Party time | September 27, 2019 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - September 27, 2019

Party time

Professorville puts on annual block party that is building community in novel ways

by Sue Dremann

In the dappled sunlight of a warm afternoon, 26 Professorville residents gathered in the street in a wide circle to squat and lunge. Creaky knees and stiff lower backs got a gentle workout as participants stretched one leg forward or lowered themselves toward the ground.

Isaac Morse, fitness coach/owner at ACRO Vitality, was leading the lesson in the middle of the 500-block of Kellogg Avenue between Webster and Tasso streets.

"These moves are the canary in the coal mine," he said, regarding whether people will retain agility as they age or end up in a wheelchair or be unable to rise on their own.

It's the second year Morse has come to the Professorville East block party, a gathering that has taken place for at least seven years.

Doughnut limbo. Blind wine tasting. Fajitas. Neighbors old and young, newcomers and decades-long fixtures came out on Sept. 22. Sipping wine and margaritas to live jazz by Gypsy jazz band Farouche, they reveled in the annual ritual. They held new babies, regaled each other with tales of travel, and introduced themselves to those they had not met before.

Young children jumped happily in the inflatable bouncy house; middle-schoolers tried snagging bites of sugary doughnuts dangling from strings in a limbo game.

For one afternoon, the months of rushing kids to soccer matches, hustling off to work and dashing outside to put out the trash all melted away. People stopped to pet dogs, share food, beverage and homemade desserts and take time to make the time-old human connections comprising the lifeblood of any neighborhood.

Melanie Mahtani, who spearheaded the event with her spouse, Lisa Kenkel, welcomed the neighbors and handed out name tags. People added their names to the addresses on a neighborhood map.

"It's really about bringing people together," Mahtani said.

Kenkel agreed.

"Because of this event, we know people on every block," she said.

Putting together the Professorville block party is a lesson in community-building in itself. Each year up to 20 residents start in the spring to plan the autumn fete. The group planning adds to the number of neighborhood meet-ups residents make during the year, Kenkel said.

"It's an excuse to get together and chat and catch up."

Once-sporadic block parties became an annual event after Kenkel and Mahtani took Community Emergency Response Training (CERT) classes. They realized it is crucial to know one's neighbors, Kenkel said. The block party offers an opportunity to "get a temperature" on the neighborhood — to know the animals, children, who lives in a particular house and which neighbors are going to need assistance, Kenkel said.

"It's certainly much more enjoyable to go through the neighborhood and not just glance at houses. You think of who is in those homes. You are much more apt to engage when you see people," she said.

Claire Lauing presided over a giant paella cooker, grilling chicken fajitas. Each year, Lauing has cooked paella to share with all, but this time around she said she decided to switch to fajitas, a tasty and colorful melange of spicy poultry and vegetables spooned into flour tortillas.

Jack Halliday, a 44-year resident, sat at a picnic table enjoying one of the filled, rolled-up tortillas. He's watched generations grow up here and he has no desire to leave.

"People say, 'You're retired. Don't you want to go to a retirement community?' I say, 'No. I like to see kids," he said.

The neighborhood has changed some over the years, with a new and vibrant diversity. A number of new immigrants now inhabit the neighborhood, adding to the colorful mix of cultures and life experiences. "That's what makes the neighborhood," Halliday said.

Farther toward Tasso Street, the wine-tasting table was a central hub of activity. Mike Schonenberg poured 10 samples of various wines — reds and whites — into plastic cups. Each bottle was cloaked in brown paper. Participants tasted two samples each of five varietals, trying to judge which was the costlier wine.

Schonenberg and his wife, Tracy Neistadt, have lived in this neighborhood for 12 years.

"I love the neighborhood. I'm able to walk to downtown Palo Alto and I can go to Stanford football games," she said. "When I see the kids riding bikes to school, it warms my heart and I feel a sense of community."

Veronica Dao, who scored the wine-tasting contest, grew up in Professorville. When she attended Palo Alto High School, it was easy to make friends, she said. She moved back to live with her parents after attending college.

"I've always enjoyed living here. I'm close with my neighbors," she said.

Dao works for the city of Palo Alto planning department in administration. Her job has taught her that Professorville is a special place.

"I get many calls from other people complaining about their neighborhoods, and that's a very different experience than for me," she said.

Mahtani said she's building on that sense of community. But she hopes to reach the other members of her neighborhood; the ones who don't show up to the block party and have a harder time getting to know each other, she said.

"I wonder how to draw them out. I'm grateful that every year more and more people attend. Even if it's only for one day, it takes a lot of personal trust and engagement to say 'This is my community,'" she said.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

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