The cadre of partygoers clustered in the middle of the street under tents and around card and domino tables represented maybe a dozen families. Those folks had a good time for sure -- the karaoke featured some expert turns by one of the original members of the Delfonics who just happened to be somebody's guest. But the absences were, as always, conspicuous. So really, why do we do it?
The question has been a kind of running argument in my own household for a good year. My husband is so put out by the fact that so few organize so much for so many who don't seem to appreciate the efforts, or at least take them for granted, he doesn't participate at all. For him it's the principle. And he sticks to that principle by not showing up to the picnic as well as not being involved in the planning. It's his way of protesting a lack of esprit de corps that he feels will only improve if concerned neighbors like him vote with their feet. "Otherwise they'll just keep taking advantage," he says.
He's right. But I see things somewhat differently. For one thing, the "they" is only us, and more un-involvement, however principled, weakens that sense of "us" that the block club picnic is trying so hard to shore up. Nor is this particular party ever just a party. It's an annual attempt to prove to ourselves and to whoever might look unfavorably at our south corner of Inglewood that we are indeed a community that doesn't live in fear of chaos behind closed doors, that can maintain in an urban environment such positive black traditions as family-reunion style picnics.
A day of barbeque barrels and domino games is a counterargument to the terror of occasional shootings, to a school district that's about to go under, to an economy that's decimated our always-shaky tax base. And I admit that unlike my husband, I tend to see the glass as half-full when it comes to these kinds of projects: some organization for something worthwhile is better than none at all. Much as I deplore apathy, I deplore the prospect of a social vacuum created by a collapsed block club even more. Our corner of the city simply can't afford it.
It's no accident that block club events, and block clubs themselves, are most active among neighborhoods that struggle and almost nonexistent, or simply inivisible, amongst neighborhoods that don't. For the latter, there is no need to prove anything. Besides, as anybody who's been to Pacific Palisades or upper Brentwood knows, such places frown on even having sidewalks because just walking around is considered déclassé, potentially criminal. Holding a party in the middle of the street is completely off the radar.
I didn't do much this year except store the ribs sit in my freezer, make a pasta salad, buy a cake, and pitch in to help serve on the big day. I didn't eat a lot -- I don't eat meat, and let's just say the picnic committee didn't vote to provide any alternatives. The day was hot, the group spirit not initially intact. The woman who'd promised to do the kid games reneged, and we had to scramble. But we did it, and I wager that even those who didn't show took note and view the block, if not the block club, more favorably because of it. Was it worth it? Of course.
Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.