New Yorkers live on top of one another, so it’s only natural that sometimes we spill out onto the concrete. It happens especially during the sweltering summers when even the apartment walls seem to sweat. There are very few backyards in the city so, we hug the block.
In 1923, The New York Times called the block party a “jollification,” and a “social phenomenon.” Though there are reports of earlier versions of street-based gatherings, the block party as we know it today began when New Yorkers held celebrations for soldiers coming back from World War I. According to a New York Times article from 1923, this tradition of gathering on stoops and visiting with neighbors goes back as far as the 1860s. By the middle of the 20th century, the custom had blossomed into a full-on celebration. “To some degree,” the author said, “it was organized to fill a purpose, then the idea caught on and the block party as an institution became more spontaneous.”
Even though the block party has a long history in New York, the city didn’t begin keeping records until 1999. This year there were 1,311 permitted block parties in New York City between June 1 and Sept. 1. The majority were in Brooklyn, which had 721 parties this year, more than the other boroughs combined.
Before the previous block party people didn’t communicate. People were judgmental of each other. After the first one we became one big family. The thing I love about New York City is the fact that you don’t have to be from here to belong in the city, because it’s a city of transplants. So, you come to the city and you find your family here.
Across all five boroughs New Yorkers set out on their streets with lawn chairs, pools, bouncy castles and tables full of food, to enjoy the summer together. Throughout the day there is a cacophony of familiar music, the laughter of children playing and the sizzling sound of meat on a grill. No cars are allowed.
Mostly, they are moments for a neighborhood to come together. Many streets use it as an opportunity for outreach: Health clinics set up tables, church leaders give sermons and neighbors converse and feed one another. The openness of the block, the freedom of doing your own thing is what is special about this. There’s nowhere else like this neighborhood, where else can you hear Caribbean and West Indian music playing out in the streets?
The tradition has at times been marred by violence: In July there was a shooting at a block party in Brownsville that left 11 people injured.
“I just want the community to know that those things are not going to stop us from serving the community or from helping your neighbor or reaching out to your neighbor,” said Pastor Vanessa Rodriguez, who attended a block party in Harlem hosted by the Friendly Hands Ministry
By the 1980s, the spontaneity of block parties had made them fertile ground for rap and hip-hop to bloom. D.J.s would plug their turntables into streetlight outlets. A crowd would form and the M.C. — the rapper — would spit livewire rhymes. Live music performances, and the dancing that came with them, became an integral part of the event.
“I’m a D.J., and I love getting the crowd going,” said Adrian Lucas, who D.J.s her block’s annual party in Harlem. “It’s even more fun to see the people I know happy and excited because of the music.”
Today is truly for the community and by the community, that’s something that we really embrace and that’s our mission. That’s when you know you’re on the right block. When your neighbors come to help you and you don’t even have to ask. And that’s the way this neighborhood is.
A lot of new folks just moved here from all over the world, right in this one block, so when we have block parties like this we try to bring everybody together. Some New Yorkers find it difficult to foster a sense of community with new faces on the block every year, but no matter how new you are, a block party can be an opportunity for New Yorkers to come down from their towers and meet one another.
“I was feeling kind of iffy when the neighborhood started to become gentrified and different colors started to move in. But when I came to the block party today, I’m looking at Asian kids, black kids, Caucasian kids, and they are playing together, and I feel like right now it’s a good time, and it’s going to be a bright future for block parties.”
For me the block party remains a charming part of my life and an intrinsic part of a proper New York City upbringing. Those summer days are a still life in my memory: Getting soaked by the icy water shooting out of the fire hydrant. My mother sitting on the stoop with our neighbors, in her linen blouse, laughing at a joke she was telling. My brother and his friends running past me, probably heading to Cristian’s to buy candy.
New York City loses an integral part of itself without the block party but I am sure it isn’t going anywhere. When the humidity and temperatures are high and New Yorkers have only got one another, there’s no better place to go than the block.