How to Throw a Street Party

Given my longstanding hate-hate relationship with cars, I jumped at the chance to help organize an event celebrating World Car Free Day.

Jen Dawson is active with Transportation for Liveable Communities (TLC). When September rolled around, she announced that TLC was sponsoring Street Parties to celebrate Car Free Day and thought our street would make a good location.

My partner and I floated the idea up and down the street, and twenty-five enthusiastic neighbours pledged encouragement and support, so we went ahead and planned it with Jen's help.

Residents and visitors enjoy a chance to stand on the street. (Photo Credit: Ryan McGreal)
Residents and visitors enjoy a chance to stand on the street. (Photo Credit: Ryan McGreal)

The party was a huge success. Everyone came through smashingly, providing an abundance of food and tackling a variety of activities, including cookie decorating, face painting, and Max soaking (thanks, Max, for being the willing target of the children's water balloons!). The children helped plan it eagerly, organizing a street hockey game and an amazing Rodent Petting Zoo that had to be seen to be appreciated.

Children armed with water balloons overrun Max in a swarm. (Photo Credit: Ryan McGreal)
Children armed with water balloons overrun Max in a swarm. (Photo Credit: Ryan McGreal)

We had an official mascot in Officer Stumpy, who regularly patrols the middle of our street to calm commuters who seek a high-speed shortcut up the escarpment. Stumpy set aside his red helmet for the evening, preferring a casual fishing hat on this social occasion.

Hamilton City Councilor Brian McHattie, a noted environmentalist and advocate for community revitalization, took time from his busy schedule to attend the party.

Back: Brian McHattie chats with a cyclist. Front: Officer Stumpy presides over the party. (Photo Credit: Jen Dawson)
Back: Brian McHattie chats with a cyclist. Front: Officer Stumpy presides over the party. (Photo Credit: Jen Dawson)

Katherine at Explora-Toy, a local toy store, donated the use of PlasmaCars (human powered - don't worry) for the children to use. Finally, Maureen Corcoran of Yoga with Ona led everyone through a wonderful yoga session and a curbside bedtime story.

Three observations in particular may be of interest to others thinking of planning a similar community event. 1) Everyone was excited about the event and offered to help organize it; 2) attendees wondered aloud why we don't have street parties more often; and 3) it was a lot easier to organize than I expected.

We actually exhausted a lot of energy simply because we didn't know what we were doing. In retrospect, it was very easy to plan, and we look forward to doing it again next year. In the meantime, here's a summary of what we learned so prospective party planners can avoid needless anxiety.

I've seen other guides for organizing Car Free events, but they all seem to focus on the politics. I've found that simply creating a good public space where people can have fun and enjoy each other's company is political enough. Instead, I'd like to focus on the mechanics of the event (if you'll forgive the expression).

Throw a street party in eight easy steps

  1. Decide to do it.

    This may be the easiest step in the whole process, but it's the one on which nearly everyone stumbles. Don't let yourself be balked by apathy! You'll be glad you made the effort, and wonder why you didn't do it sooner.

  2. Notify your neighbours of your intentions.

    This can be as simple as a typed letter delivered to your neighbours' houses. Introduce your idea of a street party, leave contact information, and ask your neighbours to reply letting you know how they feel.

  3. Delegate but don't try to micromanage.

    • Divide the party into broad categories, for example food, games, entertainment.
    • For each category, set some general guidelines. For example, in our party we decided to go with hotdogs because they're quick and easy to cook, inclusive - meat or veggie - and cheap to buy. Jen was kind enough to produce a bucketful of drinks, and others brought lemonade and snacks. We even had boxes of organic raisins.
    • Outline the categories and their guidelines in a letter to your neighbours, and ask them to help out with something and let you know what they're doing. That way, you know what still needs to be done if other neighbours ask how they can help.
    • Try not to agonize over details, and trust in the Pot Luck Law - people are imaginative enough that you won't end up with the entertainment equivalent of thirty bowls of potato salad.
  4. A little planning and a lot of generosity, and we were able to feed the multitudes. We donated leftover hotdogs to a neighbourhood school for its Meet the Teacher barbecue. (Photo Credit: Jen Dawson)
    A little planning and a lot of generosity, and we were able to feed the multitudes. We donated leftover hotdogs to a neighbourhood school for its Meet the Teacher barbecue. (Photo Credit: Jen Dawson)

  5. Get the children involved.

    Children are wonderfully creative, have great ideas, and will enjoy the party more because they had a stake in planning it. At our party, we had a Rodent Petting Zoo, complete with homemade mazes and rodent races. Children ran around with snouts poking out of their sleeves and tails dangling from their shirt collars. Grown-ups would never have come up with it, but the kids absolutely loved it.

    The children enjoy a good game of street hockey. (Photo Credit: Ryan McGreal)
    The children enjoy a good game of street hockey. (Photo Credit: Ryan McGreal)

  6. Find out your municipality's street closure rules.

    It may be progressive and actually encourage citizens to take over their streets for special events - or you may live in Hamilton. In either case, understand the law so that you don't run afoul of it.

    An official street closure would have required a formal request to city hall (complete with fee), two million dollars in liability insurance, and ninety days' notice for city council deliberations. Instead, we opted for a virtual street closure - essentially, "street hockey etiquette". We placed cones at each end of the block, spaced so that cars could pass through them, but slowly.

    Aside from a couple of irate motorists (including a Shopper's Drug Mart delivery driver who raced down the street at almost double the speed limit and looked disappointed that he didn't get to run anyone over), drivers were understanding and patient. Most saw the event and simply chose a different route. A few actually got out and joined the party.

  7. Have a good closing event.

    We were very fortunate to have Maureen lead the party in a calming yoga session. It was the perfect way to close the night.

  8. Don't exhaust yourself trying to plan every aspect of the party.

    This is important. You can drive yourself batty trying to ensure something is always going on. Instead of organizing the event chronologically as a schedule of events, let the party spread out in space instead of time. Face painting over here, cookie decorating over there, food table this way, street hockey that way.

    It helps to think of it as a fair, not a concert. People can wander from activity to activity.

  9. Invite local politicians.

    A big caveat here: find out if your local politicians are inclined to support this sort of event before inviting them. We are very fortunate to have councilor Brian McHattie, naturalist and urban planner, as an enthusiastic supporter of sustainable community revitalization, and he made sure to visit the party even though he had a meeting that evening.

    We also invited our local beat police officer to visit and get to know the community, but he wasn't able to make it. We worried briefly that advising the police might invite a hassle over the legality of the event, but we had absolutely no problems. (Not every event organizer was quite so lucky).

All in all, it was a wonderful event, and we came out of it energized to build a more participatory community in our neighbourhood. If we can't convince city council to support community development, then we need to do it ourselves, one street at a time.

Children decorated the sidewalk with art and messages of good will. (Photo Credit: Jen Dawson)
Children decorated the sidewalk with art and messages of good will. (Photo Credit: Jen Dawson)

Ryan McGreal
September 29, 2004

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