Having a Neighborhood Picnic/Street Party in the Borough of State College

by Clare Hinrichs and Mark Bergstrom

We moved to the East Highlands neighborhood close to 18 years ago and were immediately charmed that our neighbors had a late summer neighborhood picnic/street party on Holly Alley just outside East Fairmount Park. This was a cookout/potluck/hangout that included long-time residents and new arrivals, brought together kids and seniors, solidified old friendships and launched new ones. What a way to cap off the summer!

What was once billed as the Foster 500 (Block) party has expanded over the years to include a broader range of East Highlands friends, neighbors and former neighbors. The organizers of our event have changed over time. The weather has cooperated some years more than others. Conversation has been lively and friendly. The food has always been outstanding.

We have held some version of our neighborhood picnic/street party every year. Every year, that is, until summer 2020, when COVID-19 put a major brake on this neighborhood tradition. In 2021, we again refrained from gathering. But now in 2022, we are looking to reclaim and cautiously revive this much-loved outdoor summer gathering.

So how do you plan and pull off a good neighborhood picnic/street party in the Borough of State College? Below we share the basic steps we’ve taken to organize and hold our event over the years. We also offer a few thoughts about new considerations as we continue to adjust and adapt to the COVID-19 era.

  • First, determine a good location in your neighborhood for your event—a park or a lightly trafficked street or alley.
  • Check local calendars carefully to be sure you select a date when there are no major events in town that could impinge on your plans. For example, because we are just a couple of blocks from Beaver Avenue and University Drive, we avoid scheduling our neighborhood picnic/party on a busy home football game weekend.
  • If you plan to use public property (such as streets or parks) for your event, review the Special Event Ordinance and contact the Borough of State College at (814) 234-7100 and events@statecollegepa.us 10-12 weeks prior to the event to begin the process.
  • You will need to complete and submit an application, which must be approved by Borough Council. And, if you are requesting the use or closure of a street or alley, you will need to notify affected business/property owners of the event. The Borough will provide barricades and/or signs and assistance in closing a street upon request.
  • About 2-3 weeks before the picnic, send a first announcement to your email list of neighbors telling them about the event (when, where, what to bring, etc.). Include contact information for the organizers so people can follow up if they have any questions. Encourage people to share the announcement with any new neighbors. If new people have moved into homes in the immediate area of the event, print out a copy of your announcement that you can slip under their door or deliver in person. We aim to include every home within two blocks of our picnic site, and we are welcoming and inclusive of others who may join us from somewhat farther away.
  • In your announcement, explicitly acknowledge that COVID remains a consideration for many. Signal preferred and acceptable practices for your event. You should encourage everyone to refrain from attending if sick. You may want to say that people may share food with others or consume only food they have brought, according to their comfort level. Create a context of safety and mutual respect and give people a sense of what to expect.
  • Provide a reminder: resend the invitation to the picnic/party just a few days before the event.
  • Day of the event: If you have requested street barricades, the Borough will drop them off on the day of your event. Set them up about an hour before the start of your event, so that your picnic/party space is protected from through traffic.
  • For the East Highlands Block Party, the organizers have provided pop-up canopies (in case the weather falters), tables, and a gas grill, while the neighbors have brought potluck items and beverages.
  • Encourage people to bring camp chairs or folding chairs and array artfully in your alley, street or park.
  • Encourage and welcome volunteers to help with set-up, grilling and clean-up!
  • Have a sign-up list where people can provide their names and current emails (to build your list and keep it up to date).
  • Emphasize reuse and waste reduction by encouraging people to bring their own tableware, plates and cups. But have some paper plates, cups, napkins and disposable utensils on hand, so anyone can participate, even if they forgot to “bring their own.”
  • Make sure you have a waste management collection set-up to handle the recyclables, organic waste and trash.
  • Consider some games or entertainment depending on your crowd. We have had picnics/parties that included live music, multi-yard croquet, chalk art, or cider pressing (not all of these in the same year).
  • Conclude your event around dark (so you can see to put things away, get dishes and lawn furniture back to their owners).
  • Leave your picnic/party site cleaner than you found it.
  • At the very end, there will inevitably be a stray dish or serving spoon or a forgotten camp chair that needs to find its owner. Reach out to your email list to solve such mysteries. At that time, you can also plant the seeds of anticipation for next year’s neighborhood picnic/party.
Neighbors enjoying food at their block party

Clare Hinrichs (chinrichs011@gmail.com) and her husband Tom Richard have lived in the East Highlands since 2004. She is a professor of Rural Sociology in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences. Clare and Tom are ardent home gardeners. They tend flowers in their front yard hellstrip, grow vegetables alley-side, and occasionally persuade their Chicago fig tree to bear.

Mark Bergstrom (markbergstrom21@gmail.com) and his wife Amy bought their house on East Foster Avenue in 1995, returning it from a student rental to a residential home.  He is an associate teaching professor of criminology and executive director of the state sentencing commission.  The backyard of their home is usually occupied by Flat-Coated Retrievers and/or a German Shepherd dog.  As a result, a terraced vegetable garden was constructed in the front yard.  Despite rigorous efforts to protect the produce, the garden is owned by neighborhood rabbits and chipmunks.