At one time, before the days of dual-employment households, streaming television, and social media, whipping up a batch of cookies, a cake, or a pie to welcome a new neighbor or walking over to the neighborhood block party was customary. Block parties began in the United States during World War I in New York City. Neighbors would block off a street and hold a parade to honor the soldiers who lived on that block.
This atmosphere of friendliness may have faded away in some quarters, but it still exists in Columbia’s Kilbourne Park neighborhood. It is a place where everyone speaks as they pass on the street when out for an afternoon stroll, where neighbors look out for one another, and where a helping hand is always nearby. The inhabitants of the streets loosely bound by Kilbourne Road, Beltline Boulevard, Trenholm Road, and Brennen Road enjoy the company of their neighbors daily. However, the block parties really bring out the fun.
Trish Jerman recalls how the Kilbourne Park Neighborhood Association began in 2004. “We’d had a lot of water main breaks, seven in four years,” she says. “A lot of families on Pinemont wanted to band together and get something done.” When the problem was finally resolved, the neighbors held a block party to celebrate. Thus began a lovely tradition of inclusion and celebration of different seasons of the year. Trish remembers early make-your-own ice cream sundae socials. “They were very messy,” she says with a laugh.
Today, new neighbors are greeted with a small bag of neighborhood-inspired goodies, including a car sticker, a mug, and an invitation to upcoming events. “My favorite thing about this neighborhood is the friendliness and camaraderie,” says Trish. “In some neighborhoods, people keep to themselves but not here. Everyone wants to be nice and talk to everyone else.
Trish publicizes KPNA events through email communication. “She is great about keeping people up to date and sending occasionally humorous messages,” says Mandy Wren, KPNA president.
Trish admits her emails have a playful style. “I figure if I need to deliver information, maybe people will pay attention if I’m a little goofy,” she says. Emails are also an expedient way to find a lost dog or cat or to re-home surplus household items.
The annual Memorial Day Block Party celebration is a neighborhood favorite. “It’s a really nice way to kick off the summer,” says Mandy. This patriotic gathering focuses on food and fellowship. “Our neighbor, Billy Mote, who owns Mote Backyard Catering, makes amazing barbecue, and he cooks a whole pig. Everyone brings sides and drinks, as well as chairs and blankets. We also invite the Columbia Fire Department to send a truck for the kids to see,” she says. Adults socialize and enjoy delicious food while children explore the big ladder fire trucks and talk with the firefighters. The firefighters benefit, too. “We like to give the firefighters a plate in appreciation for all they do,” says Mandy.
The National Night Out Ice Cream Social provides another fun KPNA gathering. Held on the first Tuesday in August, National Night Out is an annual community-building campaign to promote police-community partnerships and neighborhood camaraderie. Here again, the neighborhood benefits from one of their own. Vickie and Spears Westbrook own the Baskin-Robbins franchise on Forest Drive. The neighborhood commissions mobile ice cream carts to dispense sweet, creamy treats to neighborhood children of all ages. This event is doubly enjoyable for the kids, who are encouraged to bring their water guns and dress in water-friendly clothing. Even grown kids get in on the water fun; one brings his Super Soaker to the water fight, much to the delight of the little ones. Like the Memorial Day event, this block party celebrates the neighborhood’s relationship with those in public service.
Officer Nicholas Gunter from the Columbia Police Department is assigned to the Kilbourne Park neighborhood area and is a valued member of the community. Officer Gunter drives through the neighborhood regularly, always on alert for anything amiss. “A couple of years ago, we were having our front doors painted, so I had them open,” Mandy says. “Officer Gunter stopped to make sure that everything was okay because he knew it would be unusual for us to have our doors open like that. He communicates regularly with our KPNA Safety Liaison and often offers tips shared in neighborhood emails.” Officer Gunter attends neighborhood gatherings as his schedule allows, as well as association meetings to discuss safety measures and the like.
A few months after the ice cream social comes the annual Halloween block party. Naturally, this is a very popular evening for KPNA residents. “We block off a section of Pinemont Drive,” says Mandy. “We have potluck dinner, with pizza for the kids to eat before going out to trick-or-treat. The kids dress up, as do dogs, and some of the adults, too!” Once the kids are fed, and the annual Halloween group photo is taken, they scatter to fill their bags with sweet loot. It is fun for everyone in the neighborhood, regardless of whether or not they have children and regardless of their age. Trish recalls one year when resident and celebrated South Carolinian abstract artist Laura Spong, who passed away in August 2018, came in costume. “There she was at 89 years old with a big carrot nose stuck to her face,” says Trish. “Anytime you have that mix of generations, it’s a lovely thing.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected KPNA block parties this year, with the need to socially distance hampering traditional plans. However, many positives have occurred as well. “We’ve done a couple of smaller things,” says Mandy. “We had an ice cream truck come, and neighbors stopped by to get an afternoon treat. Then, we had a mobile coffee bar set up another weekday morning.” What both Mandy and Trish have noticed is more people out walking and meeting one another. “They’re out walking their dogs and visiting in the street. Lots of people are getting puppies,” says Trish.
Mandy agrees. She’s noticed that with so many people working from home, neighbors are making connections to those they rarely got to see before and are forming tighter bonds. “We’re especially getting to know everyone’s dogs,” says Mandy. “Even when we don’t know people’s names, we know the names of their dogs.”
One special blessing came to a resident of the Kilbourne Park neighborhood thanks to COVID-19-required telework. In 2019 near her 13th birthday, Kilbourne Park neighborhood resident Eliza Kull was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer. The neighborhood rallied around Eliza and her family as she endured nine grueling months of treatment and surgery. Her physical therapists recommended water exercises to aid in Eliza’s rehabilitation.
Word of this need spread through the neighborhood during outdoor chats, eventually reaching the ears of Mimi Diep and Lee Gronkiewicz. Mimi and Lee normally spend long hours in the office. However, both had been teleworking because of COVID-19, allowing them more time to be out in the community while on breaks or when their workday was done. When they heard about Eliza’s situation, they offered her the use of their pool for her exercises. In March of this year, Eliza’s treatment was complete. Neighbors, friends, and fellow church members formed a drive-by parade of more than 100 cars, trucks, and even a tractor, beeping horns and sporting balloons, posters, and other signs of love to celebrate the good news as Eliza waved to them from outside her home.
Some KPNA block parties are smaller and take the form of community service. Armed with a small grant from the city, KPNA completed a beautification project along Claremont Drive between Beltline Boulevard and Trenholm Road. “We purchased flowers and plants and had a Saturday morning when different neighbors came ready to work with their gardening tools and gloves,” says Mandy.
The neighborhood also sports a Little Free Library, an idea sparked by former KPNA co-president Ami Leventis. The library, located on Sequoia Road, dedicates the top shelf to adult books and the bottom shelf to children’s books. Committee members go through the library from time to time, making updates and making sure everything is neat. The library includes a little notebook where neighbors can jot book critiques and recommendations. Also, Elizabeth Wolfe and Chris Daves, along with their 2-year-old son, Rhett, had an ongoing Harvest Hope donation box at their house this past summer. Plastic grocery bags were also collected by another neighbor for a local church to use in its meal delivery.
A year of festivities ends with the KPNA Street Tree Pick-Up Party. Each year, Kilbourne Park neighbors band together and purchase 5-foot tall Christmas trees. The trees are placed near the street and decorated with white lights that shine through the holiday season and into the New Year. “Last year we purchased just under 100 trees,” says Mandy. When the trees arrive, neighbors gather to drink hot cocoa, eat cookies, and pick up their tree. A group of neighbors helps deliver trees by truck or golf cart to houses and sets them up for older neighbors or others who need assistance. After years of experience, they come armed with post hole diggers and pre-cut lengths of PVC pipe to serve as tree stands. “I think it’s a wonderful tradition and so beautiful to see them all lit up,” Mandy says.
Back in 2004, when the KPNA was newly formed, those neighborhood association pioneers could never have predicted the wide reaching and positive effects of their efforts. The feeling of friendship and belonging that arises from KPNA social events encourages stability. “It’s a great neighborhood. People consider moving but just really love the neighbors and the community feeling that Kilbourne Park has, so they decide to stay,” says Trish. “Some have made significant additions to their homes because they don’t want to move away.” KPNA block parties are so much more than occasional social events. Large or small, they foster friendships, helping hands, and a close-knit community.