If there’s one thing as Chicago as a hot dog ran through the garden, it’s a block party. As soon as the warm summer months start rolling in, Chicagoans want to be outside at all costs, considering how miserable the weather is the rest of the year.
Every neighborhood throws them, Chicago is home to the world’s largest block party, the Old St. Pat’s, which officially kicks off summer. If there’s one thing the city loves more than arguing about Cubs vs. White Sox, it’s hanging on the block with the neighbors and cutting up over some beers while a band plays the hits.
Block parties are a great way to meet new people. No matter how old school the block is, there’s probably someone new who’s moved in, that feels a little weird trying to make friends with people who’ve known one another forever. But, in the end, the goal is always the same: celebrate community. A block party is central to the Chicago identity, it’s something people born and bread, but also new to town adopt as maybe not a singularly Chicagoan thing, but they’ve probably perfected the art.
But, while Chicago loves a good party, complete with a dunk tank, a lot of burgers and hot dogs and someone’s cousin DJing the whole thing (who’s ready for some Cupid Shuffle?), how does a block party get kicked off? As with all things Chicago, there’s getting a permit, and probably some other stuff, too. (You’re going to need some help moving things around and we’ve got your back.) We wanted to know how to throw the most excellent block party of all time, so you wouldn’t have to.
Talk to your neighbors
Seems obvious, right? It’s probably a good idea to make sure the general consensus is cool with throwing a massive party where cousins, friends, and a few strangers will come and hang in your yard.
Block parties can be small but come on, everyone in Chicago knows that people who aren’t from the block are coming. Ask for help, get people involved. You’ll be surprised at how many of your neighbors know how to do different things. Just because you don’t know anyone with a portable stage for the Irish rock and roll band you hired, doesn’t mean someone from down the block doesn’t, either. Put a small team together and make decisions by committee. There will be problems, but by working together as a team for the greater good, there’s always a solution.
Figure out how big you’re going to go
Are you keeping the event small or are you going super-Chicago and shutting down the street? If you’re going the old school route, it’s going to take a little bit to plan the event. Delegate four people to be the doers and get moving, but also realize you’ll probably forget something, too. All of this adds up. Get a community fund going for every house that’s going to be involved. Planning a block party is all about putting together the right team who will see the idea evolve into fruition.
If you’re thinking of throwing a block party and reading this in June, it’s probably safe to say you won’t be throwing yours till August. You’ll need to lock down an agreeable date and the type of party. Make sure to check out any kind of community calendars or Facebook groups to make sure nothing else could interfere that weekend.
Make Save The Date postcards for everyone on the block. Give as much information as possible: date, time, location, who to contact to get involved, donation costs, and contact for RSVPs. Two things worth considering as well, tape them to their front doors, and suggest a hard date to RSVP, people always respond to a deadline.
Get that permit
If you’re in Chicago, you already know the drill. The aldermen and city hall have their hands in everything, even block parties. You’re going to need to contact your alderman’s office to get the special events permit. If you’re going to have beer, or use a park, or have a band, all of these things need to be taken care of ahead of time. You don’t want the band firing up only to have the cops show up immediately and there’s no backup plan.
Make sure the date is set before you apply for the permit, you need it to set the time. If you need to find your alderman, use civicfootprint.org.
Stop by the local alderman’s office and talk to the folks working, a lot of Chicago’s neighborhoods have exclusive perks for block parties because they’re such a part of the culture. Some wards even have their own bouncy houses for the kids to jump around inside. Many times the local fire department will come by with the fire truck, as well. Plus, the alderman’s office is where you can snag the “No Parking” signs as well as those bright blue City of Chicago sawhorses to block off the street. Some alderman even have ice cream machines they rent out.
If you don’t plan ahead you might miss out on that bouncy house and who wants to pay for that if there’s one free the following weekend? This is why planning ahead is important.
Even though it’s rare, if your block has never thrown a block party, most Chicago alderman will need you to gather signatures from your street signifying it’s cool that you’re planning an event. That means you and your committee are going to have to go door-to-door and ask for community support.
Double pro tip:
Set your NO PARKING signs out at least two days early, so people know to move their cars. Towing cars is up to your committee because once the block party is over, everyone goes back to being just neighbors and do you really want bad blood because someone forgot to move their 2001 Ford Explorer? A gentle reminder, sure.
Set a deadline for RSVPs
You need to know headcount so you can plan how big this party is going to be. There’s food, drinks, and potentially alcohol and all of that adds up. Plus, if you’re buying in bulk at a place like Costco, it’s always cheaper than packs of hot dogs that come by a bakers dozen.
See who wants to chip in
Don’t forget to see who’s in the community work with neighborhoods on different projects and events. There are a lot of small businesses in the community as well as firefighters, cops, nurses, EMS, all kinds of people will get involved if they’re asked far enough ahead of time.
Also, this works with people in the neighborhood, if someone is a chef, ask if they would mind helping with overseeing the food. Does someone work in a bar, can they get liquor wholesale? Tap the network and see what’s out there. Some folks may not have any money to make a significant dent in the overall fund, but they may be willing to get out there and hit the pavement and pass out fliers or build things.
Another perk of volunteers is that they’re a good line of defense for food and drinks to make sure everyone eats and no one is over-served until after folks have eaten.
If you’re working with volunteers, always try to get more than less. Like food, being prepared is everything.
Think about rentals
What are you going to need? You’ll need tables, chairs, will you need a dunk tank? Will you set up a volleyball net, a grill, what about those free-standing pools that come on wheels? While there are plenty of companies who rent out all of these things, don’t forget to check local community centers, churches, schools, many offer their extra equipment for a fraction of the price.
Don’t forget to read contracts, check the fine print, and inspect everything for the condition. Check if there are numbers and make sure pieces stay together. If something needs to be put together, find out ahead of time if there will be help, or if a crew comes and breaks things down. Never assume everything will be taken care of, there needs to be a clear plan.
When renting things, don’t forget you’re going to need port-a-potties. While everyone’s got a bathroom in their house, there are strangers, little kids, and drunk people. Having one or two or four wouldn’t hurt if it can be in the budget.
Always have a plan B
Plan for things to go wrong. It might rain, so put up a few tents. Think about electrical for entertainment, can the system handle a band? Did the DJ bring speakers that are loud enough? Did she bring speakers at all? Try to think of worst-case scenarios and plan for them. Try to plan for food, for people to come in waves, but think about when you’ll start grilling or about how many people will be hanging out. As for the weather, maybe set up zones for people to get out of the rain, perhaps someone’s designated yard or a garage.
Clean it up
There’s gonna be trash the next morning. Have a designated crew for handling bottles, cans, cigarette butts, whatever’s left out there. Make sure to place trash bins everywhere, it’ll make everyone’s jobs easier.
If your block’s culture hasn’t existed for generations and a lot of the people are new to the neighborhood, there’s no shame in offering nametags. Use the food tables as a home base, everyone loves to eat.
Think about safety
While no one anticipates something going wrong, it’s smart to be prepared. Have a few people act as security, should something go down, but also set a base of where first aid would be kept. If there’s anyone in the medical field involved, consult with them. If there are play areas and bouncy houses, set up signs that parents need to keep an eye on their kids. (Adia can help with event security should everyone want to hang out. We’ve got plenty of professionals in our community of workers.)
Get with the committee and look at what worked, what was awesome, what didn’t go over well. Talk about ways to improve for next year. Keep track of receipts, costs, who you worked with if companies or groups got involved and made an impact. Use this for planning next year’s event.
Everyone loves free stuff (especially ice cream)
Talk to local businesses in the neighborhood. You never know who’s willing to donate. Some places might offer loaves of bread for sandwiches, or meat for the grill. It never hurts to ask. One massive win that always keeps people happy: free ice cream. If you can get ice cream at a block party, you’ll be a hero to many children. Offer to put up a sign thank them for helping out and people will notice. Goodwill goes a long way.
Burgers or dogs?
Depending on the size of the block party, you need to think about food. How much is getting cooked? Is it a community pitch in? Is someone covering a bunch of hot dogs? Will it be pot luck? Plan ahead and get a plan because people are going to come hungry.
Pro tip: buy lots and lots of ice
Don’t forget to say thank you
Whether it’s in a Facebook group or on the street, whatever the vehicle you choose, say thank you to everyone who chipped in. People don’t expect a ticker tick parade, but everyone likes to know their contributions were valued.
What about beer?
If you’re drinking, people can either set up coolers in their yards with a communal beer supply they can keep an eye on or set up a community keg with a bucket for $5 donations. If there’s money left over, keep it for next year’s block party or do something nice for the block.
Call in help
If you need an extra set of hands doing, well, just about anything, let Adia help you throw the best block party, ever. From breaking down tables to manning the kegs or making sure no one goes in the bouncy house drunk, we’ve got your back. Plus, you set the prices and the hours, and there’s no paperwork. You know how you can call a car for a ride over to Midway on your phone? It’s the same principle, just with people ready to get to work.