Judith Robinson's North Philadelphia neighbors planned a block party last month — an opportunity to eat, listen to music, and catch up with one another during a particularly violent summer for the community. Six days before the date, someone had shot a man on the corner of 19th Street and Susquehanna Avenue, not far from where the potato salad, mac and cheese, and burgers were to be set out.
Police told organizers they would have to cancel the party. Robinson thought it was the right call. The weekend of the would-be gathering, there was a fatal shooting on the same corner.
"I don't think block parties draw violence," Robinson said. "Most times, block parties are peaceful, beautiful things with family and friends eating and drinking and having a good time. But in the environment I'm in, where people have no respect for gatherings, for other human beings, [block parties] don't draw them, but they damn sure wouldn't stop some of these idiots."
In Philadelphia, where 6,000 people will submit requests to throw street parties each year, authorities try to balance a long-held rite of summer with public safety. To help, the city has compiled a list of 922 blocks flagged from having parties for traffic or safety reasons. A spot on the list is not an automatic disqualifier, authorities said. Approvals are granted case by case.
"Block parties are not an easy issue to deal with," said Inspector Derrick Wood, who commands the Southwest Division, where crime has spiked this summer. "We want people to have a good time, but we also want the streets to be safe for them."
An Inquirer and Daily News analysis of the city's banned blocks list shows nearly half of all blocks have had a shooting in the last three years. The Logan/Ogontz/Fern Rock neighborhood has 136 blocks on the list. Of those, 66 have had shootings on them since 2015. Kensington has 80 flagged blocks, 55 of which have had shootings in that period. Allegheny West has 69 such blocks, 37 of which have had recent shootings.
The remaining blocks could be on the list due to other criminal activity or traffic concerns. Some blocks on the list are being punished for failing to shut down parties on time, usually by 8:30 p.m., or for breaking other city rules. The infamous dumpster-pool block party, for instance, landed that Kensington block on the list, said Pat O'Donnell, who heads the city's right-of-way unit.
The city says a new policy — requiring residents to get permission up front from their local police district — will make the process more transparent and provide more prompt answers for residents. It could also help residents on those flagged blocks work with police to have a party anyway or to get off the list, said Capt. Sekou Kinebrew, who heads the public affairs unit. There are no set police guidelines for how to rule on a request.
"The default is an approval," Kinebrew said "If there's nothing that stands out, it's just not a problem." Police, he said, are allowed to make judgment calls or talk to block captains ahead of time about their plans.
But having to work closely with police could also deter some people from applying, said Jon Geeting, director of engagement for Philadelphia 3.0, a political reform organization that is circulating a petition criticizing the new policy.
"I think it's a little tone deaf," he said. "In my neighborhood, Fishtown, most people consider the 26th District a friendly presence, but that's not the case in every neighborhood, and the old way, no one had to deal with police officers as an applicant. Now they do."
Geeting also worries that the extra step — getting the police approval and then resubmitting the application to the city — could mean fewer block parties.
"The thing that really kind of powers Philly's block party culture is how incredibly easy it is to do," Geeting said. "You fill out one form, you get 30 signatures, you pay $25, and you're done. Block party culture in Philadelphia is a really special institution. We see people using streets as public space, and I think that that is something that we need to do our best to incubate rather than interfere with."
A permit allows residents to shut down their street to traffic. Applicants now must get a preauthorization form signed by police, then have three-quarters of their block sign off. Requests filed 21 days before an event come with a $25 fee; anything filed after that carries a $60 fee. No applications are accepted with less than five days' notice. Authorities can say no for several reasons: Police determine a public safety threat; SEPTA or the Streets Department sees the closure as a traffic hindrance; the applicant is on the prohibited blocks list.
Since July 31, the city has approved 2,921 application requests, denied 38, and revoked 139. A permit can be revoked if police decide there's been a shift in criminal activity in the neighborhood, or if a permit is determined to be fraudulent.
On Saturday, Alvena Melton gathered at her house with out-of-state family and friends on a rainy afternoon in Germantown. Melton, captain of the 5200 block of Marion Street, holds a party for her neighbors each year. This year she struggled with the new application system and said she got her paperwork to the city late. Independent of that, police told her they couldn't approve the permit because of crime in the area.
The nearby 100 and 300 blocks of Hansberry Street are on the banned list and have had shootings in the last three years.
"There is a lot of drug activity and some shootings, but not on our block, and we feel like we're being penalized," Melton said. "We understand it, but we maintain we should have been approved."
Some research has shown that community events such as block parties can deter violence. In the last two weeks, Philadelphia celebrated National Night Out and Philly Free Streets, both large, outdoor gatherings aimed at claiming public spaces. In Wilmington this summer, the city started hosting block parties in 30 crime-burdened neighborhoods to let kids play outside. Philadelphia's long-running play-streets program aims to give kids a safe place to play when school is out.
But outdoor gatherings also have been the scene of violence. In 2012, a 2-year-old girl and three others were wounded in a shooting during a block party in Logan. This year, a man was killed and an off-duty police officer injured at a private Fourth of July barbecue in Southwest Philadelphia.
Whether these events actually draw crime or just become an accidental backdrop is unclear since crime typically spikes in the summer months, when more people are outside at official or unofficial celebrations.
"Large crowds don't necessarily draw violence," Kinebrew said. "But if I'm a rival group and I want to make a statement, and I know a lot of people are going to be there, I might use that as my opportunity. The bottom line is, I'd rather you be mad at me because I canceled your fun day than have someone get shot."
Kinebrew said police make determinations based on the climate at the time, threats they see on social media, and how well they know people on the block. “There’s been examples where we have to tell people, ‘You didn’t do anything wrong, but the timing of your block party is right in the middle of — for lack of a better word — a war.’”