Along-abandoned tradition from days gone by, the block party may be making a comeback, at least among several dozen neighbors above Southern Oregon University who got Prospect Street blocked off, set up tables, brought their best dishes and wine — and got to know each other.
Serving baked beans with bacon, guacamole and chips, pulled pork, apple crisp and many varietals of vino, it was a lovely Sunday afternoon with no purpose other than for the neighbors to come out from behind closed doors and get to know each other, says one of the organizers, Stewart McCollom.
"We've lived behind closed doors, as strangers, too long in this country," says McCollom. "As time goes on and we get better acquainted, who knows what kind of collaborative things we will do? But where there's enthusiasm and curiosity, there is a synergetic effect."
"It's the chance to finally get to know your neighbor and enjoy the afternoon with them," says Gary Einhorn. "We live our lives in a vacuum. The only person I really have contact with is Dick (Reddicord), my next-door neighbor, and I come out when I see him in his backyard."
"It's great fun," says Reddicord. "We never meet neighbors unless something like this happens."
The block party idea got going two months ago, when, under the lead of educator Jeanne Stallman, the neighborhood organized a fundraiser for Jack Door, a boy with cancer — and neighbor Phil Phillips set up his grill in the middle of the street.
"The problem is we all live on this hillside, and it's hard to see each other," says Phillips. "If you sit on your porch all day, you see seven deer and that's it.
"You feel like you're in a suburb. It was a lot easier when children were young, to meet people, but they're all grown now. I've been here a long time, and there are a lot of faces I don't know."
Neighbors agreed that it's helpful for feeling safer about crime, natural disasters and organizing for issues before the Ashland City Council, but that's not the real motive.
"Everyone just wants to cozy up and get to know their neighbors," says Barbara Oliver. "It's a feel-good story."
Reveling in the joie de vivre of more than a hundred people, Renee Krigel said she planned to add $100,000 to the value of her home, just because of the quality of neighbors.
"It's fun. It's unique. It gives the neighborhood a feeling of camaraderie and trust," says Ben Bejamin.
Betsy Beyer said there's a practical aspect to it, for instance, if a big earthquake hits, "it's great to already know your neighbor."
The block party tradition goes back many centuries and was important during the Great Depression, when people from many ethnic traditions had filled the working-class neighborhoods of New York, Chicago and many other urban centers and were trying to overcome barriers of language, religion and custom with block parties, says McCollom.
"You had multiple ethnic groups: Greek, Italian, Irish. They had their differences, but this brought them together as Americans," said McCollom. "The kids played handball. There was no admission fee. You brought your dish of choice, one from Italy that grandma made — and you would show it with pride. Most people had never met each other, but here, they did."
Sampling multiple dishes from a long line of tables, Ashland City Councilman Mike Morris observed, "It makes a community when we do this."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.