‘Shame on me’: Officials offer mea culpa for block party rules change

Two months after making a switch in the approval process, it’s been rolled back.

The 2017 Father's Day Block Party in West Philly

The 2017 Father's Day Block Party in West Philly

Courtesy Larissa Mogano

It took exactly two months and two days for the city to correct a big mistake it had made. The offense? Messing with Philadelphia’s block parties.

In the block party capital of the East Coast, the last thing residents want is extra hardship when trying to throw them. So when the Streets Department announced a change that added a step to the application process this summer, Philly was up in arms. The department got so much negative feedback, officials said, that this week they pretty much undid the revision entirely.

“Shame on me,” Brian Abernathy, Philly’s first deputy managing director, told Billy Penn. “I’m sorry that folks had to go through a more burdensome process than they should have.”

A father and daughter at last year's Father's Day Block Party in West Philly

A father and daughter at last year's Father's Day Block Party in West Philly.

Courtesy Larissa Mogano

Technically, the process barely changed — block parties still required all the same approval from all the same folks. Problem is, it meant more work for the applicant.

Prior to the August switch, Streets required residents to collect signatures from 75 percent of their neighbors. Along with those, the party host had to turn in a completed Street Event application form and a $25 fee. If the department approved the application, they’d pass it along for additional approval from Philly police.

But under the new method, residents had to go to the cops first for approval. If they got it, then they had to get a separate, second approval from the Streets Dept. And aside from simply making it more difficult to throw a block party, that process also could have deterred residents who don’t want to visit their local police stations.

“There are some people who don’t want to walk into a police station, frankly,” said Harold Burnett, a resident who teamed up with some local filmmakers to create a pro-block party video. “It can be extremely intimidating to walk into a police department and have to ask for anything.”

Growing up in Strawberry Mansion, block parties were an essential part of his childhood, Burnett said.

“For me, block parties are just unbridled joy in the city,” he explained. “There wasn’t a lot of times my mom wanted us to go outside freely. The block party was a safe opportunity to go outside, see your neighbors and have no cars in the way.”

Under the new policy, the additional work it would take to throw a block party could threaten their prevalence in Philly, said Jon Geeting, director of Philadelphia 3.0 and creator of a petition against the updated process.

“It’s not a lot, but any additional step that you add is just going to mean fewer people do it,” Geeting told Billy Penn. “So why mess with it?”

Abernathy — who admitted he thought up the change in the first place — insists the idea had good intentions. He was trying to help the issue of block party applicants buying supplies after getting their first approval, only to be rejected by police later, a complaint he says he heard often. PPD will sometimes reject an application if the block had shootings within the past three years, or other safety or traffic reasons.

When Abernathy realized his mistake, he took it hard. “I will say I didn’t have as much forethought as I should have,” he said. “As soon as I realized there was a problem, I wanted to fix it.”

On Wednesday morning, the Streets Dept. officially switched back to the original procedure, and streamlined the back-end. Residents can apply in person with the Streets Department, or can submit an application online, to a system that both Streets and police will be able to access.

“I’m feeling elated,” said Burnett after hearing the news. “I’m so happy we got back to one document and $25. That’s a high enough bar.”

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