Summer, Time to Close Down The Block And Party

Dan Laredo, above right, calls the start of the scooter race during the 10th annual block party on North Illinois Street in Arlington, which included an appetizing potluck dinner buffet, left.
Dan Laredo, above right, calls the start of the scooter race during the 10th annual block party on North Illinois Street in Arlington, which included an appetizing potluck dinner buffet, left. (Photos By Melissa Cannarozzi For The Washington Post)
By Julia Feldmeier
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Richard Schadelbauer is Chewbacca. Or rather, according to a flier distributed to residents of North Illinois Street in Arlington -- one showing a picture of the economist's head superimposed on the "Star Wars" warrior's body -- he's Schadelbacca. And, the flier says, he's part of an alliance dedicated to battling "the evil forces of suburban neighborhood solitude and disconnection."

The 40-block stretch's most powerful weapon? The old-fashioned block party.

"The street has always been really close," says Linn O'Donnell, a 47-year-resident of North Illinois. But the annual party "is like the cherry on top. It's a wonderful street but this makes it even nicer."

She moved to a nearby retirement community this past winter, but came back to join the festivities.

At the party, suburban solitude is gunned down by grilled burgers and Italian sausages. Disconnection is felled by water gun fights and scooter races. An arsenal of cold beer fortifies the troops. Neighborhood spirit: victorious by a landslide.

Residents of North Illinois Street aren't alone in their endeavors to create and sustain a sense of community through hot dogs and watermelon-eating contests. During the summer months, barricades spring up all across the metropolitan Washington area, closing off streets for grills, lawn chairs and coolers. According to Washington's Emergency Management Agency, roughly 600 requests for block party-related temporary street closures are filed in the District each year -- a figure suggesting that even in a busy, often self-absorbed metropolis, people still care to know the folks who share their mail carrier.

At a block party, "you always meet somebody different," says Maureen Murphy, a Georgetown resident whose Hillendale block has thrown an annual party for the past 14 years. To help people get acquainted, the residents of Mansion Drive hand out name tags to everyone -- including the canine contingent, Murphy says.

That's the point of a block party, after all: finding out the details about your neighbors -- like the name of their Jack Russell terrier -- that identify them beyond the model of their car or their landscape upkeep.

Residents of Harrison Street NW, for example, discovered at last year's block party that banker Corinne Douglas makes a mean paella. That's when the group, which inaugurated its summer tradition five years ago, shelved the traditional stand-up party fare of hot dogs and hamburgers in favor of a potluck dinner.

"We have all these great cooks on the block," Douglas says, "so we had everything from grilled salmon to paella to edamame salad."

Her neighbor, Pascale Riche, pulled all the tables from his house and lined them up in the street, so everyone could dine together banquet-style.

"It was perfect," Riche says. "I'm French, and in France we like to have conversation around a nice dinner."

Having a potluck also circumvented the usual predicament: Someone left tethered to the grill all afternoon, flipping burgers. And as a result, says Douglas, "there was much greater participation."

At Duddington Place SE, getting everyone to pitch in is rarely a concern. The block drew nearly 400 people to its 36th annual party two weeks ago -- and raised more than $4,500 to help execute the bash.

"We went through 250 hamburgers, 150 hot dogs, and a certain number of alcoholic beverages -- frankly, I probably shouldn't tell you how much. Several kegs, let's put it that way," says David Sheldon, a nine-year resident and an unofficial organizer of the event.

That's in addition to a 120-pound pig flown in from Chicago to be roasted in a pig box. And the margarita bar. And the wine bar. But, Sheldon says, "it's not just a huge kegger bash. It's definitely a family event."

For the kids, they had pony rides, baby pools, bean bag tosses, bubble-blowing and arts and crafts. T-shirts, a variant of the MasterCard "Priceless" campaign, were made for anyone who ordered one. (Even after the party, Sheldon was gearing up to order more.) D.C. Council member Adrian Fenty and other local politicos made appearances. A deejay pumped music until 11 p.m.

But simpler affairs can provide just as much fun and may be equally successful in engendering street spirit. Murphy says her Georgetown group used to plan elaborate affairs -- there were lobster bakes, clam bakes, even a Mexican-themed party complete with a margarita machine. But last year they scaled down.

"The invitation said BYOB, BYOF, for food, and BYOC, for chair," Murphy says. There was no contact person listed on the invitation, no rain date. It just instructed people to show up at a set time. She and some others made a Costco run, threw together a couple large "backup" salads and bought a sheet cake.

In the end, it was "one of the best, if not the best, we've ever had," says Murphy. "The joke was that everyone said the food was the best."

Back on North Illinois Street, revelers are hesitant to rank the block parties they've thrown every summer since 1995, but they're not shy about proclaiming their annual party -- and their neighborhood -- the best of its kind.

Alan Zucker, a senior manager with MCI, and his girlfriend, Judy Acs of Fairfax, have begun talking about the future and the possibility of consolidating houses. Zucker won't budge from North Illinois.

"I'm going to die on this street," he says. Luckily for him, the neighborhood's signature fete gives him some leverage.

"I like my street," Acs says. "But we've never had a block party."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company