Leading up to the summer of 2006, a small group of friends in Eugene’s Whiteaker neighborhood had an idea that what the neighborhood needed was a big party. Well, maybe not big, according to organizers, but definitely a block party.
And so, the Whiteaker Block Party was born.
Fast-forward 13 years, and the Block Party has grown beyond anybody’s expectations.
What began as a modest neighborhood gathering centered at the intersection of Van Buren Street and 3rd Avenue has become an event that closes off multiple blocks and draws thousands of residents from all across the city.
How the Whiteaker Block Party came to be what it is today was the topic of discussion Saturday, July 20, for the fourth installment of the ongoing “Whiteaker Tales” series, held at Sam Bond’s Garage.
Hosted by Tim Lewis — a local filmmaker with a reputation as a rabble-rouser — and featuring a ragtag crew associated with the party from its beginning, the panel’s participants delved into the party’s colorful, sometimes controversial and frequently chaotic history.
According to accounts given during the event, the Block Party was originally conceived by a group of friends dubbed the Whiteaker Cocktail Society (WCS) — a loosely organized and now-defunct social club that hosted themed parties in the Whit in the mid 2000s.
Chris Gadsby, a member of WCS and organizer of the Block Party, said one of the inspirations for the party was the city’s limited options for free summer events.
“There was something we said about people in the Whiteaker at the time who couldn’t afford to go to the [Oregon Country] Fair, who couldn’t afford to go to these festivals,” he said. “And what we wanted to provide was something that was free.”
While the block party’s being free is certainly a draw for many, for many more it’s the free-flowing nature of the event that keeps them coming back every year.
Kari Johnson, a local artist and longtime resident of the Whiteaker neighborhood, says the crowd is colorful if nothing else, and is a big part of the party’s success.
“You have to be ready for kind of like wild humanity,” she says. “The Whiteaker is known for its unique people, and the freaks come out of the woodwork for the block party.”
But as much success as the party has seen, and as much enjoyment and community as it’s engendered, it’s not come without a few bumps in the road.
Panel participants told stories of stressed relationships, lost friendships and chaotic times when they weren’t certain they would be able to pull it off another year.
Nikos Ridge, CEO of Ninkasi Brewing, has supported the party from its beginning. He said that while it’s the best party Eugene has ever created, it’s also “fraught with peril every year.”
Gadsby added, “When you get a group of people like this together, you never know what’s going to happen.”
Panelists noted that, while the Block Party now has a great relationship with the city, in earlier years the city was frequently uncooperative.
Jason Vanderhaar said that in 2014, for unspecified reasons, the city nearly denied the Block Party its permit, and only delivered it the day before the event.
There was, however, wide agreement that Ninkasi’s early involvement was, and continues to be, key to the party’s success.
Ridge wouldn’t go as far as saying that Ninkasi was the adult in the room during the early years, but does say they were “the kids in the room with the most experience to make it sort of rationally legal.”
Gadsby says the Block Party has grown every year, and he expects this one to be the biggest yet. He noted that there will be more vendors, more activities and more than 30 bands this year. He didn’t mention if he thought it would be the most chaotic.
This year’s Block Party will be held Saturday, Aug. 3.
To see short videos of the Block Party’s past, including one by “Whiteaker Tales,” search “Whiteaker Block Party” on YouTube.