Block Party Time!

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Block Party Time!
by Alison Barnet Contributor
Thursday Aug 12, 2010

Now for some light summer reading on the subject of block parties...

It’s been twenty-three years since the last East Springfield Street summer block party, and my T-shirt still fits! I only wish good times like that still did.

Our block party tradition, like many others in the South End, began in the early Seventies, but, unlike others, remained a Seventies-type phenomenon into the late 1980s. It was always characterized by music-a Jamaican steel band in the early years-games for the kids (we had a lot of children then), and food from many cultures: Dotty Callahan’s middle-eastern dishes, Mrs. Freidman’s pistachio cake. Their last names, typical of the South End, were misleading: Mrs. Callahan is Lebanese and Mrs. Friedman was Filipina. Local stores donated hamburgers, hotdogs, sausages, and cases of tonic (Boston lingo gone out of use), and the neighbors brought out their portable backyard and fire escape grills. (Later, others improved on that by sawing a metal tub in half; it sat in my basement for years.) Hotdogs and hamburgers were, as I recall, free, as was a permit to close off the street from noon to 10 p.m. A keg of beer was strategically placed mid-block selling cups of beer for 50 cents "in a random way," according to my notes. Make what you will of that. In the weeks before the party, a planning committee, which met on the stoop, went door to door-everybody already knew everybody, of course-and raised $2 to $10 for supplies and the keg. You could put your wallet away on East Springfield Street and knock yourself out dancing into the evening instead.

In the fall of 1972, having bought a set with the proceeds of the block party-yes, proceeds-we played volleyball in an empty lot. White-haired grandmothers, corner guys with conked hair, and long-haired hippies played alongside black, white, Hispanic, and Chinese kids. Tony, the bartender at Shannon’s Café (now the Porter Houses) bounced the ball off the top of his bald head.

"This year’s big event is scheduled for SATURDAY, AUGUST 11th," reported the East Springfield Gazette, our local paper, in July 1979. "Many attractions are planned...Summerthing’s Mobile Disco Tech with its high energy sound system, and very own disc jockey. There also will be a fire truck for the children to ride and play on...The very popular Shakespeare Brothers will be on hand to entertain. It is difficult to describe their act as they do so many things from mime & puppetry to magic and fire eating ..."

In 1986, Terrell Calloway, our local entertainment honcho, arranged for a professional DJ. We borrowed seven banquet tables from SNAP (our local ABCD center), tied helium balloons to the railings up and down the street, and put down deposits on two kegs at Blanchard’s Liquors. Earlene made chicken and macaroni salad; Mae, chili and BBQ wings; Aaron, three cakes; Maria brought the Kool-Aid; and Rita brought out her popcorn maker. In addition to the traditional bobbing for apples and watermelon eating contest-"4 watermelons sufficient," say my notes-we had sidewalk chalk drawing and hopscotch, and, for the very first time, a T-shirt designed by a professional graphic artist who had recently moved into a condo. Yet, for all practical purposes, the party was over as soon as the DJ left. A lot of people went inside instead of hanging out on the stoops or dancing to music provided by speakers in the windows-a strange omen.

The next year, the graphic artist updated the block party T-shirt with a big, bold 87, and we provided kids with official block party monitor buttons. We brought in a roller skate truck, face painting, a balloon man, and a live parrot. But the East Springfield Street block party sang its swan song that summer. When I went house to house, as I’d done in the past, inviting neighbors and asking them to contribute a dish, many yelled through their intercoms that they weren’t interested. Worse, they refused to move their cars. We held our block party at the end of August anyhow, competing not only with parked cars but with trans-country moving vans. Whatever happened to renting a U-Haul and buying pizza and beer for the friends who helped you move?

Late to "gentrify," East Springfield Street and the other streets south of Washington Street-or is it southwest?-succumbed around that time. The El had stopped running and we were stuck with a terrible bus, friends were being evicted to make way for condos, and an ugly battle over the nearby Tree of Life site (transitional housing for battered women, eventually South End Community Health Center, Walgreen’s and Flour) was raging. Opponents formed an Unaffordability Committee to promote "market level" housing and wore buttons that said THE DUMPING GROUND IS FULL. Not surprisingly, the homeless population was rapidly increasing and we saw it clearly in our hospital neighborhood-we didn’t mind them eating our block party hotdogs and hamburgers but we worried that they’d eat them all. Said a neighbor around that time, "At least we can’t be deluded about what’s happening in America."

It was the tail end of summer 1987, and there we were: a little group of historic artifacts drinking cheap beer from a keg, eating ethnic dishes, and dancing in the street while dodging movers doing a different sort of dance.

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