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Vancouver: Street Party Central

But destined to be the victim of success?

Rob Peters 3 Jul

Rob Peters is navigating the harsh vicissitudes of life

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'No fun' no more? Commercial Drive Fest. 2006. Photo by Chris Grabowski.

This long weekend, chances are you found yourself at a party. Many of those were community or street parties and festivals, and in general, our attendance at these is on the way up. It's leading some people in Vancouver to ask if the city's "no fun" label might soon be a thing of the past.

Vancouverites who go to the city's neighbourhood parties and festivals -- Illuminares, Kitsilano Greek Day, and the Powell Street Festival to name a few summer offerings -- may have noticed something lately: they're getting bigger. While last year's Commercial Drive Festival attracted 25,000 revelers, organizers say this year's drew close to 50,000. Public Dreams Society's Parade of Lost Souls was cancelled this fall due to attendance that exceeded what organizers could accommodate. And the City of Vancouver has seen a significant increase in the number of block party applications in each of the last three years.

It begs the question, when it comes to neighbourhood street parties, does size matter?

Event organizers say the elements of a great block party are the same whether it's large or small: attendee engagement, neighbourhood support and booze control. On these points, Vancouver is quickly learning. But are some of these events victims of their own success? A "neighbourhood" party that attracts tens of thousands can lead to the event losing individual character and can be detrimental for a community.

Vancouver has become a hotbed for block parties, according to Carmen Mills, co-organizer of the recent Commercial Drive Festival, and there are more than 30 small local affairs scheduled in the city this month alone. Why? "If you want to protect your neighbourhood, you don't hide your children; you know your neighbours. That's how you have security," she says.

Too much of a good thing?

But even though Mills says Vancouverites are fortunate that community spirit is blossoming, it's often compromised. Frequently, community events lose their grassroots culture and become large public booze fests. UBC's Arts County Fair though technically not a neighbourhood event, is a classic example of a festival turned drunken wasteland. An entire field of passed out arts, science and engineering majors (to name a few) surrounded by a fence of urine is arguably taking it too far.

So how come the Europeans have been successfully doing this for centuries; how do they have their cake and drink wine too? Planning experts often credit lax liquor regulations and an increased appreciation of the arts as underlying reasons. If you're accustomed to sipping chardonnay on a regular basis at the neighbourhood public park whilst air-conducting Carmina Burana, perhaps the desire to get loaded at a yearly block party is diminished.

Mills believes that the problem with public drinking in North America is that that we tend to associate alcohol with aggression, and lots of anti-social tendencies start to surface. But she says that's not insurmountable: a good block party is about attitudes and self-policing. "You can't be a drunken asshole when you're surrounded by a thousand people who won't put up with it."

Partiers: know thyselves

Familial roots also help to explain the differences in North American and European successes with neighbourhood parties, says UBC professor of community planning Penny Gurstein. The way many North American communities are designed actually breeds alienation. "In older European communities, families have grown up over generations, so they actually know each other in a very deep way," she says. "Whereas in North America we actually have to create our sense of neighbourhood."

So if we must be more deliberate in our efforts to know the Joneses, how do we go about it?

Mills, who was greeted warmly by at least half a dozen passing local residents during our brief interview on Commercial Drive, says it begins with trust. "You have to be really responsible to yourself and to the community to organize this stuff," she says. "When you organize on a principle of trust, it filters all the way down, and all the way up."

Communication and openness, according to Mills, are also essential in putting on a neighbourhood event. "You have to be really open with your neighbourhood, let everyone know what's going to happen and allow them to have input. Everyone has to feel ownership of the event," she says.

But sunshine and happy volunteers are just as important, says the co-organizer of the Commercial Drive Festival, Matt Hern. With the Drive Fest, they were fortunate to have warm weather both years, as well as a large base of enthusiastic volunteers who did almost all of the promo for the event through natural networking, he says. Mills adds that the work has to be fun. If people feel as if the work is unevenly distributed or if they resent what they're doing, something is wrong. "You have to feel like it's fun even when it's disgusting, and you're, say, waiting at a garbage dump."

Not all sunshine

Trust, openness, and communication, however, are often hard to come by. While both organizers were positive about their dealings with the City of Vancouver, in talking about the Commercial Drive Business Association it was less smiles and sunshine. "The business association refused to fund us, once again," Hern said. "They say it's too political, and their exact words were, you're going to do it anyway so why do we have to fund it? I think that'd be the definition of unethical."

Mills, while less scathing in her appraisal, also didn't understand their non-support. She felt it was a difference of values, and a knee-jerk reaction to criticism of cars. "I have a hard time talking about it because I don't quite understand what their problem is," she said. "I think there's a breakdown of trust."

How does the Commercial Drive Business Association respond to this criticism? "The CDBA was delighted with the fantastic turn-out and great job done by the organizers that produced the Commercial Drive Festival. We are pleased to see these events hosted by organizations with the drive and experience to produce them as successfully as the Festival we just enjoyed."


The lack of support from the Commercial Drive Business Association isn't the only challenge faced by the Commercial Drive Festival. Gurstein says that when events become too large, you end up with spectators rather than participants. "When 50,000 people show up, it isn't really about building community. We need to think about more events where people can be engaged in creating communities."

Which raises the issue of blandification. When community parties become so large that they attract people from all over the city, do they remain beneficial to a community?

Mills believes that so long as an event remains relevant and wanted by a community, it strengthens the roots of the neighbourhood. "We don't need to be afraid of different aspects that come into the neighbourhood as long as we're strong from the roots up. I mean do you resent it when people come to your party? I mean this is our party. It's for us."

Hern, on the other hand, says he's conflicted about it: "The value of having a lot of people is that you can make a political push on something, but on another level it might be debilitating to a community."

He's already thinking about plans for next year's Commercial Drive Fest that address the problem of maintaining neighbourhood individuality. He'd like to see adjoining streets have their own block parties, with organizers from the Drive Fest taking care of the practicalities -- licenses, permits, and the like. "Each block could have its own kind of character, do its own funky thing, and people who came to the Drive Fest could just wind their way and check out each block. So it could be more of a community participatory event. It would add a whole new element of diversity."

Hern's recommendation for initiating a block party in your own community is a combination of Nike creed and punk rock sentiment: "Just do it. You'll figure it out en route. If you think and plan and spend forever trying to get it just right, it'll never happen."

Rob Peters is on staff of The Tyee.

Know of a good local street party or festival somewhere in BC? We invite you to put it in the comments section, below.  [Tyee]

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