The Silver Room Sound System Block Party is coming to an end following a final edition at Oakwood Beach on July 29 and 30, its organizers say.
Founded in 2002 by local entrepreneur Eric Williams as a grassroots alternative to Chicago’s slate of summer street festivals, the event has gone through many changes through the years — and a few near-demises.
Before its purported final bow, WBEZ contributor Zach Long looked back at the event’s history through conversations with Williams and his collaborators. This recollection in photos and quotes, which have been edited and condensed for publication, traces the evolution of a summertime tradition and details the unique-to-Chicago growing pains that accompanied its success.
2002: Organizers throw the first party in a Wicker Park alley near the Silver Room, a shop founded by Williams that is known for jewelry, apparel and events.
Block Party founder Eric Williams: I was on the board of the [Wicker Park Bucktown] Chamber of Commerce, which organizes Wicker Park Fest. And being that I’m a DJ, I’ve been around music my entire life, most of my friends are artists, visual artists, dancers — you name it. Chicago has this very rich, dynamic, diverse music, and at all the North Side festivals, you didn’t see anybody of color. I’d asked a couple times for these other festivals to include us, and they just said no. So I said, well, I won’t keep begging. I’ll start my own thing.
Rebecca McQuillen, entrepreneur and former Block Party volunteer: Me, Eric, and Ron [Trent] threw parties upstairs at Square One, [a restaurant in Wicker Park]. It was no alcohol, no drugs, just music. During that time, we would get shut down by the police because they couldn’t believe that there was no alcohol. I think that’s probably why Eric started the Block Party.Williams: The idea was that we would bring together different parts of the city with different music. The first two block parties were actually in an alley at 1410 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Ron Trent, producer, DJ, and Block Party organizer: We saw the value in putting some energy behind local artists that we thought were talented. We said house music was the focus, but house music is really an amalgamation of different types of music — and we wanted to showcase all of them.
Ken Pickett, Block Party director of operations: Eric ran an old-school orange extension cord from his apartment down to the street to power the first Block Party.
Williams: I probably spent $500 [on the first Block Party]. I went and got two 25-foot orange extension cords from Home Depot. I bought some cardboard because my friends wanted to breakdance in the alley. Me and Ron Trent owned the sound system. The stage was made out of some cinder blocks and some plywood.
2005: The Silver Room moves to 1442 N. Milwaukee Ave. The Block Party eventually sets up a stage on a section of Evergreen Avenue nearby.
Williams: I was inspired by this festival when I was in Frankfurt, Germany, called the Museum Embankment Festival. Each museum would host different food vendors and music in front of their museum. It was free, it was open all night long, and it was, like, everything.
Corey Wilkes, Chicago jazz musician and Block Party performer: Everybody felt free to be themselves. Some cats might wear baggy pants and perform straight hip-hop, as opposed to somebody who [plays] Afro-punk. It’s not a different crowd, it’s one crowd.
Williams: I think people loved [the Block Party] because that’s what Wicker Park used to be in the ‘90s and the ‘80s. It was a melting pot. And as [the neighborhood] was losing that, the Block Party was the one thing that kind of brought that back together.
2014: Wicker Park real estate values have soared, while the Silver Room Block Party welcomes its largest crowd to date.
Williams: At the first Silver Room at 1410 N. Milwaukee Ave., my rent was $800 a month [in 1997]. Then it eventually went from $800 to $4,000. [By 2014] I’m going to $8,000 a month. So I was like, it’s time to go.
Pickett: [Former Wicker Park] Alderman Joe Moreno told me specifically in 2014 when we hit 8,000 people, ‘Ken, you guys are way too big to be a block party now.’
2016: After moving his storefront to 1506 E. 53rd St. in 2015, Williams revives the Block Party in Hyde Park.
Williams: My first thought [after the Silver Room moved to Hyde Park] was, I’m not gonna do this Block Party anymore. I had just been losing money. It was so much work. I was trying to get settled into the neighborhood and to get acclimated as a retailer. But the entire year, people kept asking: “Are you doing the Block Party?”
McQuillen: There’s such a desperate need for things like this, for block parties, for festivals. If you think about the South Side, how many street festivals are there? But if you’re up north, there’s a festival every weekend.
Williams: Someone from the University of Chicago called and said, “We keep hearing about this Block Party, are you going to do it?” They said if you do it, we’ll help you out a little bit financially. I never had anybody come to me with a little bit of money. So University of Chicago was actually one of our first sponsors.
Pickett: It was important to make the transition to Hyde Park because it’s an epicenter in Chicago for our Black intellectuals, professionals, politicians, and so forth. We had a strong base in Hyde Park that we could tap into.
Trent: I grew up on the South Side and I was in Hyde Park back in the ‘70s when there was nothing. I grew up walking on the street where Eric was throwing his party. It was a beautiful evolution.
Williams: When we came to Hyde Park, I would guess it was 15,000 people the first year, and then it went to 20,000 in 2017.
2019: The Block Party draws more than 40,000 people in one day.
Williams: The last year in Hyde Park, I had no fun. I’m not gonna lie. It was so much work. It was so many people. And that day was the hottest day of the year. And things weren’t working, and I’m running from stage to stage. And then I’m trying to collect donations, and people are pouring through the gates and no one’s donating.
Pickett: It takes three components for a successful festival: It takes sponsorship from corporations and companies. It takes residents to go and donate or buy tickets. And it takes participation and support from vendors and local businesses.
Williams: I think I lost probably $30,000 or $40,000 the first year we did it [in Hyde Park]. And then it just got worse, like every year it got worse.
Pickett: People were not supporting [the Block Party] enthusiastically as far as donations go. And that also includes local businesses — I’ve had business owners literally tell me that they make 5 or 10 times more in one day during [the Block Party]. I won’t say that it’s malicious, right? They might be thinking, ‘The people are coming, so why should I donate?’
Williams: When the pandemic hit, honestly, it was a sigh of relief. We took the first year off. I was like, you know what? I think we had a good run. I was kind of done with [the Block Party].
2022: Williams relaunches the Block Party as a ticketed, two-day festival at Oakwood Beach.
Williams: Just like when I moved down to Hyde Park, [in 2015] all these people kept asking “Hey man, what about the Block Party?” And so I was kind of like, well, I can’t do it in Hyde Park anymore. You can only charge admission in private locations in the City of Chicago, which is the Park District. My friends had done Mamby on the Beach at Oakwood Beach, so that’s where we moved.
Trent: I told Eric years ago that we needed to start charging. Eric wanted to keep doing it in a certain way, he didn’t want liquor involved — I understood the ethics behind it. But you need to put some value on [the event] so that people understand that this is a service to them and their community.
Williams: People say, ‘Man, it used to be free.’ I’m like, ‘It was never free for me. It was free for you.’ We had sponsors here and there and some vendor fees, but you pretty much had one guy paying for a party for 20 to 30,000 people. That’s not sustainable. I spent so much energy explaining to people about the cost of generators, the cost of security, the cost of performances, the cost of permits and insurance. The average person has no idea how expensive it is.
Pickett: Money has never been our main goal. It’s all about creating something that’s an alternative to the other festivals that are out there. That’s why we’ve always been all-inclusive. There’s no VIP, there’s no separation of people. We want everybody to come out and have fun, together.
Williams: [The Block Party] was never meant to be a festival and that’s kind of what it became. My friend said to me, “You know, you’re doing festival infrastructure with block party money, right?”
2023: Williams announces that this year’s Block Party at Oakwood Beach will be the final installment.
Williams: So I’m in the shower a few months ago and I’m thinking ‘Why am I doing this [Block Party], man?’ I don’t have to do this anymore. This is way too much work. And also, I think that to make money, I have to fundamentally change the essence of what this event is. Let me just lay this to bed. We had a good run.
McQuillen: I don’t know if there’s space for the Silver Room Block Party in Chicago anymore. It’s just a different culture now. It’s harder for small events like that to happen.
Williams: I have a 14-year-old daughter and she’s going to high school next year. She’s like, ‘Dad, your phone’s always ringing.’ A lot of times it was about this Block Party stuff. I have three businesses and the one I spend the most time on is the one that only lasts for two days.
Trent: I’m not looking at [this Block Party] as the last; it’s just the last of this era. And then whatever happens after that, we’ll see.
Zach Long is a freelance writer based in Chicago. He writes about local music and pop culture in his Attenuator newsletter.