Rockin' Around the Block

Time to rope off the street, call your neighbors, and fire up the grill - block parties are back in town.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Most people don't need an excuse to throw a block party. Summer heat is reason enough for neighbors to light the grill, break out cold drinks, and turn up the Rolling Stones. But as suburban sprawl continues to unravel the social fabric of traditional communities, neighborhood leaders are using block parties as catalysts for a host of improvements.

Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University in New York says the loss of community that people feel is actually contributing to a block-party renaissance. "Block parties are in a sense desperate cries for bonding - but they can be terribly effective. The fact that people go out of their way to get outside their home is a noble endeavor and often a successful one."

Phillip Gay, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, agrees. "My neighbors had a recent block party, and I didn't even know them. Now I have someone to wave at in the morning."

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But successful block parties do more than establish "Truman Show" friendliness. They're often at the heart of neighborhood renewal.

Though they're viewed as an invention of American culture, Dr. Gay says block parties owe their existence to ancient European street festivals. American colonists combined the festive with the functional by using harvests, barn-raisings, and other events to celebrate community. "Rural communities didn't divorce recreational lives from practical lives," Gay says.

Social interaction that typified early American communities was a necessity - people had to cooperate to survive. Narrow streets, front porches, and a proximity to Main Street helped neighbors sustain frequent personal contact.

But as post-World War II suburban developments helped create residential islands in a sea of concrete, neighborhood friendliness dwindled. Block parties - from casual driveway cookouts to streetwide affairs - became a replacement for natural social interactions, Dr. Thompson says. "Block parties were an excuse to get people together."

Alan Akin remembers this festive spirit in his childhood community. The Georgia native had to confront the sharp contrast between those halcyon days and the "dead" neighborhood near Atlanta he moved to in 1992.

"In my old neighborhood, the parents would get together and have luaus," he says. "Sometimes they would even have a barbershop quartet. We had a really cohesive neighborhood."

The lack of hand-waving, sugar-borrowing, and partying that Mr. Akin observed near his new home is hardly a local phenomenon. Nor does it necessarily reflect society's wish for privacy over community.

Experts say the combination of poorly designed developments, home architecture, and technological advances are responsible for today's languid streets. "Neighborhood isn't the center of our lives any more," Gay says.

Thompson explains that, beginning in the late 1940s, infrastructure created a reliance on the automobile, which decentralized communities. People had to drive to acquire basic needs instead of simply walking. As a result, newer houses exchanged welcoming front porches for snout-nosed garages.

This shift is still evident across a geographical divide, as traditional East Coast communities still have what Gay calls a "front-porch culture," whereas newer West Coast developments have developed a "patio culture." The former, he says, are better equipped to promote friendliness.

These changing developments, coupled with the cocooning influence of technology (television and air conditioning especially), sent people indoors - and created what some critics call soulless communities.

Akin fought this trend. After organizing regular home tours for neighbors to get acquainted, he initiated monthly block parties. "Now we have block captains, which has kept crime down," he says.

But the task of wooing his neighbors wasn't easy. After being warned by the post office to stop stuffing mailboxes with invitations (a federal offense), Akin called his neighbors - 350 of them. "A personal phone call got these people to the park, who normally would've stayed home."

He understands the prevailing attitude party organizers face. "People don't have time to talk to someone who lives next door," he says. "I find that really sad." Community leaders like Akin, though, are making progress against apathy - and inroads against crime.

Len Ayres, a community crime-prevention officer in Richland Hills, Texas, is at the forefront of a burgeoning community program that combines block-party festivities with crime-prevention instruction.

Working "hand in glove" with the area police department, Mr. Ayres selects different sections of the town each summer to throw a block party for the purpose of making residents crime-conscious. Handouts, informal talks, and a 30-minute lecture cap a night that blends music and marshmallows with McGruff - the crime-prevention mascot.

Sound corny? The numbers are compelling. According to Ayres, 85 percent of the blocks that have been through the program have had zero burglaries.

A nationwide version of this program, National Night Out, has scheduled its 17th annual program for Aug. 1. (Log on to www.nationaltownwatch.org/nno/intro.html for more information.)

Trust is another byproduct of summer parties. "Parents feel comfortable that kids can wander, because they know everyone. There's a support network, and a neighborhood watch," San Diego party organizer Trish Ludwick says.

Indeed, many people cited the development of a neighborhood support network as a crucial block-party outcome. From increased favors like housesitting and taking care of pets, to the establishment of crime-watch programs, neighborhoods are reestablishing a sense of community bonding.

Face time between neighbors also tends to alleviate nuisances that are frequently the only occasion for interaction. A barking dog, for instance, becomes more tolerable after people meet the owner, Thompson says.

To be sure, block parties are not social panaceas. After huddling with friends on a porch table strewn with Jax, watermelon, and blueberry pie, Susan McConathy of Jamaica Plain, Mass., says meeting her neighbors was great, but doubts her street's get-together will necessarily lead to dinner parties. Fifty-hour workweeks prevent friendships from taking root, she says.

And Thompson sees a schmaltzy side: "One of the ultimate ironies today is block parties you have to drive to. Arriving by automobile to a block party - only in America."

But parties are parties, and irony aside, they're fun. Even Thompson concedes: "When people are involved with celebratory things, social magic happens."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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