June 6, 2012 by DKC
4 Phases of a Block Party
Well looky here…we’re almost into another summer and the much maligned and misunderstood block parties of Philadelphia are underway. I can remember those Saturdays in the early and late summer when one of the most anticipated events was a block party. I enjoyed the event primarily because of the freedom of a street without cars where kids could play dodge ball, hide and go seek, topsies, slap boxing, jacks and any number of other ghetto games without looking over your shoulder for a careless driver. Today, I recognize the urban block party. The following is my interpretation of the four phases of a Philly block party.
Block Clean Up.The process starts out a week before the actual block party—the block captain gets a permit from City Hall and then poster board signs appear throughout the street alerting residents of an upcoming clean-up day. The poster boards sign is a stern command to move your vehicle on a particular Saturday or risk getting towed. If you live on a block with older people with no kids they are up at 6:00 or 6:30 AM with cups of Sanka complaining about young residents with kids who haven’t moved their cars by 7:00 AM. The ongoing gossip is mixed with sweeping and pulling stubborn weeds popping out of small cracks in the pavement. The progress is undeniable as the bulk of the work gets done by the time younger families have put on their old clothes and start to clean their front steps. Eventually the block is cleaned through pseudo-joint effort and not without the wrangling and bickering that goes with these kinds of neighborhood activity.
Early Old/Late Young. During a clean up day it is inevitable that the heat of the day brings with it discussions about past. The elderly will drop a name followed by color commentary about the glory days on the block. This discussion is a kind of necessary ritual. These moments are a kind of catharsis for older residents. Many of them realize that life is short and they appreciate the sweet moments of reflection with fellow retirees. There are a million of these kinds of conversations going on, but ultimately they slow down as many of the older folk escape to their homes because what‘s next is loud and some might say obnoxious. These are the Titans of old who’ve passed the baton to the next generation of Olympians. It starts with the smell of lighter fluid, burning charcoal and visiting partiers from other neighborhoods. The block is roped off with police tape and no parking so kids could freely play on a street that would normally be off limits. The cheap lounge chairs are opened over oil stained parking spots and music is pumped at ridiculous decibels. What was a slow Saturday afternoon has now sped up; the cleanup has transitioned to a mess. Pieces of burned aluminum foil and dirty napkins tumble across freshly manicured sidewalks. The 40 oz bottles of malt liquor and 16 oz cans of beer pop-up out of nowhere as if they were hibernating for such a time as this. The movement of humanity coupled with diminishing sunlight reveals a kind of contradiction. This quiet lazy afternoon has turned into a herd of tattoos, faux pony tails, inappropriate spandex combinations, fresh white sneaks and matching short and top sets purchased from the local men’s big and tall store.
A Little Too Much to Drink. As the “clean-up/block party/get blasted day “drags on,activity turns to the ceremonial cultural fox trot called the Electric Slide. All ages assemble into 2 to 4 symmetrical lines to begin what has become this generation’s signature dance. There is little beauty in this dance—most of the dancers are straight faced doing their best to keep step with the music and their fellow dancers. There are those who attempt to add some extra flavor to a basic step at their own peril. Young and old, male and female slip back and forward, side to side as they attempt to fulfill this old and tired tradition. As the night drags on the music changes to the profane as explicit lyrics give the evening a sexual tone. Old school jams are mixed with the new cuts from R&B and Rap Artist. At this point in the night one could get real comfortable with the hedonism that fills the air. If one were to view this celebration from the roof you would see a study of group dynamics—the teens and young adults discuss whose corny, whose gear is nice and what girl they could get with. These groups can descend into unrestrained bravado, as youth are known to do. These young and restless ones will bust on each other and anyone that’s in their preview. Sometimes these groups can turn violent as there will always be those who simply go too far. A brave adult may step up and mention, “its time for you to go back to your block” or some may give them the traditional talk that middle age black adults give to young people hoping that they will avoid violence—sadly, these speeches are given after a tragedy. The block party carries on into the night with no end in sight. On this particular night laughter still permeates the air, women are still making their point and men are still showing off, and the debate that will change the world rages on.
The Morning After. Standing from their top step an older resident proclaims, “When did this thing end?” It’s Sunday morning and the theme of this day for many is ‘new beginnings’. The generation that went to bed early is now up early covered in multi-colored silk hair scarves, Uncle Fester robes and ash toned slippers—the attire is hideous but yet it’s the norm. Dedicated older residents hit the street early to restore what was trashed in the late night festivities. They pick up brown liquor bottles, crushed soda and beer cans and forgotten toys. They sweep and sweep and inevitably the talk begins, “did you hear all that noise last night?”…“Sure did–these young people ain’t got no respect for themselves or other people.” Ironically, many of the young that they talk about are their own sons and daughters. They reference them as not only a different generation, but also as a different kind of generation. The Sabbath is generally used for worshipping, but summer block parties in the hood create extra work that must be handled by those who are seasoned. These 60, 70 and 80 year olds dutifully sweep up millions of multi-colored barrettes littered throughout the street. As the young sleep off their hangovers many of the old prepare for worship. There are those who have decided against church and would rather tend to their gardens and pray for better neighbors. The block captain comes out of hiding to take a survey of the calamity. The captain provides a worn out, familiar response to how late and rowdy things went last night. “This is the last year I take my behind down to City Hall to get a permit for some crazy block party”. The generations that occupy a city block are colorful–especially during the summer time. With all the drama of growing up on a city block I enjoyed the process of cleaning up, painting and seeing time slow down as the generations occupy their place as keepers of this timeless tradition.