A Party-Crasher's Tour of Philadelphia
For just one, sticky-hot summer day, when baking sidewalks send ripples into the air and hydrants are cracked open like cheap beers, forget those everyday news stories about Philadelphia. For this moment, we’re not the fattest, greenest, poorest or biking-est. We are the partying-est.
As far as we can tell, Philadelphia issues more block-party permits per year than any other city — more than Boston (with 5,000), New York (2,300), D.C. (500), Los Angeles (250) or Chicago (5,000, though that city gets extra points for loaning out free moonbounces).
Philadelphians submitted more than 8,000 block-party applications in 2012, according to Streets Department stats; 7,116 of those were approved. Scores of street parties take place each weekend through the summer, but they’re really popular on Memorial Day, Labor Day and, especially, Fourth of July weekend, which is the premier block-party occasion of the year. City Paper requested a list of block parties for the weekend of June 21 and got one — 19 pages and 216 parties long. That’s impressive, given that getting a permit requires extensive legwork, including obtaining signatures from 75 percent of the households on the block and fronting a $25 to $60 fee. The Streets Department and the local police district then review each application for approval.
In its most elemental form, a Philly block party might be little more than a handful of neighbors clustered around a card table in the middle of the street. But others are reunions that residents look forward to all year long, and some are epic celebrations that attract friends and strangers from across the city.
In honor of this ever-evolving tradition, CP crashed five block parties around Philadelphia. What did they have in common? Just about every block believed they were the best block. We say that if only more residents on more blocks felt that way, Philly would be a cleaner, happier, friendlier and just plain better place to live.
2000 BLOCK OF SOUTH 23RD STREET
The blow-up kiddie pool has sprung a leak and stands at shriveled half-mast. But a garden hose, twisting wildly in the hands of a cluster of young children, offers plenty of fun. Some blocks just seem to attract kids; this one is home to 53. Tyisha Ywise, the block captain, says that’s why she orchestrates so many block parties. “In August, we’ll have kids’ day; we give out book bags and pencils. We try to get donations. Last year we waited too late, so it ended up coming out of our pockets.” She collected $5 from each family, and bought crayons and erasers in bulk.
The block, a corner of the neighborhood that gentrification hasn’t touched, wasn’t always so close-knit, she says. “Then, when you start doing things within the block, people see you’re trying to do something, so you become a family.” Neighbors watch out for each other now.
As the women cluster under a canopy, kids on bikes circle them like lazy seagulls, then steer into one another and crash noisily. The men retreat to a folding table to play cards and drink Coronas and whiskey.
Tyree Campbell introduces himself as “the cook and the DJ” of the block. “The block party is a little reunion. Everyone gets together to tell stories of whatever happened in their lives over the year — the tragedies, the good parts. It’s like a stress reliever. You don’t even have to pay a therapist.”
1900 BLOCK OF MORRIS STREET
“I can’t talk right now — I’m grilling,” a woman explains with a swat of her tongs. Partying is serious business here: Smoke pours out of a dozen grills and a DJ booth issues a deafening wall of bass that inspires intermittent dance parties of two or three teenage girls.
This is more or less a graduation party, says Kevin Hooks, lounging in a camp chair, peach schnapps at the ready. It’s a reminder “for those who are graduating to continue to strive to be better than their parents.” His stepson is a rising senior at West Chester University, and Hooks is proud. “I’m from North Philadelphia, and we do the same thing for ours. It takes a village to raise a child.”
One honoree, Shanada Woodard, is the first of her family to complete high school. The Furness grad poses obligingly in front of a plastic backdrop festooned with diplomas, beside a plastic Grecian column placed there for extra gravitas.
This is a decent block party, Hooks says. But, “August is when we really all come out.”
Alice Hayman, a 45-year resident of the 1800 block of Morris, says neighbors attend one another’s parties. But the Labor Day party on her block is, of course, the best. “Everyone comes to ours. Our block is the bomb,” she says. “The best thing they did is having block parties where we can get people together and stop all this violence. There’s nothing for the kids to do.”
1600 BLOCK OF SOUTH LAWRENCE STREET
As dozens of tattooed twentysomethings roll up on skateboards and bicycles, George and Diane Taylor watch from their stoop on narrow Lawrence Street. They’ve been on the block 45 years. In that time, says Diane, “It changed about 15 times, just like the rest of the city.”
George, who wears a thick gold chain, offers to put on a shirt — or at least suck in his gut, aka “the baby” — before a photographer arrives. He sips a beer as skateboarders shoot down the street and off the top of a quarter pipe. He liked the old neighbors, and he likes the new ones. “We went from nice people to nice people.”
The matriarch of this block is Jeanette McAllister, a 57-year resident and former block captain whom everyone knows as “Pony.” But Pony didn’t organize this party. “They just asked me how to get the permit, so I gave them the paper,” she says. One might imagine Pony wouldn’t be thrilled to host a rager that’s been advertised as “legendary” to 1,500 Facebook invitees. But as a punk band, part of an all-day music lineup, plugs in its amps mere feet from her doorstep, she says she thinks “it’s terrific.”
The few hundred guests crowding around the bands at any given time are offered $3 mojitos, beer or pizza by the slice. Most partiers are sporting war paint in geometric shapes or whimsical abstractions; Meera Gessner, a talented amateur armed with professional-grade facepaints, is responsible for the tUnE-yArDs-on-holiday aesthetic.
For a certain crowd, this next-generation version of the block party has become a new summertime tradition, says Anthony Clark, hanging out near the keg. He isn’t sure whether he even knows anyone who lives on Lawrence Street, but he was invited on Facebook. “Every single weekend since about a month ago, I’ve been to a different block party — all in South Philly, all in about a 10-block radius around East Passyunk. All the same people come, but I always see new faces every time. And they’re getting progressively more and more crowded.” All the parties enlist bands, and many feature skateboarding.
“The coolest thing is to be able to skate where you live,” says Lauren McFadden, who’s covered in grime, blood, tattoos and facepaint. She helped build the quarter-pipe, a plywood structure that has required repeated repairs through the afternoon. McFadden, 27, has lived on the block, with roommates, for a couple years. Her neighbors, she says, have made this corner of South Philly home for her. “All my neighbors treat me like family. They worry about me, and want to know what’s going on.”
As to the block party, she says, “I think they think it’s interesting.”
Clark, who grew up in South Philly himself, can see their point. “Ever since I was a kid there were always block parties,” he says. “They weren’t like this.”
1500 BLOCK OF EAST SUSQUEHANNA AVENUE
It’s the sixth annual all-day bash on the 1500 block, and there have been bar mitzvahs less elaborate. The planning started months ago, when neighbors began meeting to pick a date, vote on a theme (“Under the Sea”), design T-shirts and solicit sponsorships. All those meetings were worth it, says Carl Depp: “This is the best block party, because everybody knows everybody. Everybody pitches in a couple bucks to pay for the DJ and the bounce castle. Everybody gets up early in the morning to clean the street so that the kids can run around barefoot.” A friend interrupts Depp to show off the balloon artist’s handiwork: a motorcycle and driver, made from two balloons in one minute.
Tommy Manson has been here three years and works for ReAnimator Coffee, which is opening a cafe on the corner. “The 1500 block is the best block in Fishtown. It’s just kind of the epicenter of everything.” Depp, on the other hand, has lived his whole life within four square blocks. Now, he has a daughter and a son, ages 18 and 15. And, no, they’re not too cool for this, he says, pointing out his son skittering across the giant inflatable water slide. “On my block, growing up, we didn’t have block parties,” he says. “Other blocks did, so we went to the fancy ones.”
2400 BLOCK OF EAST CUMBERLAND STREET
“How many blocks have their own T-shirts?” asks Chris Sokol, who is indeed sporting a “Cumbies 4 Life” shirt, embellished with a “C” for block captain. Sokol is a lifelong Fishtowner and organizes three or four parties a year. “It’s about fellowship. We have all different ages, all different ethnics.”
The adults hang out in lawn chairs. “I’m the Jell-O-shot person,” says Sandy McMahon, stopping by with a tray — chocolate or Creamsicle — each topped with a dollop of whipped cream from a spray can. She’s lived here 40 years, but they’ve had block parties only for the last decade. “In the past 10 years, it’s been revitalized. A lot of young professionals have moved in and made it an awesome block. It’s like a breath of fresh air.”
For the kids, there are no fewer than six options for cooling down. They include an assortment of kiddie pools, a Slip- ’N Slide and an open fire hydrant. But most of the kids are clustered around a card table, where a rickety prize wheel can be spun for a foam football or a colorful plastic lei.
Life on the 2400 block is lived on the front stoop. “We love sitting out on Cumberland Street,” says Melissa Collins. She’s been here only a year, but says, “I know 90 percent of the people on the block — the people that matter.” Sokol says she’s giving her children, Calvin, 12, and Amelia, 5, something uniquely Fishtown. “This is something they’re going to pass down to their kids: a sense of community.”