The town of Amherst held its annual block party from 5 to 9 p.m. last Thursday, Sept. 15. The event reportedly saw more than 6,000 attendees and featured live music, local food, acrobatic performances, and an array of stands run by town organizations.
The gathering, which was organized by the Amherst Business Improvement District (BID) in an effort to highlight local businesses and foster a sense of community, marked the return of the block party after a three-year Covid hiatus.
“Like many small towns, our businesses were hit hard [by Covid], harder than many other communities because we lost the majority of you — our awesome community of students,” said Gabrielle Gould, the executive director of the BID. “This event was a long-needed return of normalcy, support, and exploration of all that these remarkable businesses have to offer.”
Around 4 p.m., several large yellow trucks (courtesy of the Public Works Department) arrived in downtown Amherst and parked perpendicular across North Pleasant Street, blocking off traffic from the typically bustling stretch between Insomnia Cookies and Share Coffee.
Over the next hour, stands bearing the names of beloved local businesses and organizations — among them MoMo Tibetan Restaurant, The Taste Thai Cuisine, the (recently reopened) Emily Dickinson Museum, and the Jones Library — began to line the street’s sidewalks.
By the party’s official start time, a healthy crowd had already begun to pace the block, mingling with the stands’ proprietors and each other. An hour into the party, a lively throng of several hundred buzzed up and down North Pleasant.
The attendees represented a variety of backgrounds — an eclectic mix of longtime town residents, students from UMass Amherst and the college, and even some people from the broader Western Massachusetts community.
The elderly mixed with the young, the longtimers with the new-in-town, and — as one attendee noted — there was a positively gratifying number of dogs, ranging from backpack-sized shih tzus to one shaggy black beast almost as big as its owner, who attendees could lovingly pet (with permission) or even just gawk at.
For many whom The Student spoke to, the sense of community fostered by the event was key to its success. “I feel like Amherst College students are often not exposed to the general community, and we kind of live in our little bubble,” said Gillian Richard ’24. “So it’s great to have an opportunity to connect with the whole community and see people from all walks of life.”
Gigi Barnhill, a town resident who was representing the Amherst Historical Society at the block party, echoed this sentiment, noting that the event was a great way to bring all different kinds of people together.
For the Amherst men’s basketball team, a desire to build community was also the primary reason for attending the block party together, according to Head Coach Marlon Sears. “Community events like this allow our players to interact with the community in which they are a part of and also allows the community to see the players in a different light than just on the court,” he said. “It serves as almost a cross-cultural type of experience.”
Players shot around with a group of local kids on a hoop across the street from Share, cracking jokes and laughing loudly. “There were a ton of kids that were super enthusiastic,” said team member Ryker Vance ’25. “They just love to be in the moment.”
The block party also proved a valuable venue for political organizing. Felicia Mednick, a town resident attending the party for the first time, was petitioning on behalf of Mothers Out Front, a climate-activism group.
Although not everyone signed the petition, Mednick said that her experience had been overwhelmingly positive. “I just like the friendliness of everybody,” she said. “Nobody has ignored me.”
A neighboring stand, Bartlett Tree Experts, a small business that helps people maintain their trees and shrubs, was handing out saplings, free of charge. Many attendees lugged their prized sprouts, packed in cloth bags, back up the North Pleasant hill.
In addition to the array of local food options, small businesses, and other organizations, the block party featured several different sources of live entertainment.
Performers from Show Circus Studio, an Easthampton circus-training studio, were scattered throughout the block. A line of (somewhat nervous-looking) children waited to greet an exuberant clown. A series of acrobatic artists swung gracefully through the air, suspended by silk ribbons sutured to a system of metal rigging. Towering overhead, a team of stilt-walkers, clad in bright colors, paced North Pleasant, stopping every few steps to pose for photos.
Even isolated up above, the stilt-walkers were enjoying the block party. “This is such an amazing community event, especially with all the students coming back into town to welcome everybody and have a great party,” said one of the stilt-walkers, dressed in a garish green get-up. She added that it wasn’t too hard to walk on the hill — she had had lots of practice.
For much of the duration of the event, live music from the constructed stage, just off the Main Street intersection, provided a pleasant backing to the block’s goings-on.
From 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., Latin Grammy Award-winning artist Mister G (aka Ben Gundersheimer ’89) serenaded a crowd of cheering elementary schoolers with his hits, including fan-favorite “Chocolalala.”
“I think we need some Amherst flair, más fuerte!” wailed G at one point.
Against the backdrop of a setting sun, from 7 to 8:30 p.m., the Baltimore-based Soul Magnets took the stage, charming an older audience with a mix of neo-soul and funk.
With darkness descending, the once boisterous crowd began to die down. Eventually, the stand managers packed up their wares, and the block party officially came to a close as cars began to flow back onto North Pleasant street.
Gould pronounced this year’s block party a success, noting it was the most-attended yet. “We hope it was one of the best — but we also know that there was so much excitement for the return that the attendees really brought it and made it special,” she added.