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Block parties have been a part of New York City’s history since their origins as a send-off for soldiers during the first World War, and again as celebrations of those returning from World War II. They are even credited, by some accounts, with contributing to the birth of hip-hop.
Divya Murthy, The City
This article was originally published on Apr 25 5:00am EDT by THE CITY
The city’s street fete tradition persisted through the pandemic, too, turning into socially distanced events to help out neighbors in a show of solidarity.
While the basic formula still requires a cordoned-off street, music and perhaps some food or games, block parties now require more paperwork, planning and permits than in the early days. Outdoor events are overseen by the Street Activity Permits Office (SAPO) under the Mayor’s Office of Citywide Event Coordination and Management. According to SAPO, they’ve issued over 40,600 permits for block parties since 2000.
Of course, many more block parties take place in five boroughs without all the proper permits and paperwork — but if you go that route, there’s always a chance the local precinct or other city officials will put a stop to the fun.
So, if you’d like to legally party outside with your friends and close your block off to traffic — or if you want to get involved in more outdoor events around your neighborhood — now’s the time to start planning. It takes some time to get all the details ironed out.
Here’s THE CITY’s guide to throwing block parties and getting involved in outdoor events.
What is a block party?
The Permits Office defines a block party on its website as a “community sponsored, public event where there are no sales of goods or services” that is limited to one day and one block.
And permits can only be requested on behalf of groups of neighbors, through an organization like a tenant association or block association. So, you’ll have to get your neighbors on board before you bust out the boombox. (More on that later.)
Community support and a drive to revive an an old block tradition was the reason behind the success of one Bedford-Stuyvesant’s block parties thrown last year, said Nicole Greaves, vice president of the Hancock Street Block Association #2.
The group began in 1942, but had been defunct for eight years until two years ago, when Greaves came together with other residents to re-form it, together with the Bridge Street Development Corporation. Before the block association reassembled, only one woman had thrown block parties, and when she moved and her building got sold, the block party tradition went with her, Greaves said — until the newly re-formed association threw a big block party last summer, the first in 7 or 8 years.
“The residents absolutely loved it,” Greaves said. “[For] the old-school residents, it was nostalgic because it had been so many years since we had had a block party. And for the new residents, especially the ones that were new to New York that are transplants, they were blown away because they had never seen anything like that before.”
To Greaves’ delight, residents brought out their own grills, tables, chairs and sound systems, enlivening the block late into the night. The party was a runaway hit, she said.
“What is a better way to [get to] know your neighbors than at a party?”
How to get started; what to know
As mentioned above, even before you apply for a permit, you’ll need to join up with your local block or tenant association to complete the application — which must be done two months in advance of the gathering.
(Don’t have a block association or tenant organization? Here are some tips on how to start one.)
Once you have your local block or tenant group on board, you’ll need to get support from a majority of the residents on your block who want to party.
Depending on your block and community district, that process can look a little bit different. Your community board has final say in what form of support you’ll need to gather, and how. Check in with your local CB and your local police precinct for their rules.
According to SAPO, signatures will most likely be involved. You can get them electronically or with written signatures on a paper petition. Some block associations use a paper petition like this.
Michael Corley, treasurer for the Union Street Block and Civic Association in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, has an electronic system set up to gather signatures and support — but also wants SAPO to modernize its portal so people don’t have to jump through so many hoops.
“Given that we’re in the 21st century, [SAPO] could easily accept the petition signatures online,” Corley said. “Sending in a signed, written petition by a minimum of 25 residents or 20 residents isn’t the easiest thing to do.”
He suggested that the office could help applicants create an account and provide a list of email addresses for residents on the block, to send the petition to. Without that, check with your community board to see what works in your neighborhood.
Next, make sure you plan an event that’s for residents only and not neighborhood businesses. (Street events that include vendors require a separate permit; see more details on that below.)
Corley’s association ran into trouble in 2021 when they indicated that restaurants and businesses could participate.
“Our first attempt to apply online was denied because we were applying to have local businesses that are on the corner of our block participate as block association members,” he said. “That trial and error led to a loss of the opportunity in 2021 for us to have a block party.”
Once you have proof that a block party has majority resident support, start your application for a permit here.
Keep in mind:
In Bed-Stuy, Greaves will be throwing her second block party in August. From planning last year’s party — a big hit that turned out more than a 100 attendees, she said — she now knows to plan early and to plan with a budget, though community donations were a welcome surprise.
“This was our first time doing it,” she said. “So, we figured it out as we went along, but if you know how much you have to spend in the beginning, then it makes it easier with the planning process. But we were lucky in that as we were planning, people were making donations and we did get a few large donations at the end, which made a really big difference.”
What do I need for the permit application?
Get all the details in order. The portal will ask you for a lot of specifics, including:
How can I make sure my permit is approved?
Besides planning early and having all the details on hand, here are some other things SAPO said would be useful for applicants to know:
How many agencies could get involved in approvals?
Quite a number, according to SAPO.
The Department of Buildings has to conduct an inspection of your plan and issue a certificate if you plan to have a bouncy house, for example.
You have to pay for an NYPD sound permit if you want to have electronically amplified sound. You’ll have to fill out an application and file it with your local precinct. Find the application here and your local precinct here.
If you’d like a spray cap for a fire hydrant, you’d have to get a permit from either the Department of Environmental Protection or from your local firehouse.
If your block party solicits donations or runs a raffle, you’ll need a permit from the city Human Resources Administration.
You’ll also need approval from the Department of Health if you plan to have non-domesticated animals at your party (e.g. a petting zoo).
What can’t I do at a city-permitted block party?
A block party is a get-together of neighbors, and — importantly, according to SAPO — nothing more.
That means SAPO will deny block party permits to anyone hoping to advertise or sell goods and services — even free services. Instead, the agency will redirect applicants to permits for “Civic Events” (for nonprofits offering free services) or “Commercial Events” (for corporate events advertising and selling goods and services).
The mayor’s office explicitly told THE CITY that you may not, under any circumstances, have a fire pit at your party — or roast whole pigs. Really!
And a reminder: It is illegal to drink or serve alcohol at permitted block parties.
How is a block party unlike other outdoor events on my block?
Outdoor street events can take a number of forms — and they differ by who is throwing them, their duration, as well as what kinds of goods and services, if any, are being offered. Depending on the kind of event, insurance requirements and permits also vary. Block parties are different from:
Veconi has worked with other volunteers to temporarily open up six acres of space on Underhill and Vanderbilt Avenues in Brooklyn between April and October each year since 2020. He said Open Streets are ripe for both active and passive recreation, with families coming out with their children and setting up tables and chairs in the street.
“People like to picnic there or meet with friends for a happy hour,” he said. “We’ve had probably about a half a dozen weddings on the street over three years. Children are playing together in the street — all of this is what’s going on because of the amount of street space we’re closing to traffic on Vanderbilt.”
Greaves said she remembered a friend asking her why she throws these events — which she called a labor of love — for free.
“I said, ‘Do you see that kid running up and down right now with that smile on their face?’” she recalled. “This is why I do it. To see that little kid running up and down with the Icee, with the look of just pure happiness on their face.’”
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