The Rapidian

Eastown block party brings back memories for neighbor

Eastown Community Association board president Chad Systma reminisces about block parties past and indulges in the present.
2014 Thomas Street block party

2014 Thomas Street block party /Paul Hart

Underwriting support from:
2014 Thomas Street block party

2014 Thomas Street block party /Paul Hart

2014 Thomas Street block party

2014 Thomas Street block party /Paul Hart

Once a year I could play in the street without getting into trouble. Growing up, that never happened without serious consequences, which meant that chance to be on the asphalt certainly stood out as a very different day. It was block party day: big wheels, ball games, a fire truck and maybe even coolers full of Faygo soda if we were really lucky. And no cars; just people.

I grew up in a really tight, connected neighborhood. Kids walked to school together, and everyone knew everyone and many, many conversations happened at the end of somebody’s driveway. That meant that somebody was always happy to alert my parents that I had been seen playing in the street- which is why it was always a big deal when the road closed signs were delivered. It meant the block party was coming.

Kids generally lack a larger sense of awareness and I don’t think my childhood friends and I were really any different. Before a certain age, we just assumed the block party was for us: a kids’ day of fun. When I was growing up, I didn’t have any idea how much work it took to pull off a party, let alone one in the street.

The block party I attended this weekend on the 1200 block of Thomas in Eastown was very nostalgic. Kids on bikes, games, music, a bounce house and even a fire truck. The kids clearly had fun, just like I did growing up, but it was a special day for the adults as well.

I often joke that Grand Rapids is the biggest small town in America. It seems I’m always running into people I know at the grocery or the hardware store. Short conversations at the checkout keep us in the loop and just in case it’s not enough, our social media has us all linked and connected as well.

In this town, we’ve become very good at talking about community while we go on about our business. Sure, we all lend a hand sooner or later, but true community takes real face time and interpersonal relationships, like sharing a meal at a block party. I’ve been to a lot of block parties, and there’s generally something good to eat. The 1200 block of Thomas has more than a meal- it’s a massive, family style dining event. People are breaking bread together, having real conversations over huge plates of good stuff: It’s the original "facetime."

I am convinced this is important to our quality of life. Connecting with friends and neighbors, in person on a day when we actually plan a grownup time out. I think there must have been over 300 people at the block party on Thomas this past weekend, and while it was impressive, they’ve also been doing it for a while. That’s what happens: people hear about the block party and it grows. Friends bring friends, families bring other families, and people get a chance to make new friends, reconnect with old ones and almost everyone actually forgets about their phone for a few minutes. Thanks to the 1200 block of Thomas for being a great opportunity to just play in the street.

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