johns, Anil and his fellow organizers have thought of everything. Here's how they do it, year after year ...
Step 1: Organize a Team
Team Block Party on Anil's block consists of about 15 dedicated people every year -- and they need every last one of them. Here are the key job descriptions for Anil's block party team:
Finance manager -- collect money and deposit in the block party association bank account
Beer truck manager
Banner management (banner used for publicity; more on that in a moment)
Dunk tank manager
Name tag managers
No parking signs (pick them up from the alderman's office and hang them the day of the party)
Jumping Jack supervisors
Bike parade organizers
Portable toilet manager
Dog show organizer
If you're counting, that's more than 15 jobs. But let's face it: the guy who hangs the parking signs can probably handle doing double duty as the port-o-john manager. Considering all of the food that's needed for 600 people, most people on Anil's team will pull double duty chopping onions for all of those brats ...
Step 2: Apply for a Permit
All Chicago block parties require a permit, but the good news is, they're free. Not only are they free, but they come with freebies: a Jumping Jack for the kids, a visit from a Chicago Fire Department fire truck, and a pinata! Visit civicfootprint.org to find your local alderman, then visit his or her office to apply for the permit. They'll also be able to help you avoid planning your party on a weekend when a major citywide or neighborhood-wide festival is taking place.
Some aldermen require blocks that haven't had a party in recent years to collect signatures from a certain number of folks on the block, indicating interest. Anil's block has been throwing a party for years, so they get to skip this step. If your alderman requires signatures and you're throwing your first block party, be sure to make time for this step; going door-to-door to collect signatures can take time.
Step 3: Publicize Your Party and Take Sign Ups
There are a lot of ways to do this, but Anil's block uses the banner method. The last week of July -- about one month prior to the late-August block party -- a banner is hung at the end of the block advertising the party. The banner includes basic registration information, giving costs for pre-registration ($5 for adults, $3 for kids) and costs for day-of registration ($10). Anil urges block party organizers to keep registration costs low; that way, he reasons, no one will feel cheated if they only get one hamburger and a beer. If there ends up being more to go around, then the cost seems like a bargain!
Anil's block issues nametags to people who have paid, their way of ensuring that people who approach the food table and beer truck are paying block party goers.
Step 4: Rent a Beer Truck
Anil swears by the need to rent a refrigerated beer truck for the event. In various years, he's had people willing to donate beer, but he tells them that he needs the truck. Why? It doubles as a giant cooler, providing an on-street, efficient way to keep all of the soda, meat, condiments and, of course, beer needed for 600 people cold throughout the party.
Step 5: Rent Big Grills
This step is pretty self-explanatory: throwing a block party for 600 people requires bringing in the big grills. Anil rents rotating grills to keep the food coming. The group also designates a grill manager to ensure a steady supply of burgers, brats and whatever else is getting thrown on the barbie.
Step 6: Order Some Port-o-johns.
Having a couple of port-o-potties is a nice touch, especially for the families on the block who might otherwise have to run wriggling kids in and out of their homes every half an hour. Be sure to save the best piece of steak for the person you put on port-o-john duty.
Step 7: Hire a DJ
You'll want someone who's family friendly and can bring their own equipment. Much like a wedding DJ, the block party DJ can help MC the event, so you'll want to appoint a liaison to provide the DJ with direction and cues throughout the day.
Step 8: Rent a Dunk Tank
Anil's team appoints someone not only to rent a dunk tank, but also to supervisor it. Dunk tank tragedies must be avoided at block parties, just like Jumping Jack collisions. As a rule of thumb, anything designed to submerge kids in water or fling them around in the air should be supervised by an adult throughout the party.
Step 9: Have Some Parades!
Bike parades, stroller parades, and for goodness' sakes, pet parades will bring a smile to the face of the neighborhood's biggest curmudgeon.
Parade organizers may want to provide some decorations for the bikes and strollers, like streamers and balloons. And now's the time to cue the DJ's best marching band tune. Prizes for best decor can add some friendly competition to the parade, but are not necessary.
Step 10: Buy and Beg Food
Anil is of the mindset that it's okay to approach local businesses. After all: the worst they can say is no. Plus, as he reasons, local businesses that donate to the block party are putting their product in the hands of 600 local consumers, a relatively cheap and effective way to advertise. In various years, he has received food donations from anywhere from three to 15 restaurants!
If you're going to approach a local business for a donation of any kind, it's a good idea to do three things: 1. prepare a polite written request that you can hand to the manager or owner; 2. be prepared with a specific request, but also be prepared to negotiate if the business is not willing to fulfill your greatest hopes and dreams; and 3. let the busines owner know you plan to prominently display a sign, thanking them for their sponsorship.
If you are unsuccessful in soliciting donations, keep in mind that hot dogs and hamburgers are always a delicious alternative, and turning your party into a potluck is as easy as putting a call for hot dish and salads on the banner.
Also, if you do end up purchasing most of your food, consider shopping locally. It's another way your block party can support your vibrant neighborhood.
Step 11: Show Your Block How You Iron Chef
Being on Food Prep duty means having a party before the party: a chopping party, that is.
A couple of days before the big event, Anil's Food Prep team organizes a chopping party, at which volunteers, well, chop (or otherwise prep) the foods that need chopping. After all, what would a Chicago-style hot dog be without tomato and raw onions?
Step 12: Hang -- and Enforce -- Those No Parking Signs
Anil lives in one of Chicago's most densely populated neighborhoods, and cars are tightly packed on the street. He considers the cars a safety hazard and a major inconvenience on block party day, considering that some 600 people will be partying in the street. "It's a battle every year," he says, "It's a question of whether it's 10 or 30 cars left on the street on block party day."
Since Anil's group posts the No Parking signs at least one day before the event -- and since the block has been throwing a block party on the same weekend in late August for, oh, 20 years -- Anil feels justified in calling the cops to ask them to tow the parking scofflaws. But, he says, cops in his Ward don't seem to want to enforce block party-issued No Parking signs. However, he encourages block party organizers to make the call for the safety and enjoyment of those who attend the party.
Step 13: Manage Waste
Anil's block has a nice tradition: at about 11 a.m. or noon, a few hours before the block party kicks off, neighbors come out with their brooms and rubber gloves to pick up trash from the street and spruce it up before the party. It's a nice tradition, and one more way for neighbors to come together to take pride in their block.
Once the party starts, a block party team member keeps trash in check, taking garbage bags to the trash when they're full and replacing them with empties. (You don't want your trash cans to look like those pictured!)
Of course, you can expect to do a significant amount of clean-up after the last beer has been drunk and brat gobbled down, but designating someone to manage trash throughout the party is a good way to keep post-party cleanup to a minimum.
Step 14: Use Surplus Funds to Beautify Your Block
Over time, Anil's block party association has accumulated a surplus of funds, in large part thanks to day-of registrants. If you know you won't need your surplus for next year's party -- and, let's face it, after 15 years, Anil's team has their budget down to a science -- you may consider doing what they sometimes do: purchasing street trees or furniture for the whole block to enjoy.
A plaque dedicated to block party goers is a nice touch.