Hot dogs and burgers abounding. Music blasting. Young and old alike smiling and enjoying the ambiance. This is what I think of when I think of the block parties of my childhood in Prince George’s County, Maryland, 30 minutes outside Washington, D.C. The parties, which were held at the central park in my neighborhood, could be heard from every street, as they were meant to attract everyone who lived nearby. Residents would turn out in droves for them. I played on moon bounces and ate hot dogs to my heart’s content.
Neighborhood block parties have a unique power to them — like other forms of community, they move culture forward. Though neighbors have always gathered to celebrate communal wins, block parties as we know them today in America began in the middle of the 20th century, the New York Times notes. According to Genius, some savvy DJs harnessed their power in the 1980s: DJ Kool Herc was at the forefront of a series of events in the Bronx that quickly grew the event in size and popularity, as people recognized the fun and release that could be found in them. Among other things, block parties served as an early gestational space for both hip-hop and breakdancing, and these art forms persisted and proliferated into the 1990s and 2000s.
I remember passing by block parties hosted in my neighborhood during middle school summers — the joy and laughter that bloomed there. Yet as the years went on, it seemed like I saw fewer and fewer of them, as people moved more and more of their lives online. Or maybe it was that I was no longer outside as often myself: I found myself stuck reading physics textbooks with no breaks spent with neighbors. My friends and I would mainly engage socially via text messages, and of course see each other in person in the classroom, but not much anywhere else. Life became heavier.
Yet now, in my adulthood, after over a year of shelter-in-place orders and social distancing, I understand the importance of coming together once more. To laugh, and share, and bond with the people whose lives are happening simultaneously to mine, just a few units, houses, or buildings away. Things are still uncertain, but I have a strong feeling that in the not-too-distant future, there will be the perfect opportunity for block parties to bounce back.
In a 2015 report by digital think tank City Observatory, 30 percent of respondents said they had no interaction with their neighbors. It was part of a continuing trend: An earlier survey by Pew Research Center found that a third of Americans didn’t know their neighbors’ names. Perhaps the economic fallout of the pandemic will change this: Over the past year, I saw the resurgence of mutual aid groups and community fridges. They’re proof that people are investing into their neighborhoods with vigor, and that coming together works and is wanted — that perhaps people didn’t realize what they were missing in the past 10-plus years, until it was almost too late.
As Psychology Today noted last year, several studies over the course of decades have documented the positive effect knowing your neighbors has on your well-being, in ways that relationships with family members cannot. Part of that has to do with location: “While friendships are based on commonalities and mutual affection, neighboring at its core is an instrumental relationship that is catalyzed by proximity,” Elyakim Kislev, Ph.D., wrote.
The pandemic disrupted that proximity in a major way — suddenly, everything outside your immediate front door could pose a risk. Living three houses down from someone could feel as distant as living across the country from them. All the precautions people took to limit the spread of the virus distanced them from their loved ones and community alike.
As restrictions have slowly eased and been lifted in a world with a COVID-19 vaccine, people are once again finding community — often in a much different landscape. Some neighbors may have moved, and others may have taken their place. Others may still be wary of one another, or unsure how to reach out to begin with. You can join community groups on social media, or offer up gently-used belongings or baked goods on No-Buy groups, but there is something to be said about the immediate joy of a block party — a crash course in getting to know your neighbors and celebrating your community in one go.
In-person interactions aren’t nearly as convenient as just going on your phone — and for the time being, they may still be less physically safe — but seeing and knowing people in person improves mental health outcomes as well. And while it may take a while before many people feel secure in heading outside and being around others, the simple act of coming together may eventually help people as they heal from the trauma the pandemic forced us all to go through.
According to a study done by the Kaiser Family Foundation, children may have experienced poor mental health outcomes throughout the pandemic, partially due to a lack of social contact. The block parties I remember that had children like me laughing and playing together under the watchful supervision of community felt like a symbol of people looking out for the collective and the most vulnerable. It’s a feeling I want to tap into now as much as ever, especially after experiencing what the world is like when that community care is difficult to access, especially for the most vulnerable among us.
No one can control whether the sun will shine on the day of their block party, but after a year of stay-at-home orders, I don’t want to waste a single opportunity to experience fresh air and in-person contact with others, if it feels safe to do so. I’ve been in more Zoom meetings than I can count in place of in-person commencement ceremonies, birthday parties, and dance classes, to name a few events. I’m tired of experiencing the world through a screen — I want to depend on all five natural senses again as I smell cheeseburgers on the grill and taste that first juicy bite, hear kids giggle and shout as I watch them jump in a bouncy house, and feel the sun warming my skin.