Sunday, May 22, 2011

The third annual neighborhood party

We had our third annual Mill Street neighborhood party tonight. It was a close call for a while, since we were under a severe thunderstorm warning and a tornado watch right up until the hour of the party. We almost cancelled, but were rewarded for our optimism with a stunningly beautiful evening.

It's a bit of work to pull this together every year -- but really, not too much, considering the huge payoffs. Once again, we got to meet neighbors who we haven't met before, and reconnect with neighbors we only see at this event. Once again, we got lots and lots of compliments and thanks for pulling the event together. Those of us who organized responded that we thought it was in our self-interest -- neighbors who connect with one another are safer and stronger. And we like having everyone in the neighborhood know who our kids are.

I highly recommend organizing a neighborhood party of your own. It took us maybe twenty hours -- divided four ways among those of us who organized it. Here's a quick rundown of how to do it the way we do it (yours could be less elaborate):

  • First off, I think it's critical to get a little team together. We had five people on our team. Working on this with a few of your neighbors makes for less work, broadens your ability to draw in other neighbors, and hey, if no one else shows up, at least you won't be eating hotdish all by yourself.
  • Define your neighborhood. Ours has some clear boundaries (major streets, a park). If you're doing it to make your kids safer, then your neighborhood might be wherever you expect your children to be wandering on their own. (If you have older kids who are allowed to walk a few blocks by themselves, that is.)
  • Choose a date. We wanted a spring party so that all the neighbors would get to know our kids again before summertime; also, you're not dealing with wasps in the spring. We chose the weekend before Memorial Day, since we figured people were less likely to be travelling then. We also chose a Sunday evening, on the theory that people come home from weekend trips by then. In our case, the availability of the band plays into the choice of a date.
  • Get permission to block off a street. In Winona, you do this by contacting the city clerk and asking her to put it on the city council's consent agenda. Unless you're asking to block a major thoroughfare, your request is likely to be approved without discussion. In Winona, you have to do this at least a month before your party, because the city council meets every two weeks. If you can't block off the road, choose someone's backyard or a nearby park.
  • Call the fire department and ask them to send a fire truck. In Winona, this is a pretty straightforward phone call; they mark it on the calendar, and if a crew is free, they'll come in a shiny truck -- and maybe spray the kids with water. Be sure to offer them food.
  • Call the police department and ask them to send their community liaison officer; this is the guy who gets to know people and talks to the kids. In Winona, this would be Kevin Kearny -- a super nice guy.
  • Call the park and recreation office. In Winona, they'll send a couple of college-aged, well-trained park and rec staffers to organize games for the kids. This has been a huge hit for us! And -- it's free! Why is all this stuff free? The city -- and the police department -- knows that these events make for safer, stronger communities.
  • If you're booking a band, get in touch with them to arrange a date and a fee. We're lucky to have connections with a fine folk/bluegrass band that plays for three hours for $150. The live band definitely adds a little class to the event, and we use their sound system for announcements. Or you could just play recorded music over a boom box.
  • Make up half-sheet flyers advertising the event and distribute them to all the houses in the neighborhood. We divided up this task by street so no one had to do them all. The first year, we made sure to make a personal contact; this year, we slipped them inside doors. We distribute these as a sort of save the date notice, about a month in advance. We include the time, location, the various activities, the fact that it's pot luck and that they need to bring their own lawn chairs, and a request for donations to cover the expenses.
  • Solicit door prizes from local businesses. In the past, we've gotten gift certificates from area businesses; this time, we bought mini ice cream cone tokens from Lakeview Drive-in to give away to anyone who completed our icebreaker activity.
  • Design an icebreaker activity! In our case, we do human bingo. This basically requires people to go around asking one another the various questions on the bingo sheet; if they can answer positively, they sign the sheet with their name. It's an excellent excuse for people to start up a conversation with people they don't know -- and the kids really get into it, which means they meet lots of our neighbors.
  • Gather supplies. In our case, we gather tables from a variety of nearby neighbors. We ask people to bring their own lawn chairs, dinnerware, a dish to pass, and a donation. We also supply paper plates, plastic utensils (for people who forget their own), sweet tea (bought by the gallon from the store or donated from a local coffee shop), and garbage cans. We also set up a registration table where people get nametags, fill out information for a neighborhood directory, and collect the human bingo sheet.
  • Have fun!

Mudpuppy loved toddling all over the place -- despite
falling off the high curb flat on his face at one point.
Scared all the adults around, but he didn't even get
a scratch.

The family, with a friend (the little girl at the left).