College-Sponsored Block Party Takes over North Pleasant

The Downtown Amherst Block Party returned for its tenth anniversary, this time with the college as a major sponsor. The Student spoke with the organizers, vendors, and attendees who made this year's party the best-attended yet.

College-Sponsored Block Party Takes over North Pleasant
The party’s main goal is to introduce people to Amherst’s small businesses, but it also featured musicians and other performers — like the yo-yo artist pictured above. Photo courtesy of Lauren Kelz ’27.

The 10th Annual Downtown Amherst Block Party brought together 8,000 area residents and over 200 performers, creators, and vendors for a night of lively community-building. The event was organized by the Business Improvement District (BID) and was co-sponsored by the college and the Amherst Cultural Council (ACC).

The event, which took place on the evening of Thursday, Sept. 21, on a closed-off stretch of North Pleasant Street, was the biggest block party yet, according to Executive Director of the BID Gabrielle Gould.

“The main goal [of the block party] is to introduce people to our downtown,” Gould said, “to get them to fall in love with the small businesses that we love so much.”

The college contributed $5,000 to the event, representing a sixth of the total cost, which Gould said allowed her to “go bigger.”

It was the first time that the college had sponsored the event beyond the fees it pays as a member of the BID.

The college also doubled its presence at the party from last year, said Sarah Barr, advisor to the provost on-campus initiatives and director of community engagement. Both she and Gould noted that this year’s block party symbolizes the “revitalized” town-gown partnership, in Gould’s words.

By 7 p.m. — halfway through the four-hour event — the street was bustling with families and children of all ages, business owners, and students from both the college and UMass Amherst.

“The block party this year was a lot more lively and the vibes were really good,” Mandi Bailey ’24, an Amherst local, told The Student. “Everyone looked like they were having a lot of fun.”

Last year’s block party saw an estimated 6,000 attendees and was the first since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Photo courtesy of Lauren Kelz ’27.

Party Festivities

This was the second block party that Gould had planned. She emphasized that, when putting together these kinds of events, it’s important that all community members — regardless of their financial means — can participate in the festivities.

“Of course, the main goal is … to introduce people to our small businesses,” Gould said. “But it’s also about throwing events that have absolutely no economic need: You do not need to pay to be there, and there are things you can experience without having to shell out money.”

In addition to an aerial artist, stilt-walkers, and a juggler, the party had a main stage that hosted three local bands. A second showcase stage at the north end was funded by the ACC and featured six recipients of ACC’s state arts lottery grants.

Loud salsa music and lively dancing on the sidewalk, a contribution from Salsa con Tacos, greeted party goers. Other organizations offered free giveaways, raffle tickets, and prize wheels. In under three hours, Amherst Cinema gave away free movie tickets to 100 lucky community members.

Lines of people thronged the storefronts and tents of local eateries, including community favorites like The Taste Thai Cuisine and Panda East as well as several restaurants that have just recently opened their doors.

Panda East’s manager, Amy Chen, has tabled at the party since it first began in 2013. She testified to the event’s power to attract business as she scooped chicken and broccoli (the night’s most popular dish) onto a customer’s plate.

But new arrivals benefitted just as much from the increased traffic. Kwench Juice Cafe opened their shop just after last year’s block party and was appreciative of the opportunity to grow their customer base. Amherst Burger Company, new to the town this summer, was too packed the night of the party for The Student to get a comment about how business has been.

White Lion Brewery is the most recent addition to North Pleasant, having opened its doors just a week prior to the party. By dusk, the bar was fully seated and the patio packed.

White Lion, co-owned by NBA star and UMass alum Marcus Camby and Berry, has its main location in Springfield. Berry was attracted to downtown Amherst for its economic vitality and diversity, which was on full display Thursday night.

The vacancy rate in downtown Amherst is currently 3 percent, said Gould, who added, “I don’t think there’s a main street in America that could beat that number.”

As White Lion was having its first big opportunity to find a place in the community, local organizations and government offices tabled to increase civic engagement and solidarity among residents.

The Amherst Transportation Advisory Committee, for example, handed out fliers and free bike lights for the Massachusetts “Safe Routes to School” program and collected signups for an international walk/bike/roll to school day on Oct. 4.

The Amherst Survival Center — a local hub for free groceries, hot meals, and social services — also had a booth with pamphlets for both users and volunteers. Development Manager Kelley Jewell said they’d seen a lot of interest on the night of the party, support which is integral to their operation.

Other booths catered directly to a less politically-minded population: cotton candy from Sei Bella Salon, face painting, and balloon animals — the coveted find, according to Letty, 7.

Sofia, 6, appreciated this year’s block party more than last’s: “Cause I’m older and I understand more things,” she said, like the aerial artist performing in front of her as she spoke with The Student.

Kids were also drawn toward tables from the college’s Mead Art Museum and Beneski Natural History Museum. Along with a general college tent, the Mead, the Beneski, and music and athletics departments were lined up in a row near the north end of the fair (which tablers nicknamed “Mammoth Way”).

“Museums are all about connecting people through art experiences, and so this is just a way to break the bubble of Amherst College and get out here and see more people,” said Emily A. Potter-Ndiaye, head of education and curator of academic programs at the Mead. The Mead offered a painting activity on mini-canvases inspired by landscapes from the museum’s new exhibit, “Boundless.”

One table over, the Beneski showed off their collection of dinosaur figurines (and a singular saber-toothed tiger) all donated by the museum’s young visitors.

“It’s amazing how many people here have no idea that the Mead and the Beneski are free,” Gould said. “And It’s really important that art, culture, and history … are accessible [to the community].”

The college was represented by the Mead Art Museum, Beneski Museum of Natural History, and the music and athletics departments. Photo courtesy of Lauren Kelz ’27.

Town-gown Relations

Speaking of the sponsorship, Gould reiterated the significance of the college’s increased engagement in the event.

She said this marked a change from before the pandemic. Although she only moved to the area in 2019, Gould noted that the college previously had a reputation among some in the town for being unwelcoming to visitors and removed from town issues.

Barr, who has worked at Amherst for 15 years, concurred. “When I first started, I encountered people who really thought Amherst College was still the men’s-only institution of the 1970s,” Barr said. “Back in the day, it was very much ‘the college on the hill.’”

Since then, Barr says the college has worked to increase the visibility and accessibility of its resources among town residents. This includes increasing campus signage, off-campus publicity efforts, and making their presence felt at events like the Block Party or the upcoming A Better Chance Amherst 5k, which the college is also sponsoring.

“I really want to have this framework of ‘Amherst for Amherst,’” Barr said, which encourages “fluid movement” between the town and campus.

Chris Tun ’25, for one, appreciated the sense of togetherness. “It’s great to spend a night out on the town, the liveliness of it all,” he said. “It makes me remember that I’m a part of a wonderful community.”

Students also heavily patronized the businesses that were tabling, including Annika Ridky ’25, who The Student spoke with as she was digging into a plate of Panda East.

In addition to getting students downtown, Barr has been working for the past year to increase the college’s direct financial investments in the town, a process that she described as “a lot slower-going” than she expected.

“We’re in conversation with the town about contributions for fire and ambulance and for public schools,” Barr said. “Part of it is trying to figure out what projects are out there that we can get involved with … and not just for the money, like Amherst proffers a check, but really sort of thinking about what we can do together.”

Gould told The Student that the town has several “multi-million dollar projects” in the works, and while the college has not yet committed to funding, Gould appreciates Amherst’s openness.

“We’re excited to be in discussions with the college on it,” Gould said, “knowing that there is a partner that is interested that I can go pitch ideas to.”

Barr has been working to expand the college’s financial investments in the town. Photo courtesy of Lauren Kelz ’27.

Dancing the Night Away

As the night wound down, the main stage was still lively with the upbeat, brassy sounds of TapRoots, a Latin Funk Fusion group composed of over 10 musicians including horns, a rhythm section, and singers.

A crowd of all ages gathered in front of the stage, glowing with blue and green lights on the now-dark street, and danced to the “music for the mind, body, and spirit,” in the words of TapRoots founder Matthew King.

“I am having a delightful time,” first-time block party-goer Robert said as he danced in the street. Robert, who’s in his 70s, was tapping into a practice he calls “ecstasy dancing.” This was all he said before two enthusiastic UMass students approached him to chat. They loved his shimmy, and it wasn’t long before Robert and his new friends started a group dance party as TapRoots played into the night.