Monticello Road is a community arts project in Charlottesville, Virginia. Through photography and a series of public events and conversations, we explore how an art can be an essential, integral and everyday part of a healthy community.

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Saturday, April 11, 2015

Tom Tom Belmont Block Party Preview

I went deep on last year's Belmont Block Party, with a free pop-up photo booth and a three-part analysis of how the event came about, how it went and what I got out of it from a community-development perspective. This year I just plan to have fun.

The Tom Tom Festival Belmont Block Party, an all-day block party on Monticello Road, was one of the neighborhood highlights of last year. It's happening again this Sunday, April 19, 2015, and we're very excited. It starts in Downtown Belmont at 9 a.m. with a mandala touch-up. There will be music, crafts and a beer garden from noon to six. After that, a new addition, the Front Porch Concert series (Porchella) will spread music throughout the neighborhood.

I checked in with Carolyn Zelikow (Tom Tom's assistant director) about what to expect and here's what she had to say:

Monticello Road: This the second year for the Belmont Block Party. What successful elements are you repeating and what are you doing differently this year?

Carolyn: It's neighborhood run and focused, like last year. We felt like the party was distinguished by a great sense of community. We're shooting to repeat that and deepen those neighborhood ties by hosting an event called Porchella, where local residents can host acoustic concerts on their porches.

Talk if you would about the difference between a party in a neighborhood versus in a neutral site like a park. What are some of the unique challenges and rewards?

I wouldn't say a park is neutral, exactly. In both cases, you're dealing with a combination of professional administrators like the Fire Marshall and non-professional stakeholders like nearby business-owners. I think you can be a bit more creative when you're incorporating the viewpoints of more people, as is generally the case in a neighborhood, but by the same token, you have to be open to incorporating more perspectives, some of which might depart from what we, in our event experience, have seen to be successful or worth the trouble. You kind of have to cede some level of control, which is fun, but also introduces more risk and logistical complexity.

Well a park is designed for public gatherings, but a neighborhood usually sees smaller interactions and even simple everyday commerce--people going to work or getting their tire changed. I can think of ways that an event like this might change people's perceptions about the street and public space, but how does a neighborhood site, with all it's history and daily inertia, flavor the event?

That's a nuance I hadn't thought of before, but it's a great point. Belmont definitely has a very special feel, even compared to our other block parties, which are a lot of fun. Belmont is less "let's go to this destination for something to do" and instead a keener sense of ownership, "this is our neighborhood and our party." The streets them selves and surrounding businesses are much more a part of the action, as people move between different spaces.

Here's what Melissa Easter, the owner of La Taza had to say about what it meant to have the Block Party in the neighborhood – I think it sums it up better than I could:
“Sundays are usually pretty busy for us, but that particular Sunday we almost doubled our normal sales. It was our most profitable day ever... As a small coffee shop/restaurant in the middle of all these fantastic restaurants in Belmont, it helped us showcase our talents and welcoming spirit here at La Taza. It is hard to find a real community in Charlottesville, and Belmont has one. The Belmont Bash solidified it. Three months later, I still have folks coming up to me to tell me how great it was.”
Because of great citizens like you, Brian Wimer, Tomas Rahal, and others, who have championed this event as a way to inspire caring and a a sense of place among Belmont's residents. Belmont is also just a great neighborhood, close to Downtown, that has a wonderful history of being home to offbeat people and ideas, like the Graves Street Block Party.

Last year’s version of the Genius Hour was in Lee Park. Why move it to this event?

As a daytime event, this is family-friendly, which made it appropriate, and it's a little less hectic than Lee Park, which will give the students more room to shine.

Tell me more about the Porch Concert Series.

This is an event organized by Emily Morrison and Emily Pickelhaupt, who deserve tremendous credit for energetically rallying residents and musicians. Basically, as the sun sets on the Belmont Block Party, musicians will strike up on porches throughout Monticello, Graves, and Goodman. Last year, we noticed that people seemed like they were ready for more – but not necessarily something super high energy – after the Belmont Block Party. This seemed like a really unique way to wind down, while getting to know the neighborhood.

How will visitors find the porches? By design, they seem like intimate affairs. Are folks supposed to stumble on them or will they be directed somehow?

That's a great question. We recently put all of that information up online: tomtomfest.com/events/porchella/

The music starts at noon in the block party and then the porch parties run 6-9 in multiple venues. That’s a lot of music—possibly too much?

Well, Charlottesville is a town that loves music. Porchella also brings in a broader variety of genres, and is a bit more friendly to participation, aka jam sessions. A lot of it is about hanging out, visiting with friends, and enjoying the day. In my experience, you can never have too much of that.

Big picture, where do you see this part of Tom Tom going in the future? Moving? Evolving? A model for other neighborhood parties?

We hope that people see Tom Tom and realize that, while hosting a Festival is kind of an ambitious thing, hosting a block party in their own neighborhood is very doable, and can be a really awesome experience for musicians, friends, neighbors, and kids. Someone recently told me that someone was hosting a party in Belmont Park during our Belmont Block Party. McGuffey is hosting a picnic across the street during our Picnic Day. All of that adds to the culture and vitality of Charlottesville. It means civic engagement, neighborliness. We're very encouraged to see that kind of thing happening, and will always be open to partnering with events that evince those values.

Tom Tom could go in a lot of different directions. Our innovation programming continues to become more ambitious. Our art programming this year has definitely been a step up over previous years. We want to continue to support a variety of local musicians, while bringing in more exciting acts from around the country. As we said around this time last year, Tom Tom doesn't need to grow in size. With approximately 20,000 visitors, we bring plenty of people Downtown over the course of the week. We are looking to develop better and better events that continue to challenge and inspire our community to grow.

More Information on the Belmont Block Party | Coverage from 2014 | Photos

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