The Block Party - A '90s Version Of the Village Green

As invitations go, the flyer tucked inside our door is decidedly casual, in keeping with the outdoor event it heralds: "The Fairfield Street Block Party. You are cordially invited!!"

Billed as "a wonderful opportunity to get together with your neighbors for some old-fashioned fun," the party promises everything from a barbecue ("burgers, hot dogs, soda, and chips") to games - a water-balloon toss, face painting, a scavenger hunt, and a watermelon-seed-spitting contest. For $3 each, plus a side dish or dessert to share, residents of this quiet street can take advantage of a holiday weekend to get acquainted.

For at least a decade, culture watchers have lamented the demise of neighborliness and the rise of isolation - what futurist Faith Popcorn calls "cocooning." But on this July afternoon, more than 70 people, from babies to retirees, turn out, ignoring the threat of rain.

Orange barrels with black letters reading BLOCK PARTY, supplied by the Town Hall, cordon off the street. Picnic tables and patio tables with umbrellas create an alfresco cafe in the middle of the block. Gas grills, coolers, and food tables line the curb. Nearby, a volleyball net stretches across the pavement.

Like parents at school functions who exist primarily in relation to their children ("I'm Elizabeth's father" or "We're Jason's parents"), neighbors here are identified not so much by name as by house: "We live in the white Colonial on the corner," or "We just moved into the yellow Cape."

In an earlier era, women's morning get-togethers served as a link between families. Now, as suburban neighborhoods empty out during the day, the kaffe klatsch has gone coed in the form of weekend events like this. In our suburb alone, more than 50 block parties a summer receive permits from the town to close off the street to traffic. Add to that the neighborhood gatherings held in driveways, needing no official approval, and the figure probably doubles.

Working women cannot, of course, be held accountable for all the decline in neighborliness, real or perceived. Other changes also play a role. Many newer streets, for example, have no sidewalks, making connections between houses more difficult. Even attached garages and automatic door openers work against sociability, allowing family members to go to their cars from inside the house, raise the door with the push of a button, and be on their way, almost unseen.

Robert Frost observed that "Good fences make good neighbors." But a suburbanite could write a variation on that theme: Good porches make good neighbors too. Once upon a more sociable time, front porches and stoops offered an ideal place to wave a friendly hello to neighbors driving past and chat with those walking by. But as porches and stoops gave way to backyard patios and decks, families moved out of sight.

Now front porches appear to be making a modest comeback, judging by new and remodeled houses in the area. Architecturally, many look like tiny afterthoughts. But sociologically, they may signal a hunger for community and connection.

That desire to connect is reflected in the success of this gathering. What began as a four-hour party, from noon to 4 p.m., lasts twice that long. As partygoers talk about children and jobs, praise a new addition, and recommend a bricklayer or landscaper, strangers turn into friends.

The next morning, the only visible reminders of the party are children's chalk drawings on a driveway and a deflated red balloon by the curb. But something intangible lingers. Is it only a walker's imagination, or is there an extra cheeriness in the "hello" offered by the man watering geraniums in front of the gray Colonial?

No one can pretend that 50 or even 100 block parties make a community. But these modern attempts to recreate the village green offer an encouraging sign that the neighborhood, like the family, may be in better shape than doomsayers would have everyone believe. Both are different, yes. But hardly dead.

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