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Diner en Blanc: How the ‘obnoxious,’ ‘elitist,’ but ‘just fun’ annual picnic divides Philadelphia

On March 11, 2015, Jamaica’s Riverton City Dump erupted into flames, blanketing Kingston in a white cloud of potentially noxious fumes that persisted for more than a fortnight. It was another in a long history of trash blazes caused by mismanagement, malice, greed or all three, and observers called the event emblematic of the trials facing the Caribbean nation, which has struggled to lift itself out of third-world status since declaring independence in 1962.

Four days prior, a different kind of white enveloped Jamaica’s capital. On March 7, the country’s first Diner en Blanc unfolded at Emancipation Park, a public space erected in 2002 and maintained by the national government. More than 900 people donned pristine outfits and toted tables, plateware and food to the location for the pop-up picnic.

Several Jamaican activists noted an ironic juxtaposition of the two closely-timed Kingston happenings. In a Facebook note titled “While Rome burns,” Sarah Manley, daughter of former Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley, called out the “elites” who found time and money to host an edition of the global, Paris-born dinner gathering, but couldn’t improve the country’s garbage disposal.

There were also vocal supporters of Diner en Blanc Kingston, people who were proud their city was joining the ranks of the close to 40 around the world to host DEB. “They just can’t stop us JAMAICANS,” posted one person on an FB video shot at the picnic. Exclamations of “Beautiful!” and “Amazing!” filled #DinerenBlancKgn feeds. “What is it all about?” asked one commenter, who received the reply: “I think it’s inspired by a party done in New York or Philly.”

Philadelphia is certainly not Kingston. But the response to Diner en Blanc, which will pop up for the fourth time here this August, has similarly divided Philadelphia.

All walks of life

Some, like Di Bruno Bros. vice president Emilio Mignucci, see the event in a positive light. “Like any sporting event, movie, dinner in a restaurant,” he said, “[DEB] is a way for people to have a minor distraction from their everyday lives and come together to celebrate with like-minded people.”

To others, the event reeks of entitlement. It’s a private gathering taking over public space, and one with a dress code, at that. Joey Sweeney, editor and founder of Philebrity, has been outspoken in his distaste for DEB.

“If you were a mediocre student in high school French,” he observed in an email to Billy Penn, “there is a decent chance that you could directly translate the very phrase ‘Diner en Blanc’ as ‘white privilege.’ And the thing is, in this case, you would not be totally wrong.”

But though she can’t speak for other cities, DEBphl co-host Natanya DiBona maintains that in Philadelphia, it would be a misnomer to call picnic participants “elite.” People from all walks of life participate, and there’s no VIP section to separate them out — you’ll find CEOs next to limo drivers and lawyers next to bartenders, she explains.

The diversity of backgrounds is no fluke. Before the first event in 2012, when very few Philadelphians were aware of DEB’s existence, DiBona and co-host Kayli Moran met with the mayor’s office and asked for recommendations of what groups DEB should engage, with the goal of reaching the widest audience possible. It was essential to do this in the beginning, DiBona notes, because of the way registration works: People who have attended in the past are guaranteed a seat at the next picnic, if they want it, while newcomers vie for the remainder.

Of course, limited availability only makes people want to attend more, and after the inaugural event, DEBphl has always drawn a lot of newcomers. The original 2012 picnic in Logan Square had 1,300 in attendance — a hard-fought number, since DiBona had trouble even finding a PR representative that would work with her to get the word out. But the second event sold out in 24 minutes, and brought 2,200 people to a pop-up dining room established on the JFK Bridge. In 2014, more than 3,500 white-clad Philadelphians descended onto the Avenue of the Arts to dine.

The current wait list has more than 26,200 people on it, all hoping for a spot, with 6,230 of those added this year. They’re fighting to register for a total of 4,300 seats.

Copycats and mob mentality

For a second year in a row, high demand for the 2014 event ended up crashing the DEB website, which is based in Montreal at DEB’s international headquarters, as 10,000 people tried to log in at once. Frustration with the registration process quickly turned acolytes into haters.

“It was a really interesting lesson in mob mentality for me,” DiBona said. “I watched it on Facebook — when the system crashed, within 15 minutes the same people who wanted so badly to get in were trashing the event.”

One of those people turned his grievance into action. Chris Nowaczyk, a UPenn cancer researcher, decided to organize a competing happening, and launched Diner en Noir.

“This was born out of frustration,” Nowaczyk told Philly.com, describing his motives. “It was a spur of the moment thing. I felt excluded.”

Scheduled for the same date and held at a location kept secret until the last minute, Diner en Noir was similar to its supposed antithesis in almost all ways, including the the price — between $50 and $70 for two. Just about the only differences between the events were the color of dress and the fact that a portion of ticket sales would benefit a charity, local hunger nonprofit Philabundance. (Diner en Blanc organizers use all their funds to organize the next year’s event, which comes with costs like permits and security and cleanup.)

Other copycat events have sprung up. Dîner in Sweatpants brought a group of randomly-dressed people to Clark Park on the night of DEBphl, where they enjoyed bring-along picnic dinners on blankets for free. In April, Temple alumni hosted Diner en Cherry, where everyone was encouraged to wear cherry-colored attire and the $45 per person fee included a meal and two drinks.

In general, DiBona says she doesn’t mind the copycats: “I’m all for any event that celebrates having a meal together. It’s flattering to have something duplicated.”

This July, Mayfair will see its first Dinner en Pajama Pants, organized as a parody by Mike “Scoats” Scotese, co-owner of Grey Lodge Pub, Hop Angel Brauhaus and SawTown Tavern. (The free event will take place at Mayfair’s Third Thursday Night Market at Ryan and Frankford Avenues.) The publican says he usually takes a “if-it-makes-people-happy-what-business-is-it-of-mine” view of things, but that the wording of the “About” section of the DEB website rubbed him the wrong way.

“If you want to hang out with your friends wearing white, that’s cool,” he told Billy Penn. “But to announce you are ‘enhancing the function and value of their city’s public space’, well that’s really obnoxious.”

Repackaging public space

Does holding an event somewhere really “enhance” a public space that already exists? DEB supporters are ready to back up that claim. DiBona points out that this year’s Vendys took place on the JFK Bridge, a spot that was never thought of as a valid event site until DEB took it over in 2013.

“There are so many people that live in a city and don’t take the time to appreciate what they have in their own backyard,” Di Bruno’s Mignucci observes.

This was definitely true for Broad Street, where DEB organizers fielded many questions about the lights that illuminate the grand Avenue of the Arts buildings, which are there every night of the year and have been since 2011. “I can’t tell you how many times people asked if we set up that lighting,” DiBona said.

Broad Street proved to be the most controversial location in DEBphl’s short history. The street is lined with retail establishments, which do most of their business during dinner time. The surprise closure of one of the city’s main thoroughfares — cars were rerouted so that white-clothed tables could be set up along the street — threw a wrench into the plans of customers who planned to drive to restaurants and theaters there.

“Someone came by and told my valet, ‘You know they’re closing off Broad — you’re probably not going to be able to work tonight,’” recounts Burnie Gaeta, general manager at Ruth’s Chris Steak House. He sent the valet company home for the night, and called all of his customers to advise them of different places to park. He did have several cancellations. “We’re definitely supporters of the event, we just think it needs to be thought out a bit more,” Gaeta said, speaking for himself and the Ruth’s Chris owners.

Several other business operators also complained that they had been given no notice of the shutdown until just before it happened. Although DiBona is sure she went through all the proper channels as far as sending out advance notifications, the message never made it to some. Mayoral candidate Jim Kenney, then a councilperson, weighed in.

In an email to Billy Penn, Kenney’s campaign staff clarified: “Jim’s concern with last year’s dinner was that it’s placement hurt local commerce by blocking the city’s largest thoroughfare to restaurants and other entertainment venues. He believes if the organizers give more consideration to the impact of their location choice that the event can be a net benefit to the city’s economy.”

Secrecy, cost and color

Keeping the event location secret is now DEB tradition, but it wasn’t born of exclusivity, and neither was the dress code. Rather, the opposite.

A quarter century ago, François Pasquier returned to Paris after some time away and wanted to organize a picnic with a group of friends. Because public spaces are very well utilized in Paris, and because this was a time before cellphones made on-the-go-communication ubiquitous, he directed all the invitees to wear white so they could recognize one another. And because he was just doing this for kicks, and hadn’t notified any authorities, he decided to keep the location on the down low as long as possible. He pulled it off, and had so much fun he decided to turn it into a tradition.

To this day, Paris organizers still do not get permits or notify authorities of their secret location, and the 12,000 guests do not pay to participate. However, the Paris event is different from the others around the globe, which are all organized out of Montreal by Pasquier’s son.

Philadelphia is one of the most successful events in the world, with the second-most attendees in the U.S. (behind New York, though it’s quickly catching up). To host it, DiBona and Moran work with the Mayor’s Office, the Managing Director’s Office, the Streets Department, the Philadelphia Police Department and the Philadelphia Fire Department. They are volunteers, and do not pay themselves from the ticket proceeds. Unlike in other cities, they’ve made the decision not to accept corporate sponsors.

As for complaints that attendees pay but still have to bring all their own stuff along, organizers describe the BYO aspect as another equalizing factor.

“You can bring your own wine, and one year we had a couple bring take-out from a fast-food place along. They just wanted to be part of the experience,” DiBona recalls. Clothing also does not have to be expensive. As the event approaches, Philly AIDS Thrift does a promotion and organizes several racks of white wear — a person could ostensibly get a whole outfit for $5.

What, exactly, is the draw?

“Diner en Blanc is just fun. I know it is annoying, pretentious, and a bit elitist but what the hell. It is a form of performance art,” said Fox 29’s Mike Jerrick, who takes full advantage of any chance to mug.

Not worth the hate

Several Philadelphians who would never themselves register for such an event say DEB is not worth their energy. Instead of hatred for it, they feel bemused.

DiBona says she understands the feeling — “I don’t understand tailgating in front of an Eagles game all day, but many people love to do that” — and that if Diner en Blanc doesn’t speak to you, that’s just fine.

“You either get it, or you don’t.”

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