Durable Growth, Government

Ending summer with one more block party

Block party sign

Block party sign

While attending a block party yesterday on the west side of Petaluma, I chatted with a young woman who was enthusiastic about her recent move to Petaluma.  As she described it, “I grew up in Hawaii.  Here in the North Bay, I’ve lived in Rohnert Park, Novato, and San Rafael, but always wanted to live in Petaluma because the local friendliness felt most like Hawaii.”

When she noted that the block party was an example of the Petaluma camaraderie for which she had longed, I was hooked.  It was time for another block party post.

As block parties go, yesterday’s party was a relatively modest affair.  No bounce houses or water slides.  No elaborate bars in garages.  No mass of noisy children roaming between attractions.  No crowds of 200 or more.

I departed before yesterday’s party reached full fruition, but I doubt it was going to be more than about forty folks, most of them adults although with a couple of youths on skateboards.  And the principal event was casual chatting, before tucking into a potluck dinner.

In its sedateness, the party had a comfortable neighborly feeling.  Middle-aged adults enjoying a rare opportunity to catch up with busy neighbors and to remind themselves about the multi-faceted neighborhood they shared.  Although I was an outsider, continuing my summer-long past-time of party crashing, I enjoyed talking with several folks and even made tentative plans for a trip to Italy.

Not wishing to tarnish her honeymoon with Petaluma, I didn’t choose to tell my young Hawaiian acquaintance that the block party she found emblematic of her new community was actually forbidden by the Municipal Code, which allows block parties only on cul-de-sacs.  The block party she was enjoying was actually a gathering of scofflaws.  It’s a topic on which I’ve written many times, mostly recently here.

I chatted with one of the party organizers.  Although she hadn’t been the person to approach the Police Department about the party, she was able to relate the story.  It was similar to the stories I’ve heard multiple times this summer.

Block party underway

Block party underway

In response to a call from another of the organizers, a police officer advised her to block off the street with sawhorses that could be easily removed and to place anything in the street near one gutter so that emergency vehicle access could be maintained, but not to expect a formal approval from the Police Department.  The organizers complied fully with the directions and proceeded, in violation of the explicit standard in the Municipal Code.

As I’ve written before, this isn’t a criticism of the Petaluma Police Department.  I find that they’re doing a reasonable job of reconciling the community good of block parties with the unnecessary and inappropriate prohibition in the Municipal Code.

Instead, this is meant to be a continuation of my complaint about the Municipal Code and the seeming lack of enthusiasm to change it.  The support of a few Councilmembers to either change the code or to find a more comfortable workaround hasn’t yet borne fruit.  Nor is change likely in the midst of an election campaign.  But it’s a campaign that I’ll renew after November.

As a one more thought about block parties, I should mention a recent Petaluma event.

National Night Out is a police-sponsored evening in early August when neighbors are encouraged to spend their evenings on the streets and sidewalks of their neighborhoods, building the neighborly relationships that can deter crime.

The Petaluma Police Department chose to recognize the evening by hosting a community party in the Target parking lot.  Puzzled by how a party in a field of asphalt far away from any homes could build good neighborhoods, I attended the event, expecting to be underwhelmed.

I was wrong, at least partly.  The event was well-attended, with perhaps 200 folks there during my walk through.  Many were children enjoying the bounce house, but there were also adults chatting among themselves and small groups dining on a range of food options.  People seemed to be having a better time than I would have expected.

Nonetheless, I also noted two shortfalls on the path to better neighborhoods.  First, most of the dining groups seemed to be single families, or at most two families sharing a table.  It’s hard to get to know your neighbors when you’re not breaking bread together.  Indeed, it’s likely that most of the attendees came from scattered neighborhoods anyway.

Second, only a few people were engaging with the police officers and fire fighters who were present.  The interchanges seemed friendly, but if the one of the goal was better citizen/emergency services relations, it was being only poorly met.

I know that funding often comes in baskets between which transfers can’t be easily made, but it seemed to me that the goal of National Night Out could be better met, at a similar cost, by revising the Municipal Code to allow block parties in more locations and then having police representatives visit each party.  Not only could they check that the emergency vehicle access requirements were being met, but could also meet with cohesive and involved groups of neighbors.

It would have seemed a more effective strategy than holding a party in the parking lot of a big box.  Plus, the neighbors, not the Police Department, would be paying for the bounce houses.

It would also seem a way for the reality of Petaluma to begin conforming to the perception of my Hawaiian acquaintance.

In my next post, I’ll relate a story about a land use process that went sideways because of a communication failure.  I think the lessons bear on the points I’ve made in recent posts about the Brown Act.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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