A block party pool in the summer of 2017

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Philadelphia is a block party city. Some hype it as the block party capital of the East Coast — or the whole United States. No matter the spin, Philly lost part of its cultural identity last year when officials halted block party permits during the pandemic.

So you’d think there might be a big comeback when parties were greenlit again in May. Hot block summer, baby!

Not quite.

Block party applications are down by at least 50% from past summers, according to permit data. The city received about half as many requests this July as it did for the same month in 2019, and only about 60% have been approved this year so far.

“We would venture to say applications may be coming in slower due to COVID or other available options such as park space,” Streets Department spokesperson Crystal Jacobs wrote in an email.

With 6 in 10 permits getting approval from the smaller application pool, just over 1,000 block parties have been given the green light. For comparison, in 2016, more than 6,000 parties kicked off on streets cleared of traffic — 96% of those that applied.

While the recent dropoff has been steep, data suggests the decline began years ago, with both applications and approvals sinking steadily over the last half decade. Some block party champions were taken aback by the lack of interest this year, and the low permit granting record. Blame runs the gamut, from pandemic hesitancy to application glitches to police department interference, but there’s no one clear answer.

Jen Devor, a block captain who’s thrown a party on her Point Breeze block since 2010 and has written about the process, questions how many residents know that block parties are back after the moratorium last summer.

“I don’t know if there was a big enough outreach push,” Devor said.

Tiye Thompson, a Democratic committee person who also hosts block parties in Point Breeze, said returning to pre-pandemic social life can be hard.

“The shores and beaches are packed like never before, but people have not gotten back into the socialization of their neighbors,” Thompson said. “They’re still stuck travelling amongst their own bubble.”

Block parties trended down before coronavirus

The Streets Department says it doesn’t know why applications have continued to decline since 2016, but others blame various procedural changes that caused confusion.

Controversy erupted in 2018 when officials told residents they’d need to seek the local police precinct’s OK in order to get a block party permit. Historically, the PPD has always held final approval, but the new process switched the order, putting the onus residents to seek police permission before submitting an application to the Streets Department. Online petitions circulated in protest, and the city ultimately walked back the police pre-approval process.

Then there’s the question of how many streets are classified as no-go zones.

A 2018 Inquirer report identified a banned list of more than 900 blocks that were prohibited from throwing the outdoor events, largely due to concerns about gun violence or other criminal activity. The Philadelphia Police Department says it no longer maintains that roster.

“There isn’t a ‘banned list,’ per se,” said Jacobs, the city spokesperson. “When applications come in, district captains make a decision about whether or not to grant approval of the application. Depending on what is (or isn’t) going on, a request might get denied at one point in time but get granted the next time around. Applications are either granted or not for the date they’re requested — they don’t stay on a permanent list of any kind.”

Online changes caused other snafus. In 2019, Billy Penn reported residents experiencing technical glitches getting their block party permits through the new web application portal.

“It’s sad there are dismal numbers, it’s so sad,” said Point Breeze party host Thompson, who suspects a combination of factors for the decline. She’s been talking to neighbors outside all summer. Her block was turned into a Play Street, one of more than 300 streets citywide closed to traffic from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. so kids can play safely through the summer.

In conversations with passersby, she still sees reluctance for some to socialize with neighbors after so many months crammed in the house. But she thinks the sense of community is still there.

“While people are not planning for their individual block, people are looking out for each other,” Thompson said.

Have you had trouble applying and getting approved to throw a block party this summer? Give us a shout at tips@billypenn.com.

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...