Summertime treats, booming sound systems, and good vibes are tools of survival in a joy-starved world.
A recent destination wedding in Puerto Rico led to some seriously overdue bonding with my 8-year-old cousin, whose whole elementary school social experience was severely impacted by the pandemic. Bobbing around in the pool of a rented Caribbean villa isn’t a bad way to spend third-grade spring break. But our play in the sunshine turned a conversational corner when comparing our childhoods: my 1970s “old days” vs. her Generation Alpha wonder years, full of Trumpism and global contagions she’s innocently soaked up as normal. She had no way to compare to modern times. So I cued up Crooklyn.
“On your mark, get set… go!” In the opening credit sequence to director Spike Lee’s semi-autobiographical follow-up to Malcolm X, kids yell, racing around a Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn block circa 1973. His montage veers from children playing street games like freeze tag, hopscotch, and skellies to just jumping rope, flying paper airplanes, and bouncing Spalding balls off of brownstone stoops — all images that were completely familiar to me and totally foreign to my transfixed little cousin. She couldn’t believe all this stuff would happen at the same time, and I had to admit it probably wouldn’t have — unless there was a block party.
“What’s a block party?” she asked, dropping her water-resistant phone to the bottom of the pool. (Sigh.)
How to describe a blaxploitation-era block party to a girl born in 2013? These summertime street celebrations are hardly a thing of the past. DJ Brian Henry’s nationally roving B-Hen Block Party is a vibrant thing. The “we back outside” picnic party vibes of DJ Stormin’ Norman’s annual Sundae Sermon Music Festival in Harlem’s Morningside Park and the long-running Sunday afternoon Soul Summit in downtown Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park carry that same spirit — but those are parks.
So, again, what’s a block party? For my cousin, I described what I remembered from my Bronx boyhood. Steel trash cans (the lids doubled as our make-believe Captain America shields) blocked traffic at either end of Bruner Avenue, my grandparents’ street. An ivory Good Humor truck stationed itself near 233rd Street playing Sammy Davis Jr.’s “The Candy Man” on a loop, shilling Bomb Pops, Snow Cones, and such. Numbered squares scrawled in chalk on the asphalt marked the hopscotch board, neighborhood kids skipping and hopping all over it. Young girls bounced tiny balls against the ground, scooping up metal jacks. Boys ran the street shooting water pistols. A table manned by adults wearing Afros and bellbottoms dispensed Kool-Aid, Wise potato chips, cheap White Rose sodas, and spiked sangria for the grown-ups. And the DJ played on: “Last Dance,” “Flash Light,” and “Sir Duke.”
Historically, American block parties (aka street parties) stem from Manhattan’s East Side back in the mid-1910s as a turn-up celebrating the neighborhood soldiers who’d gone off to serve the country in World War I. Black communities put our melanated spin on the tradition in the ’60s and ’70s, literally dancing in the streets to streetlight-powered sound systems pumping Philly soul, salsa, funk, disco, and hip-hop — with tre bags of weed and thotty misbehavior going on just outside of view.
“What a block party means to me is freedom,” says DJ Brian Henry, who launched his first B-Hen Block Party event in an L.A. parking lot on his birthday eight years ago. “It’s an opportunity to be your authentic self, showing up without the concern about how you appear or how someone will receive you. So often, in nightlife scenes, it’s all about the cool factor. But the cool factor takes away the fun. I think [modern block parties are] returning us to the genesis of Kool Herc back in the ’70s, deejaying the block parties out on Sedgwick Avenue to bring people together.”
“There’s something about partying outside at a block party with the night sky looking upon you that gives the people this freedom of community.”
Irony hung thick in the air of last year’s hot-vax-summer-that-wasn’t — social media posts of unmasked superspreader events promoting social renormalization while finger-wagging about booster shots and the rise of ’rona variants. The 2020s put its own spin on Prohibition-era speakeasies, even as partying in private occasionally bubbled overground onto the streets at COVID-age block parties. Embracing excess represented as much of a self-care survival method as a coping mechanism, making block parties more essential than ever in a joy-starved world.
“There’s something about partying outside at a block party with the night sky looking upon you that gives the people this freedom of community,” Henry says. “We tell people all the time that you can have church in more environments than the church house. Church doesn’t only need to happen on Sunday. [Parties] give us an opportunity to praise, worship, and honor the god within us and feel fully present to the gifts and talents that we have, by expressing ourselves through our playlist and our energy.”
Block parties began as a New York City phenomenon but started migrating to majorly Black inner cities like Baltimore, Atlanta, Detroit, and D.C. during the disco era. Best believe that African American pockets of Texas celebrated Juneteenth at many a block party for decades before it became a federal holiday — with BBQ, black-eyed peas, red rice, cornbread, and red velvet cake adorning folding tables in the middle of the street.
Tracing the history of these social gatherings in public spaces, block parties in England also jumped off during World War I. So-called “peace tea parties” brought together food, music, and patriotic flag-waving circa 1919 as the English celebrated the newly-signed Treaty of Versailles. Jamaican and African communities there eventually started using street parties to socialize intra-culturally, while living in a greater society that largely marginalized them.
Sundae Sermon’s DJ Stormin’ Norman — raised Norman McHugh in the same East London area as Idris Elba — remembers British block parties well. “I remember the Notting Hill Carnival in Brixton,” he says. “All the Caribbean cultures in England at the time, we used to set up sound systems and food. [Police] were trying to shut us down; the youth were throwing bottles and cans. At 7, 8, or 9, my dad took me to sort of a block party in Jamaica, where he lived. The towering, homemade speakers made you look like an ant. You would hear a lot of 1970s dub, instrumentals, ska. Black culture, the community, is really what this block party idea is about.”
As hip-hop approaches its 50th anniversary next year, due respect goes to block parties for helping spread the gospel of DJs Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambaataa through the South Bronx outwards to NYC’s other boroughs, and eventually the world. Kool Herc, in particular — born Clive Campbell in Kingston, Jamaica — created his own humongous Herculoid speakers under the direct influence of the Jamaican sound systems he knew so well. Street carnivals like Brooklyn’s annual West Indian Day Parade are cousins to the block party but on steroids. So, too, the park jams of early hip-hop culture can be considered related to more ordinary block parties — just located in schoolyards or housing project courtyards.
Block party DJs expanded the appetite for hip-hop breakbeats in the culture’s halcyon days at the same time that disco ruled R&B radio. ‘70s dance music rocked plenty of block parties, and Domingo Canate — producer of Hands to the Sky, a documentary on the outdoor house music movement — recalls 2014’s disco-powered Larry Levan Way Block Party in Manhattan’s West Village as the greatest he’s ever attended.
“It was the ultimate block party of block parties,” Canate remembers. Red Bull Music Academy threw the party to celebrate the Paradise Garage club, once a staple of NYC nightlife in the city’s West Village neighborhood. “The Garage had been closed for about 30 years. When I saw the advertisement for it, I thought, ‘That one block is not gonna be enough for all the people that are gonna come!’” he laughs. “I don’t think any other club has had those accolades or that passion. Larry Levan was the resident [DJ], of course, and he passed away way before. DJs David Depino, Joey Llanos and François K, those three were the main guys for the block party. They did an excellent job! It was a lovefest.”
Washington D.C.’s beloved “Black Smithsonian” — aka the National Museum of African American History and Culture — even sponsored its own Hip-Hop Block Party last weekend, complete with a panel about block parties featuring the likes of Chuck D and Roxanne Shanté. With the never-ending ubiquity of block parties going strong, I have no doubt my little 8-year-old cousin will find herself bopping to Beyoncé’s Renaissance between two blocked-off Bronx avenues sometime soon. The party is in our blood.