San Jose Eichler Folks Take to the Street

Lights turn Fairwood Avenue into a magical spot for dancing and mingling during Fairglen's annual block party. Photos by Bill Pfahnl

It’s not hard feeding and entertaining 250 of your favorite neighbors – once you get the routine down. And after 14 years doing an annual block party, the folks in the San Jose Eichler development of Fairglen have it down.

“It’s pretty much on automatic pilot now after 14 years,” says Bill Pfahnl, one of the organizers of the event, which brought about 250 neighbors onto the street the first Saturday in September.

“Once you know what you’re doing and you’ve got it all set,” he says, “it’s easy to do it again next year.”

The block party, which runs from 5 p.m. to 10:30 or so, featured a DJ spinning tunes, dancing beneath a canopy of lights, a ‘drive-in’ theater in a driveway where kids reclined on chairs, and blankets to enjoy the animated film ‘Ratatouille.’

Every year they have a dessert contest featuring a panel of hard-nosed judges. Kari Ito took the prize this year for her chocolate macaroon cookies. “We have perpetual trophies,” Pfahnl says. “If you win, you add to it. [As time goes by] it becomes gaudier and gaudier.”

Rosa Maria Gordillo Garfunkel runs the popcorn booth.

“Some years we have a theme, some years not. Sometimes we have had dance lessons if it fits the theme, or a decorating contest.”

But what it’s really about, Pfahnl says, is socializing with your neighbors. “It’s just meeting the new neighbors. New neighbors and original owners all get to go for free. It’s a welcome and a thank you. We do a spiel welcoming everybody.”

“It’s a chance for everybody to get together and visit.”

Eichler and other modern subdivisions tend to be friendly places, and neighborhood gatherings are common. But few neighborhoods have gone at it as seriously as Fairglen, which has 352 households in three not-quite-contiguous sections.

For about 30 years, starting in the early 1960s, the neighborhood was famous for its Fairglen Art Fair, which started casually enough, neighbors showing their paintings and crafts, then “grew, grew, and grew,” Pfahnl says, till it was attracting 20,000-plus people over two weekends.

It became “a magical celebration of creative expression and community,” longtime resident Kaila Inskeep recalled several years ago. Her mother helped found the event.

Ben Lawrence, who lives in the neighborhood, spins the disks that got people moving.

“It was huge. It got too much for the neighbors to do,” Pfahnl says. So they turned instead to a block party open only to residents, friends, family, and other Eichler folks who might occasionally stop by.

Fairglen also holds an open home tour every other year, open to neighbors.

The lessons learned by the block party organizers could prove useful in other neighborhoods.

Although Fairglen doesn’t have a homeowner association, it does have a core group of about 15 organizers, most of whom have been handling the event for years. “One person does tables and chairs, one does water, one wine and beer, one the porta-potty, one the decorations, one is in charge of the DJ.”

They’re so good at it the committee rarely meets, relying instead on e-mail. “We start organizing it early summer and have it at the end of summer,” Pfahnl says.

The $10 charge covers rentals, beverages, and miscellaneous. Kids are free. They used to have the event catered, but that grew expensive so they turned to food trucks. Now, Pfahnl says, “People can buy as little or as much as they like.”

Two food trucks (one Asian, one American comfort food) meant no messy cleanup after the party and plenty of good food during it.

“Food trucks seem to be the way to go” for a large gathering, he says, “If it’s a smaller party, you could do a potluck.”

The committee spreads the word using Next Door, which allows neighborhoods to set up neighbors-only shared websites. They also print out flyers. All who attend sign in and wear a name tag.

Next year, Pfahnl says, they hope to have a live band, as they have done in the past. He hopes to recruit musicians who live in the neighborhood. They also might have more community building activities, like contests. And, as ever, they hope to recruit new blood for the organizing committee.

All the effort is worth it, he says.

“The kids love going out on the street all day and all night, no cars,” Pfahnl says. “It’s a special event. The kids look forward to it all year.”

So, we bet, do the grownups.

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