Block parties are a great way to get to know your neighbors whom you may need to rely on during a disaster. (Courtesy photo)

Building community one block at a time

We organized our first block party 17 years ago, in early June of 2002.

We had our annual neighborhood block party last Sunday afternoon. Once a year, a group of us get a permit to close off the cul-de-sac at the end of the street. A few men fire up their barbecues, competing to see who can outgrill the other. People bring a dish to share – salads, pastas, chips, dips, and lots and lots of desserts.

We set up tables and chairs on the street where people can sit while they eat or just to rest for a while. Most people stand in ever-changing groups, joining one conversation for a while, then moving to another cluster of neighbors to talk. Music – an eclectic mix of jazz and classic rock – played from an iPod’s speakers.

Around mid-afternoon, we strung a pinata from the branch of a big tree, and the kids whacked at it until it burst, spraying its goodies on the sidewalk underneath. Dogs got lots of treats and lots of petting from everyone. Young couples and seniors shared news and information. People new to the neighborhood mixed with those who’ve been around for decades.

Sunday was the day of the strong winds. At one point, a particularly strong gust blew a pan of roast beef slices, hot off the grill, onto the street. None of the dogs cared that the meat was dirty and happily ate several pieces. I think mine spent the rest of the afternoon praying for the wind to knock more meat off the tables.

As the afternoon wore on, the sun sank lower and the shadows from the houses on the street grew larger. People clustered at one end of the cul-de-sac, huddling together in the final remaining patch of sunlight. It was a fun day.

We organized our first block party 17 years ago, in early June of 2002. Back then, I often talked with a woman who I saw gardening in her front yard as I walked my dog past her house. In the aftermath of 9/11, we started to discuss ways to get to know more of our neighbors, and the block party planning began.

That first year, I was surprised at how many people admitted they didn’t really know the people who lived next door, let alone a few doors away. The block party was a great way for everyone to meet the neighbors who lived up and down their street.

We’ve held it every year since then, although, after several years of foggy, cold June days, we moved it to the warmer, drier days of fall. We now have a core of 10 households that help plan and organize the event. Some distribute flyers to houses within three or four blocks, others buy drinks to share and meat to grill, still others help set up and break down the tables. All contribute to the cost of the street closure permit.

Over the years, our block party has helped create a sense of community in our neighborhood. That community will come in handy when the inevitable disaster strikes, whether it be an earthquake, extended periods of smoky air, or power shutoffs to prevent wildfires. When you get to know your neighbors, you get to know who may need extra help – where the seniors live, which families have babies, who has medical problems – and which local people or places can provide that help.

Emergency planners have said we should all expect to be on our own for the first 72 hours after a disaster. We’ll need to rely on our neighbors for help. That’s why San Francisco city agencies recently created Neighborfest, a program that encourages people to organize block parties to get to know one another better and to share information on how to be better prepared for emergencies of all kinds.

I urge everyone to think about having a block party where you live. They can be a lot of fun, even wind-swept ones like ours last Sunday. And they’re a great way to build community, one block at a time.

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.

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