Block parties have been a part of New York City’s history since their origins as a send-off for soldiers during the first World War, and again as celebrations of those returning from World War II. They are even credited, by some accounts, with contributing to the birth of hip-hop.
The city’s street fete tradition persisted through the pandemic, too, turning into socially distanced events to help out neighbors in a show of solidarity.
While the basic formula still requires a cordoned-off street, music and perhaps some food or games, block parties now require more paperwork, planning and permits than in the early days. Outdoor events are overseen by the Street Activity Permits Office (SAPO) under the Mayor’s Office of Citywide Event Coordination and Management. According to SAPO, they’ve issued over 40,600 permits for block parties since 2000.
Of course, many more block parties take place in five boroughs without all the proper permits and paperwork — but if you go that route, there’s always a chance the local precinct or other city officials will put a stop to the fun.
So, if you’d like to legally party outside with your friends and close your block off to traffic — or if you want to get involved in more outdoor events around your neighborhood — now’s the time to start planning. It takes some time to get all the details ironed out.
Here’s THE CITY’s guide to throwing block parties and getting involved in outdoor events.
What is a block party?
The Permits Office defines a block party on its website as a “community sponsored, public event where there are no sales of goods or services” that is limited to one day and one block.
And permits can only be requested on behalf of groups of neighbors, through an organization like a tenant association or block association. So, you’ll have to get your neighbors on board before you bust out the boombox. (More on that later.)
Community support and a drive to revive an an old block tradition was the reason behind the success of one Bedford-Stuyvesant’s block parties thrown last year, said Nicole Greaves, vice president of the Hancock Street Block Association #2.
The group began in 1942, but had been defunct for eight years until two years ago, when Greaves came together with other residents to re-form it, together with the Bridge Street Development Corporation. Before the block association reassembled, only one woman had thrown block parties, and when she moved and her building got sold, the block party tradition went with her, Greaves said — until the newly re-formed association threw a big block party last summer, the first in 7 or 8 years.
“The residents absolutely loved it,” Greaves said. “[For] the old-school residents, it was nostalgic because it had been so many years since we had had a block party. And for the new residents, especially the ones that were new to New York that are transplants, they were blown away because they had never seen anything like that before.”
To Greaves’ delight, residents brought out their own grills, tables, chairs and sound systems, enlivening the block late into the night. The party was a runaway hit, she said.
“What is a better way to [get to] know your neighbors than at a party?”
How to get started; what to know
As mentioned above, even before you apply for a permit, you’ll need to join up with your local block or tenant association to complete the application — which must be done two months in advance of the gathering.
(Don’t have a block association or tenant organization? Here are some tips on how to start one.)
Once you have your local block or tenant group on board, you’ll need to get support from a majority of the residents on your block who want to party.
Depending on your block and community district, that process can look a little bit different. Your community board has final say in what form of support you’ll need to gather, and how. Check in with your local CB and your local police precinct for their rules.
According to SAPO, signatures will most likely be involved. You can get them electronically or with written signatures on a paper petition. Some block associations use a paper petition like this.
Michael Corley, treasurer for the Union Street Block and Civic Association in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, has an electronic system set up to gather signatures and support — but also wants SAPO to modernize its portal so people don’t have to jump through so many hoops.
“Given that we’re in the 21st century, [SAPO] could easily accept the petition signatures online,” Corley said. “Sending in a signed, written petition by a minimum of 25 residents or 20 residents isn’t the easiest thing to do.”
He suggested that the office could help applicants create an account and provide a list of email addresses for residents on the block, to send the petition to. Without that, check with your community board to see what works in your neighborhood.
Next, make sure you plan an event that’s for residents only and not neighborhood businesses. (Street events that include vendors require a separate permit; see more details on that below.)
Corley’s association ran into trouble in 2021 when they indicated that restaurants and businesses could participate.
“Our first attempt to apply online was denied because we were applying to have local businesses that are on the corner of our block participate as block association members,” he said. “That trial and error led to a loss of the opportunity in 2021 for us to have a block party.”
Once you have proof that a block party has majority resident support, start your application for a permit here.
Keep in mind:
- Applications must be submitted 60 days prior to the event — so start planning early! You’ll have to create an account with E-Apply, the city’s portal.
- It is useful to offer alternative dates since there is no calendar in the portal showing which dates are open, and SAPO can deny your date without explanation, according to Corley.
- Applying costs $25, paid by a credit or debit card.
- As mentioned, you’ll have to apply as a member of your block association. Again, your community board can likely help with getting support, or telling you what forms to use or how to assemble a block association.
- The party can be held only for nine consecutive hours, including setting up and winding down. Curfew is 8 p.m., no matter when you start, and you have to have the block open to traffic again by 9 p.m., Corley said.
- The party has to be open to everyone on the block in question — you can’t close off the block just for your own friends.
- You can’t charge admission.
In Bed-Stuy, Greaves will be throwing her second block party in August. From planning last year’s party — a big hit that turned out more than a 100 attendees, she said — she now knows to plan early and to plan with a budget, though community donations were a welcome surprise.
“This was our first time doing it,” she said. “So, we figured it out as we went along, but if you know how much you have to spend in the beginning, then it makes it easier with the planning process. But we were lucky in that as we were planning, people were making donations and we did get a few large donations at the end, which made a really big difference.”
What do I need for the permit application?
Get all the details in order. The portal will ask you for a lot of specifics, including:
- Basic info like your name, address and contact details
- Event details like the type and location of party
- Questions about props and accessories — for example, whether you are using amplified music, generators, vehicles, overhead cabling, games, animals, tents and more.
- If you are using any of those things — for example, a bouncy house — you’ll need details about the companies providing equipment as well as the physical dimensions of things set up on the block.
- Documents may be needed as proof of compliance with each agency’s requirements (for instance, the dimensions of a vehicle have to meet those set by DOT) and for insurance purposes.
How can I make sure my permit is approved?
Besides planning early and having all the details on hand, here are some other things SAPO said would be useful for applicants to know:
- Don’t forget to connect with your community board and precinct. They both can show you the ropes and review your application.
- Just applying does not constitute approval. Keep checking the portal to see the status of your application. An update on the approval or denial of the permit comes both through the portal and via email.
- Upload as much information as possible: flyers, site plans, maps and so on.
- Depending on what type of activities you have at the party, you may have to apply for additional permits from the NYPD, FDNY, Department of Buildings, Department of Transportation and Department of Consumer Affairs. For example: If you have an amplified sound system, you must get a sound permit from your local police precinct, which typically comes with a fee. For Corley, the precinct’s sound permit fee was $25.
How many agencies could get involved in approvals?
Quite a number, according to SAPO.
The Department of Buildings has to conduct an inspection of your plan and issue a certificate if you plan to have a bouncy house, for example.
You have to pay for an NYPD sound permit if you want to have electronically amplified sound. You’ll have to fill out an application and file it with your local precinct. Find the application here and your local precinct here.
If you’d like a spray cap for a fire hydrant, you’d have to get a permit from either the Department of Environmental Protection or from your local firehouse.
If your block party solicits donations or runs a raffle, you’ll need a permit from the city Human Resources Administration.
You’ll also need approval from the Department of Health if you plan to have non-domesticated animals at your party (e.g. a petting zoo).
What can’t I do at a city-permitted block party?
A block party is a get-together of neighbors, and — importantly, according to SAPO — nothing more.
That means SAPO will deny block party permits to anyone hoping to advertise or sell goods and services — even free services. Instead, the agency will redirect applicants to permits for “Civic Events” (for nonprofits offering free services) or “Commercial Events” (for corporate events advertising and selling goods and services).
The mayor’s office explicitly told THE CITY that you may not, under any circumstances, have a fire pit at your party — or roast whole pigs. Really!
And a reminder: It is illegal to drink or serve alcohol at permitted block parties.
How is a block party unlike other outdoor events on my block?
Outdoor street events can take a number of forms — and they differ by who is throwing them, their duration, as well as what kinds of goods and services, if any, are being offered. Depending on the kind of event, insurance requirements and permits also vary. Block parties are different from:
- Block festivals, which are limited to one block, can only be organized by nonprofits and are allowed to fundraise as well as sell goods and services. You must apply 90 days in advance for them, and they can go no longer than 12 hours. Learn more about single block festivals here.
- Street festivals, which can shut down more than one block, are organized by nonprofits and can sell goods and services. You’ll have to plan well in advance — applications for street festivals have to be made by December 31st of the year preceding the event. Read more about organizing street festivals here.
- Street events, which obstruct pedestrian traffic on sidewalks or curbs, can be put together by any organization. Permits for street events, depending on the size — you’ll have to provide a site plan — have to be requested 45 days, 30 days or 15 days in advance. Read more about organizing street events here.
- Open Streets, which began as a form of economic relief during the pandemic, now close off vehicle traffic on recurring days to make room for pedestrian space, restaurant seating, music and more. Open Streets have become a mainstay in the city’s spring and summer seasons. They require planning more ahead of time than, say, a block party. The Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council has been preparing since December for this year’s season, said chair Gib Veconi. Different committees for the council that volunteers can help with include communications, street design and safety, fundraising, and logistics and transportation. You can find a list of all the city’s Open Streets here, along with the entities behind them that you could get involved with.
Veconi has worked with other volunteers to temporarily open up six acres of space on Underhill and Vanderbilt Avenues in Brooklyn between April and October each year since 2020. He said Open Streets are ripe for both active and passive recreation, with families coming out with their children and setting up tables and chairs in the street.
“People like to picnic there or meet with friends for a happy hour,” he said. “We’ve had probably about a half a dozen weddings on the street over three years. Children are playing together in the street — all of this is what’s going on because of the amount of street space we’re closing to traffic on Vanderbilt.”
Greaves said she remembered a friend asking her why she throws these events — which she called a labor of love — for free.
“I said, ‘Do you see that kid running up and down right now with that smile on their face?’” she recalled. “This is why I do it. To see that little kid running up and down with the Icee, with the look of just pure happiness on their face.’”