Most basically there is a block. The foundation of community building. Twenty to 30 houses, that many families, linked certainly by immediate geography and more gradually by kids and gardens, frustrations and shared values.
Oak Park figured out the power of a block 40 years ago as the village trembled in fear of rapid racial change and someone really smart (just who was it?) started promoting block parties.
It is harder to be afraid when you know your neighbors – the longtime ones, the new ones, too.
Nowadays the impetus for gathering up neighbors is not so worrisome, but it is still essential. How else, besides the spring block party are you to sort out the babies born over the long winter, confirm rumors of job changes and celebrate graduations from elementary, middle, high school and college.
The 300 block of South Humphrey gathered up for the first of our two annual block parties on an intermittently rainy Saturday. The late spring do is intended to be more focused on the adults – so no specifically organized kids’ games. On the other hand, close a street to cars, open it to bikes, balls and water balloons and the average kid enjoys it more than adult-driven relay races and McDonald’s gift certificates as prizes.
So the block met for breakfast, lunch and dinner, a few brews, and in the middle looked over the latest construction project at one house and the lovely garden at another.
We played a “guess the name” game that was so local the principal of Beye School got as many mentions as the inexplicably popular Muhammad Ali. (What are the chances that three people would independently toss The Great One’s name into the bowl?)
Speaking of Beye School and inexplicable, during the rainy shank of the late afternoon the block party was visited by a gaggle of Beye parents off on a fundraising tour in which they paid cash money to do humbling reality TV-like things – think mealworms and, in the case of our block party, karaoke. Talk about painful! But they get points for being game.
At A Day in Our Village – the ultimate block party, also conceived in the same era 40 years back – I was talking with Barbara Brotman, the Trib columnist and an Oak Parker. Told her how much I admired a column she wrote last year about a neighbor who had transformed the block’s culture by building a front yard patio. It had become the center of the block, the after dinner gathering spot for watching the kids play, enjoying some wine, chatting about the big issues and small that connect us.
Now, she said, another neighbor had taken to hauling his TV set to the front yard for shared Hawks watching.
Back at our block party, we spent perhaps an inordinate amount of time talking about parking ordinances and, in a twist, poultry ordinances.
The day after the tables had been hauled from the parkway, the 2 year olds reinstructed on why they can’t run into the street like yesterday and the plaintively clever e-mail had gone out about the salad bowl, which, it turned out, had been a wedding present and was still missing from the block party of ’07.
Two parents of young teens commiserated over a pile of newly pulled weeds about how fast the years pass. We both arrived on the block with very young kids who lived for block parties. We’ve gone from the leap in which the kids first went off to play Ghost in the Graveyard in the gathering dusk to these days when school friends take preeminence to block friends, when soccer and other commitments have broadened their worlds well beyond the block.
Happily, now we’re watching on our block as another generation of parents and their toddlers and infants discover the joys of neighbors and neighborhood, the power of the block.