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The block that rocks

Dennis Cass and Stewart MacGowan alfresco
Photo by Bill Kelley
Dennis Cass and Stewart MacGowan alfresco

In many Twin Cities’ neighborhoods, residents come together for annual National Night Out block parties. (In fact, in 2011, Minneapolis was tops in NNO participation among cities with populations over 250,000.) All over the city, plans are made, residential block event permits are obtained and crock pots are readied. On that one night a year, neighbors socialize, kids play together, and everyone feels more closely connected.

The Line

If the residents of the 5300 block of Emerson Avenue South were the sort of people who scoff at others, they’d surely be scoffing at those amateurs in the field of neighborhood socializing. Their NNO block party is just one event in a galaxy of creative get-togethers that make this one-block stretch of Southwest Minneapolis a perennial city leader in residential block event permit requests.

Jake and Christine WermerskirchenPhoto by Bill KelleyJake and Christine Wermerskirchen

High school graduation parties, held right on the street, become family, friend – and neighborhood – affairs. An autumn Chili Fest has been going strong for 20 years. In summertime, Flamingo Friday happy hours circulate from house to house. There's a block book club and a sewing club. One couple, Jake and Christine Wermerskirchen, grew so enamored of the celebrations that when they were getting married, they refashioned their wedding reception as a block party, inviting all the neighbors.

“We had a lot of family members at the reception, who aren’t city people," Christine says. "They said, ‘Wow, this is a regular neighborhood!’ They had an appreciation for Minneapolis that wasn’t there before.”

Once the weather gets warm each year, “There’s a strong contingent that just wants to drink beer outside,” says Dennis Cass. “A lot of people come outside for National Night Out and that’s great, I don’t want to knock it, but we get together, well, just for the hell of it."

Flamingo Fridays

For this “for the hell of it” segment of the neighborhood demographic, there are Flamingo Fridays, which 19-year resident Beth Kittelson proudly claims as her brainchild. “I live on 53rd, but they let me in anyway," she says with a smile. "I had the idea after I had gotten divorced, and was looking for an easy way to connect with people, and also to drink close to home.”

plastic flamingoPhoto by Bill KelleyA flamingo-signal for Flamingo Friday

Here are Flamingo Friday’s minimalist rules: The Wednesday of the week you want to host, display the traveling pair of pink flamingoes in your front yard. This serves as a visual invitation for neighbors to stop by on the upcoming Friday evening for an alfresco happy hour at your house. You provide snacks, guests bring their own drinks, and importantly, they refrain from entering your house (a rule put in place to eliminate Thursday-night housecleaning). “Go to your own house to go to the bathroom, that’s the big rule,” says Kittelson.

Chili Fest: 20 Years and Counting

The grand finale to the official “stand outside and drink with your neighbors” season is Chili Fest. Started by a retired firefighter, Ron “The Chiliman” Jenkins, who has since moved to Arizona, the event is still going strong 20 years later (Jenkins and his wife Renae returned for the 2010 event). The October get-together features that ever-present phenomenon on this block, the blocked-off street, along with tables laden with dozens of crock-potted entries. The winner receives a trophy that, according to the rules, must be displayed “prominently” until next year’s event.

“It’s frustrating, I’m not going to lie to you,” Cass grumbles good-naturedly about his unbroken string of Chili Fest losses. “I’m a Texas-style, brisket person, and this block is notoriously pro-bean." The sting is made even worse now that Cass’ wife, Liz, was victorious in last year’s Dessert Contest segment, winning an apron that must be decorated before being passed on to next year’s winner.

Older, Younger, and In-Between

The neighborly fun spans a wide swath of generations and interests. On the older side of the demographic is the all-female Sewing Club, which was started, as well as anyone can remember, more than 40 years ago, and which continues to welcome even those who’ve moved away from the block. The monthly meetings feature dessert, conversation, and even the occasional sewing or knitting project.

As for the neighborhood's younger set, it's not unusual to see them running around in large, boisterous groups that predate the play-date mentality. “Sometimes in the summer, we‘ll be sitting inside eating dinner and see kids running through our yard, playing hide-and-seek behind our big trees,” says Tammy Anderson. “We’re all cool with it.”

The summers were a little more organized during the four years that the Doyle girls, Kendall and Becca, ran a block-wide day camp called Kids’ Club. “We initially offered it to kids who were ages 5 through 10 only, but then a lot of little brothers and sisters got upset, so we said they could come if they were potty trained,” Kendall explains.

The operation proved to be a lot of work. “We planned activities, crafts and field trips to the park. We went to Target every week to buy supplies. Parents really got their money’s worth out of us,” Kendall laughs. Now 21 and an elementary education major at DePaul University, she's student teaching first grade in a Chicago school. “That experience with Kids’ Club helped me find my calling. I just applied for a teaching job in Washington D.C.,” she adds.

The Secret of Success

So, what’s the reason for all this door-to-door conviviality? Nancy Doyle, Kendall and Becca’s mother, lived in Chicago and Washington, D.C., in her pre-Emerson days, and thinks it might be that many of the block’s residents seem to be transplants from out of state, without nearby family or friends. Her opinion is seconded by Bridget Dalrymple, who moved with her husband from Colorado, and who thinks that the “new in town” feeling might make people more willing to join in neighborhood fun.

Kendall has her own idea about who’s really the driver of the social atmosphere. “I think the kids bring everyone together. When we moved onto the block I was five, and the first thing I remember is meeting other girls my age. Being friends with them brought our parents together – at least in my eyes,” she says.

Anderson has a different theory, pointing to the high number of block residents who work in creative professions, and who might be more willing to take a chance at meeting a new person or attending an unusual event. Dennis Cass (the perennial Chili Fest loser), is one of those creative types. His book, Head Case: How I Almost Lost My Mind Trying to Understand My Brain, was published by HarperCollins. But the writer claims that the secret to the block’s neighborliness isn’t creativity, it’s organization. “Some blocks just don’t have anyone who is willing to organize events, but we seem to have about five key families, and one of them is almost always willing to step up,” he says. “If it were always the same person, they’d get sick of it after a while.”

“I used to live in [another Minneapolis] neighborhood, and while it seemed that my neighbors weren’t any different on the surface from the Emerson folks, it was a really ‘closed door’ sort of place,” says Jake Wermerskirchen (the wedding reception guy). “I wonder if our longstanding annual events have helped us get to know each other better.”

When asked about the potential downside to seeing so much of each other, the neighbors can’t seem to think of any. “We respect people’s need for privacy,” says Cass, adding, “It’s not like you come home and find the people from next door sitting in your yard.” Kittelson is also adamant about the benefits of this connected lifestyle. “I’ll never move. I love my neighbors,” she says.

From Debacle to Big Idea

In fact, the only negative that seems to turn up consistently in conversation are a few dark mutterings about the progressive New Year’s Eve Party two years ago, in which a signature cocktail was served in each home. The operative phrase from several neighbors is that “things got a little out of hand.” The last house in the progression was, unfortunately for them, the Wermerskirchens. Christine describes the finale as “a frat party,” but her husband adds, “If the amount of cleanup required the next day is indicative of amount of the fun that was had, I’d still say we had a lot of fun.”

Even that debacle doesn’t stop this block, where there are always plans for a continuous improvement in partying. Neighbors have been floating the idea of renting heated tents on December 31, so that no one’s house is exposed to the frat-party treatment. Once they figure out the rental logistics, all they’ll need to do – and it's a piece of cake by now – is apply for yet another a permit to block off the street.

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.

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