Build A Better Block

September 29, 2022

It didn’t take much. I completed an online application in August- I filled in my name, my address, the date requested and the block I wanted to close down. A day later, I received the approval and submitted $25 through the online portal. The next day, Amber made up a flyer stating all the details, and I sent it to the printer. I picked it up that following afternoon and had the kids deliver it to all the houses on the block that evening. The whole process took less than two days and about two hours worth of effort. We were throwing a block party! 

On our old street, block parties were a pretty regular occurrence. A family a couple of doors down hosted one every year to celebrate the last day of school. Two years ago, we got a keg of German beer, some extra big beer steins, and broke out the lederhosen for Blocktoberfest. Our own little celebration of Bavarian excess in Western Pennsylvania, complete with a polka-only playlist. 

But our real pièce de résistance was the wedding reception block party. Five years ago, Amber and I got married at the county courthouse and took The T (Pittsburgh’s light rail system) back home to host a block party. We had a band playing on a neighbor’s front porch, an Argentinian food truck, loads of beer and wine, and we invited all of our friends and neighbors out to join us in celebrating.  No rustic barn or dance hall or five-star hotel ballroom could have provided us with a more perfect reception. It was fun, easy, welcoming, and had community spirit. Bonus, the rental fee was $25. 

We moved into our new house early last summer. One year passed and we didn’t receive an invitation to any block parties, so we asked around, and to our disbelief, our particular block had never hosted one. We knew what we had to do. We waited until the temperatures dropped a bit and invited all of our neighbors to join us for beers in the street. 

We handed out flyers in late August for the late September street soiree. As the event approached, a couple of emails trickled in from neighbors asking how they could contribute. I ran into a couple more neighbors on the street, and they lamented the years of missed block parties. All of them assuming the township wouldn’t allow it (because of our block’s heavy traffic use), and the fake news stuck, so a block party just never occurred—until September 24th, 2022. 

The day of the block party arrived, and Amber was convinced I had not prepared nearly enough. I had hot dogs and beer, so I figured I was fine. She was off to work and was content to enjoy my under-planned disaster. 6pm rolled around, and things started to take shape. I set out a table in the driveway, a grill, and a speaker. Neighbor Bob helped me put barricades (dropped off the day before by the township) at each end of the block. For me, this part might have been the most satisfying; the sheer joy of denying drivers the use of our street for a few short hours. The rage they must have felt at having to go a block further to get to their destination brought a smile to my face. What a treat!  

For the first time in decades, there was a pause in the ever-present rumble of rubber on brick. The constant, nearly white-noise presence of those treads traversing our old street had ceased. It was a quiet that I wonder if anyone has experienced on this block in their lifetime. And as surely as the cars faded, something magical occurred. 

One by one, front doors opened and people spilled out onto the street. Neighbors with their hands full of chairs, coolers and snacks, made their way to the middle of the block. My nearly empty table filled up with food. To go along with the hot dogs, there was now a pasta salad, sausage rolls, a cheese and charcuterie board, even smoked pork belly (thanks, Ed!). With no coordination, we filled up the tables with plenty of food for all. Someone grabbed paper plates, someone else brought out a trash can, extra condiments arrived. We had everything we needed in a matter of minutes to enjoy an evening in the street. 

House by house, the neighbors arrived with their wine and beer in tow, ready to get social, all excited for the chance to chat with neighbors and enjoy this piece of the public realm that they have lived on for so long. 

As the occupants of each house approached the party, smiles lit up faces. Many old friends hugged, but plenty of people extended their hands for first-time introductions. Impromptu social circles took shape. A ring of folding chairs popped up in the middle of the street where Jim, the gentleman who had been on our street the longest, was recounting old tales. 

Amber arrived home from work to find the most touching scene. A street full of friends, old and new, enjoying one another’s company on a fall evening. A neighbor on the corner even  brought down his fire pit so we could warm up as the evening temperature dropped. 

Quite a few neighbors mentioned that they could not recall ever having a block party. This includes neighbors that have been living on this street dating back to the 1970s. People have been on our block for 50 years and have never had a chance to stand in the street for a couple of hours and chat with their neighbors. 

There were quite a few new connections too, but some of them were coming from people that had shared the street for decades. How sad that for all this time, people that could have been friends missed out on knowing one another. How many opportunities for additional get-togethers were missed, or maybe just the chance to call on someone for a hand in carrying something or a cup of sugar so they didn’t have to run the store. 

Why is this? Are the people that share my block just not neighborly? No, that’s not it, because now that I’ve met them all, they are kind and friendly people who seemed truly thrilled to have an opportunity to share an evening with their fellow residents. So what has kept them apart for so long? You guessed it: the damn cars. 

There is a huge tear in the fabric that runs right through the middle of our block. A scar that will never be, because the wound is reopened a thousand times a day by someone traveling  somewhere else. This pretty brick street with all the cute old stone houses was meant to be enjoyed by people. It should bring neighbors together, but the cars push us apart. They force us to stay on our side, or worse, inside. So maybe now, twice a year, we will place a temporary bandage over that wound and afford neighbors a small window to spend time with one another. 

The evening approached perfection. The weather was perfect, and some of the loveliest people one could meet all stood around enjoying one another’s company. Amber and I reveled in the sheer joy of neighborliness and the fun of bringing people together, of getting to know more people, and of seeing new friendships being forged while neighbors of a half-century had a chance to catch up.

Everyone was so thankful for the gesture. Again and again, neighbors told us how happy they were to have an opportunity to get together and wondered why they hadn’t done it before. I just kept thinking that a block is so much better when you get to share it with people. 

We agreed that we would host another block party in the spring and keep up the tradition twice a year moving forward. Because in the end, it only cost a few dollars, only required a couple tables and hot dogs, yet provided us with something priceless. A neighborhood. 

So here’s to you, Ed and Elba, Mary, Bob and Liz, Al and Diane, Andy and Debbie, John and Mona, Bob and Claire, Jim and Elaine, John, Dustin and Reenie, and Brady and Hannah. Thanks for being our neighbors. 

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