How to host a (hot) block party - and a cool recipe for super bubbles

(The column below originally appeared in The News-Gazette on July 17. I've included the super-bubble recipe at the end, courtesy of our friend and neighbor, Amy Plankell.)

I’ve always wanted to host a block party, so what better time to do it than a 100-degree summer evening?

In our usual impeccable timing, we co-hosted our first block party July 3, to coincide with a neighbor’s annual cookout (and the fireworks so Blog Photokindly provided by our neighbors up the street at the Champaign County Country Club).

The weather was ... inferno-ish. I’ve never been so hot just standing still. And there were glitches. We forgot to put out some of the food. The brand new slip-and-slide was no match for the throng of hose-wielding children. It lasted maybe 5 minutes before sprouting a hole.

But we had fun, thanks to some advance planning.

We were inspired by friends who had hosted a similar event in June — and, frankly, set the bar a wee bit high. As in, an outdoor movie and the University of Illinois I Pan steel drum band. (We can top that — fireworks! Ha!)

Like us, the organizers had talked about doing a block party for years. Finally one neighbor offered to hire I Pan in honor of his wife’s birthday, and that got things moving.

“It just took somebody naming a date,” said Erin Mattson, who helped organize the event with husband Dave and neighbors Jeremy and Blog PhotoSarah Sheeley.

Their party went from early afternoon to 10 p.m., but people came and went. They blocked off the street, set up lots of activities for kids, and asked guests to bring their own meat to grill and a side dish. It all just sort of came together at the last minute, Mattson says.

“It was so easy we would do it again,” she says.

I asked her and other friends for tips on hosting a (fairly) trouble-free block party. Here’s what they offered:

— Plan ahead: Choose a date and time a month or two in advance and work out who will be invited, who will be responsible for what, and whether you plan to close off the streets, says Wayne Patterson, who co-hosted our party.

 “Open it up to as many people as possible,” Jeremy Sheeley says. “Getting everybody involved was the best thing we did.”

— Talk to the ’hood: Give your neighbors plenty of notice, especially if you’re planning to block off any streets — and invite anyone affected by the closure.

Mattson sent out a “save the date” flier several weeks ahead of time with basic details and a contact phone number/email if neighbors had Blog Photoquestions or concerns. One neighbor asked to make sure one lane was kept open for emergency vehicles, which the city already requires.

It also wouldn’t hurt to put up signs a few days in advance saying the street will be closed, Patterson says.

“Be good neighbors,” said Champaign police Sgt. Jim Clark, who oversees special-event permits for the city. “There’s a lot of people affected when you start shutting streets down. You don’t know what somebody else might have planned for that day.”

— Get a permit: Both Urbana and Champaign require you to apply for a permit 10 days beforehand in order to block off the street. In Urbana, you also have to get signatures from 75 percent of those affected by a street closing.

Clark says Champaign processes roughly 30 to 40 block-party permits a year, including “a ton” around the Fourth of July. He encouraged residents to apply as early as possible.

Here are the links:

In Champaign, http://bit.ly/N5QRC0

In Urbana, http://bit.ly/P4J7zm

— Ask everyone to pitch in: Decide who will supply meats, fruit, salads, desserts and drinks. Or make it a potluck. We asked each guest to bring a side dish/dessert and their own drinks. Patterson provided most of the meat, and we had plenty of side dishes and drinks to get started. Water was key on a hot night.

— Spread out the love: We set up our party at two houses, with the food at one and desserts and kids’ activities at the other. Judging by the mud generated at the slip and slide, that was a good plan.

The Mattsons and their neighbors had a grilling station in one driveway, a fire pit with s’mores at another (it was a chilly evening), games and Blog Photofood tables in the street, and the outdoor movie on a neighbor’s deck (which kept the kids out of the street while everyone cleaned up).

— Give kids (of all ages) plenty to do: This is KEY, Patterson says. We moved our foosball table up from the basement, bought the ill-fated slip-and-slide and set up a bags game and other games/toys in the street.

The Mattsons and their neighbors wheeled two basketball hoops into the street, as well as a pingpong table, volleyball net and other games. They also had a cool bubble-making activity, using detergent, bubble mix and yarn to make giant bubbles. It kept the kids busy (and soapy) for hours, even in the rain.

The s’mores were also a big hit there, but it was too hot at our party. I think the marshmallows melted on their own.

— Music: If you can’t hire a band, set up a boombox for music, says Kerry Rossow, author of the “HouseTalkN” blog.

— Other amenities: Have bins for trash and recyclables. Organizers of the Washington Street 4th of July block party even had separate containers for composted material.

Make sure you have a couple of houses open for bathroom breaks (or cooling centers). Most people will stay outside otherwise, unless it rains or gets unbearably hot (yeah).

The best advice? “Relax — it’s your party, too,” Patterson says.

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Blog Photo

Recipe for Super Bubbles:

Here's how to impress your children with giant-sized bubbles.

First, find a medium-sized plastic storage tub, or similar-sized container.

Pour in approximately half of a large bottle of bubbles and a tablespoon each of dish soap and glycerin.

To make the bubble "wand," thread a length of yarn (approximately 2.5 feet) through two plastic straws, and tie it in a circle. (The straws serve as handles.) Dip the wand into the bubble mixture, and pull it through the air. Voila! Super bubbles.

Some tips from Amy: You can make bigger or smaller bubbles by varying the length of yarn, but if it's too big it won't work. Also, it's a little tricky to stuff the yarn through the straws, so she suggests sucking it through - but not too hard, or you'll get a mouthful of yarn.

Good luck!

________________

Julie Wurth writes and blogs about families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette in Champaign. Leave a comment below, or contact her at (217) 351-5226, jwurth@news-gazette.com or Twitter.com/jawurth.

Photos:

1. Neighbors enjoy the Lynn Street block party in Champaign on June 2, 2012. John Dixon/News-Gazette

2. Peter Sheeley, 4, tries out a steel drum from the I Pan band. John Dixon/News-Gazette

3. You can get barricades like this from your local public works department, but be sure to give your neighbors plenty of advance warning before you close off any streets. News-Gazette file photo

4. Kelly Evans was a champion bubble-maker at the Lynn Street block party. Julie Wurth

5. Using yarn and a couple of straws, Sophia Urban, 10, demonstrates the proper technique for super bubbles. Julie Wurth

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