Carrying bowls of pasta salad, watermelon, and meat to grill, on Tuesday night people left their houses and streamed into hundreds of neighborhood gatherings being hosted throughout the city as part of National Night Out—a nationwide block party that encourages people to get to know their neighbors and promotes community safety.
In Oakland, 452 people registered to throw a party—a record for the city and 32 more parties than were hosted last year. “We are looking at 26,000 Oaklanders out tonight,” said councilmember Jean Quan at the kickoff party in front of Oakland City Hall early Tuesday evening. After the kickoff, which was full of tables with information about National Night Out, city officials and law enforcement members set off on a caravan that toured the neighborhood parties.
Police Chief Anthony Batts was among the officials who set out to visit the parties and introduce himself to residents. He stressed that it’s important for people to know their community and neighbors in order to help keep neighborhoods safe. “It’s our responsibility as adults and citizens,” he said. “The time is now for us to give back.”
National Night Out was started in 1984 by the National Association of Town Watch, a nonprofit crime prevention organization that believes in promoting neighborhood safety and peace by encouraging residents to get to know each other. Nationwide, over 14,000 communities participated in National Night Out this year.
For Oakland, the primary goal of National Night Out is to fight crime. According to police department statistics, so far in 2010, homicide is down 20 percent, assaults with firearms are down by one third and minor crimes, from assault to burglary, are down 13 percent. But with the ever-shrinking budget and the layoff of 80 police officers, the city is working even harder to use other methods of increasing public safety in Oakland. “National Night Out means unity with the city, neighborhoods and the police,” Oakland Police Captain Ersie Joyner had said at a press conference in July, urging people to register for parties. “This is about being a collective city, this is about restoring hope.”
While the intention is serious, the mood at the parties throughout North Oakland was cheerful as families and neighbors congregated and introduced themselves to each other. Many of the parties had organized community barbeques, ice cream socials and live music, while others were smaller and less formal; people brought their own chairs and food to share in a potluck-style format. Throughout the city, streets were cordoned off with orange roadblocks, garbage cans or yellow police tape so cars couldn’t pass through, creating a safe space for kids to run around and letting people gather in the middle of the road.
On Dover and 54th Streets, neighbors had set up a big picnic table, chairs and a grill in the middle of their street. Kids ran around with plastic guns and shields, jumping over fences and in and out of their neighbors’ yards. The adults congregated near the food and chatted about summer vacations, their kids and new restaurants in Oakland.
“We’ve been doing this a long time,” said party organizer Jean Parker as she took photos of her neighbors standing in the middle of the street. “Our street is a busy urban street and so it’s the one day a year that kids can run around in the street.” Typically, to throw a block party in Oakland people need to work with the police department to get street closure permits, but on National Night Out the department streamlines the process and people only have to register online.
Parker said that in past years a bunch of police officers and fire fighters stopped by to say hello, but that this year only a couple had passed through. “Maybe it’s the layoffs?” she mused. “Community engagement is really important—it’s good for the police to come by and meet the neighbors.”
At a party a few blocks away, another gathering was organized at Dover Street Park. Dozens of people brought plates of food to share and got to know each other. Kids played in the park, swinging on the tire swing and riding miniature bikes back and forth on the sidewalk. Some people wore nametags showing which street they lived on and residents of the senior center around the corner served up ice cream sundaes. When the sun set, at 8:30 pm, the organizers projected a movie on a wall and people cozied up under blankets to keep warm.
One couple, Matt Broz and Lara Tannenbaum, have lived in the neighborhood for two years and had gone to other National Night Out parties in the past, but this was the first time they came to the Dover Street Park party. “We don’t know anyone here… yet,” said Broz. “We’re here to meet the neighbors,” added Tannenbaum, who is expecting a baby and said it would be nice to meet other local parents. “It’s a good place to meet people.”
It worked — as the couple was waiting for their hamburgers to finish grilling, a local pastor came by and introduced herself, inviting them to come to the church anytime.
If you threw or attended a National Night Out party on Tuesday, send us your photos and we’ll add them to a photo slideshow we are putting together! Email pics to firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know the location of the block party and the names of people in the photograph.