Map showing where block party permits have been approved or denied this year. Blue locations were approved for block parties, and red locations were denied. Credit: Lizzy McLellan Ravitch / Billy Penn

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When North Philly resident Joan Amos submitted her permit application for a block party on Labor Day weekend, she thought it was just a formality. Her family has been holding the annual bash going on 50 years, and permits have never been an issue.

Last week, about a month before the party date, she got an email saying her permit was denied. Reason: “criminal activity.”

A follow-up email from the city provided little explanation. “The Police Department has requested that this application be denied due to being a problem block,” it read. “Please contact your local police district for more information.”

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Amos is not alone. Though more than three-quarters of block parties this year have been approved, Philadelphia police have denied over 200 applications because of “criminal activity.” It’s the most common reason, accounting for 77% of denials in 2022 so far. That was also true last year, when it made up 86%.

But denying block parties for “criminal activity” is not happening evenly across the city.

Looking at the application results on a map, it’s clear police are more likely to nix party plans in certain sections of West and North Philadelphia, where there have also been a higher concentration of shootings.

To Amos, the police’s decision to shut down these parties doesn’t make sense. There’s never been an incident during one of her block parties, she told Billy Penn, and denying the permit sends a message that “you can’t do anything nice, can’t do anything good for your neighborhood… because maybe some bad guys will come around and mess things up.”

“There’s criminal activity all over the place,” Amos said. “You can’t just pinpoint these neighborhoods.”

The canceling of events due to fears of gun violence has also happened on a larger scale — with similar disparity. Cancellations of planned BBQs and neighborhood concerts seem to be affecting Black communities much more than predominantly white neighborhoods or people in power, Philly Mag columnist Ernest Owens recently observed. He suggested leaders should recognize that a “lack of community engagement is part of the reason gun violence continues to fester.”

Philadelphia Police spokesperson Eric Gripp told Billy Penn the city is trying to address concerns about block party permit denials, but didn’t give any specifics. He said the department is making these calls in the name of public safety, “with primary emphasis on safety of residents and attendees.”

He invited residents to comment if they’re upset with the process, though it’s not clear to whom. “The decision to deny a permit for a block party is not one that the department takes lightly, and we strongly encourage applicants and stakeholders to voice their concerns with their local Police District leadership,” Gripp said.

‘Block parties make us feel safer’

Philadelphia has long required a permit for block parties.

Applying is fairly simple if you plan ahead, usually requiring a $25 fee and a form filled out with signatures from your neighbors. The city has tinkered with the process in recent years, causing confusion, but as of now, you first apply to the Streets Department, then they send the application to the police.

When a block party permit is denied because of “criminal activity” that’s a police determination, per Streets Department spokesperson Keisha McCarty-Skelton. “As we understand it, the crime can be on the block or in the vicinity,” she said.

Permits can also be revoked after they’re approved, due to “crime-related issues” or past failure to abide by city rules. McCarty-Skelton said this has happened as late as the day before the event.

Each district’s commanding officer is tasked with analyzing the block party applications in that district, according to Gripp, the police spokesperson. They consider safety concerns, crime, violence and impact on emergency services. The police declined to provide more information on how these factors are measured and over what time period when deciding whether “criminal activity” should be grounds for denying a permit.

The lack of detail around party denials became a frustration for a group of South Philly residents, near Dickinson Square Park. They traditionally have two or three block parties each year, resident Charlie MeGeehan told Billy Penn, but this year’s Independence Day party was denied.

McGeehan said his block captain reached out for help, but didn’t get any clarity from police until Councilmember Mark Squilla’s office stepped in. They learned that their denial was due to a June driveby shooting near the party site — and that the police would not be changing their answer.

“It’s pretty ridiculous to name our block a problem block,” McGeehan said. “We don’t feel unsafe. Our kids are outside all the time. Block parties make us feel safer.”

A 2017 block party in West Philly’s Cobbs Creek neighborhood Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

It’s unclear how the police determine which areas are a “problem block” and for how long. Asked why some permits are denied for this reason, while other block parties nearby are allowed, Gripp said “Every situation is different,” and noted that it’s a “fluid” process with “decisions are made based on the latest information available.”

This year’s denials continue a trend from the past few years.

In 2019, over 400 parties were denied because of “criminal activity.” Then, in 2020, block parties everywhere got the red light because of COVID. In 2021, over 400 were again denied because of “criminal activity.”

Getting a police denial once for a block party doesn’t place that block on a blacklist, Gripp made clear. Each application is considered individually and event history is considered, but it’s only one factor. “Plainly stated, past approvals should not automatically lead to a current approval, just as past denials should not automatically lead to a current denial,” Gripp said.

Still, just one denied permit can have a chilling effect.

Application data reviewed by Billy Penn shows that a denial is rarely followed by another block party application the following year, let alone an approved party permit.

A decade of block party decline

In general, block parties are less numerous in Philadelphia now than they were a few years ago.

So far this year, 1,168 block parties permits have been approved. The year’s not over, but warm weather will soon come to an end, so it’s likely the total will be down slightly from last year’s count of about 1,800.

Both those numbers continue a decade-long decline. Even when the application system was causing payment errors for users in 2019, over 3,500 parties got approval. (City records still show over 500 block party applications from that year as “awaiting payment.”) In 2015, Philly had over 5,800 block parties, and just 207 block parties got denied — fewer than this year through July.

When McGeehan’s block in South Philly learned their July party was canceled, some neighbors made new plans to go away for the holiday. Others just spent time outside with neighbors, even without the full block party festivities, he said.

Acknowledging that denials have been less of a problem in his section of the city than elsewhere, McGeehan said his block captain will likely continue applying for permits in hopes the police remove the “problem block” designation.

In North Philly over Labor Day weekend, Amos said her neighbors will likely still be grilling, visiting and watching their kids play outside — albeit a bit more closely, because without an official permit, they can’t close the street to cars.

“It would be nice for the children if we could block off the traffic,” Amos said. “I just don’t understand. Why would you stop a good thing that people look forward to?”