My wife and I closed on our house a few years back in early August. It wasn’t a big move – about four miles across town – but we didn’t know much about our new neighborhood and certainly didn’t know anyone who lived there.
That changed quickly. Less than a week after we closed, what seemed like the entire neighborhood turned out for a lively evening block party featuring two blocked streets, three grills, and an impressively jury-rigged outdoor stereo system. That evening was our introduction to two things we’ve come to love: our neighborhood, and National Night Out™.
National Night Out™ (NNO) is a trademark of National Association of Town Watch (NATW). Every NNO is run by a host family or group. When our neighborhood’s usual host moved away, we stepped up and have been hosting ever since.
Here’s a closer look at what National Night Out™ is, how it works, and things to consider if you’re interested in hosting one in your neck of the woods.
NATW founder and executive director Matt Peskin, a Philadelphia-area neighborhood watch veteran, launched NNO in 1984. He told Voice of America that, amid rising property and violent crime, people in the early and mid-1980s tended to “lock themselves behind closed doors, instead of finding ways to deter crime under a unified community.”
Initially, the goal of NNO was simply to get neighbors out of their homes and onto their porches where they could see and converse with one another. It soon gave rise to a network of sanctioned block parties and community gatherings, and the rest is history.
The first annual NNO covered about 400 communities in 23 states. According to NATW, roughly 2.5 million neighbors participated, though it’s unclear whether this is the total population of the communities involved or total attendance at all first-year events.
NNO’s impressive debut wouldn’t have been possible without NATW’s organizational capacity. Three years after its founding, its network already included hundreds of law enforcement agencies, neighborhood watch groups, crime prevention associations, civic organizations, and allied volunteers.
National Night Out™ is far larger today. In 2019, at least 40 million people lived in about 16,000 participating communities, including multiple military bases. They were in all 50 states – even tiny Wyoming had multiple NNO communities.
Most NNO events take place on the first Tuesday in August. Texas celebrates NNO in October, perhaps on account of its unforgiving summer climate.
NNO arose out of volunteer-led crime reduction efforts, and crime remains a big focus of the evening. Many NNO gatherings feature on-duty police officers in some capacity. Ours typically includes a casual, 15-minute visit from a single squad car, but some include formal safety demonstrations.
In smaller towns and gated communities, a single NNO event might suffice for the entire community. In urban areas, many NNOs are modest. Ours is one of dozens in town and draws from an area of perhaps five square blocks. In addition to localized events, some larger cities have centralized celebrations. Here in Minneapolis, the downtown NNO has long featured live performers at a riverfront bandstand.
Controversy & Rebranding
NATW’s nearly four-decade existence has not been without controversy. Peskin came under scrutiny in the mid-2000s for his inordinately generous compensation package – he earned $255,000 in 2005, plus $42,000 in benefits, according to the Arizona Daily Star. That year, Peskin’s pay accounted for about one-third of the organization’s total budget, nearly $300,000 of which came from a single Department of Justice grant. And the unusual composition of NATW’s board – at the time, the five-person board was staffed by Peskin, his brother, and three family friends – raised eyebrows.
The controversy was too much for some NNO organizers. The late 2000s saw a spate of localized rebrandings. In Minnesota, for instance, some former NNO events reemerged as National Night to Unite.
Still, NNO and the movement it spawned continue to grow. Whatever impropriety existed at the top of the organization hasn’t trickled down to local boosters, who operate without any real direction from Peskin himself. Plus, if you’re uncomfortable with offering indirect support for a nonprofit that vests so much value in one man, you can always host a non-NNO block party whenever you choose.
Cost of Hosting an NNO Event in Your Neighborhood
National Night Out™ hosts must spend some money out of pocket. How much, and the extent to which you’re reimbursed, depends on what you plan.
We’ll explore some ideas to reduce your NNO hosting costs in the following section. For now, let’s consider the expenses you can expect to incur.
1. Food & Cooking Supplies
Food-wise, your NNO celebration can be as basic or as elaborate as you wish. The culinary highlight of our NNO is always an assortment of grilled meats and veggie options, plus potluck sides such as potato salad, chips, and bean dip. Your NNO might feature a wider variety of food options that reflect your community’s diverse cultures.
In any case, you’ll need cooking fuel as well. Our three-grill NNO needs two large bags of charcoal briquettes for about $20 total. If you’re using gas grills, you’ll need propane, which runs anywhere from $20 to $50 per refill for one grill, depending on where you live and where you refill. If your spread consists of trays of pre-made hot foods, you’ll need Sterno containers, which are about $2 per 8-ounce container.
We generally buy twice as many hot dogs and bratwursts combined than expected attendance. Pricing varies by brand and store. No matter where you live, you can probably take advantage of deals on staples like hot dogs and buns from discounters like Walmart. Multiply the number of guests you expect by the average item volume you think each person will consume – for instance, 1.5 hot dogs and buns – to determine how much to buy.
You’ll also need plates, cups, and possibly utensils. Asking neighbors to bring their own is the most eco-friendly approach, but pragmatic considerations might compel disposable dinnerware. Before you buy, look for biodegradable alternatives, which are increasingly cost-competitive.
If you’re trying to keep your event family-friendly, consider providing only water and soft drinks and making it clear to attendees that they can bring their own alcoholic beverages if they wish.
We typically buy enough bottled water and flavored seltzer water to allow every attendee one of each. Generic bottled water is dirt cheap – you can find 36- to 40-bottle packs for $4 or $5 at your local superstore. Sparkling or seltzer water is a bit more expensive but still fairly affordable. If you or someone you know has a warehouse store membership, this would be a good time to take advantage of it.
Entertainment for you NNO doesn’t need to be fancy. Sufficiently loud outdoor speakers and some age-appropriate diversions for kids should be adequate, and among all your attendees, you can likely scrounge up a high-end speaker, balls, and lawn games. If you need help, expect to pay $50 to $100 for a serviceable Wi-Fi-enabled outdoor speaker.
4. Outdoor Comfort
The promise of reasonably comfortable environs makes for a longer, better-attended NNO event. You’ll want to arrange for:
Seating. You don’t need to provide seats for everyone, but older attendees should have the option to sit somewhere other than the curb. We have about a dozen folding lawn chairs in our shed, and our neighbors provided about a dozen more last year. If you need to buy more, you can find basic options for $10 to $15 at your local Walmart or Target.
Lighting. If street lighting isn’t sufficient, rig up your own outdoor light system. Check Amazon or your preferred outdoor recreation retailer for dependable, reasonably priced LED lanterns. Expect to pay $15 to $40 for a generic model.
Insect Control. In many parts of the United States, summer evenings belong to biting and stinging insects. There are countless ways to keep them at bay, some more effective than others. In our area where mosquitos are the principal scourge, citronella candles work well. A bulk pack (six to eight candles) should set you back $10 to $15. If you spend a lot of time outdoors, you probably have a candle or two on hand already.
Tips to Reduce Your NNO Hosting Costs
Use these strategies, as appropriate, to reduce your final National Night Out™ hosting costs.
1. Organize a Neighborhood Collection
Send out a neighborhood-wide email or text message if you have your neighbors’ contact information, or go door to door with a reasonable ask – say, $5 or $10 per person or housing unit – to fund purchases of food, fuel, beverages, and other items. Refund unused contributions, if any, at the event itself.
2. Apply for a Grant from a Local Civic Organization or Municipal Body
Your neighborhood association, homeowners’ association, police department, or another municipal body may offer grants or partial reimbursements to NNO organizers. Our neighborhood association’s $100 blanket grant was nearly enough to pay for the entire event last year.
3. Host a Potluck
A potluck makes for a more varied menu and a lower shopping bill for the organizer. A week or two before your event, send out an email or text inviting attendees to bring an entrée or side to the party. Use a shared spreadsheet to reduce duplication.
4. Use Paperless (or Low-Paper) Invitations
Don’t bother with formal invitations to your NNO event. Instead, send out a mass email or text a couple of weeks in advance of the big day. If you don’t have email or phone information for most neighbors, knock on doors early one evening to spread the news. If all else fails, print out single-page invitations to tuck in neighbors’ mailboxes.
5. Ask for Donations From Local Businesses
Reach out to local business owners or managers – some of whom may live in your neighborhood anyway – to ask for financial or in-kind contributions.
The local grocery store or convenience store might kick in some grilling supplies. The hardware store might lend lights and donate insect repellent. A food truck operator might even swing by and hand out some complimentary treats. You’d be surprised by how many businesses are willing to lend a hand in exchange for some low-key publicity, such as a small banner at the event.
6. Ask Neighbors to Donate Their Time
Recruit a handful of neighbors for setup, take-down, and event-related errands like shopping for food at the grocery store. Your time is valuable, after all. The less you spend planning and executing your NNO event, the more you’ll have for more lucrative activities.
Pros of Hosting an NNO in Your Neighborhood
Why host a National Night Out™ event? For starters:
1. It’s Free to Register
Hosts of sanctioned NNO events must register with NATW each year, but there’s no cost to do so.
2. It’s a Casual Way to Meet Your Neighbors
Hosting an NNO gathering or non-NNO block party is a far more efficient, casual way to meet neighbors than, say, going door to door with plates of cookies.
3. It’s a Safe Space for Kids
NNO is intentionally kid-friendly in a way that late-night house or yard parties might not be. Our NNO includes a couple of hours of family time, then gradually turns into an adults-only get-together as the kids head off to bed.
4. It Can Improve Police-Community Relations
Sanctioned NNO events allow for controlled interaction between police and civilians in a relaxed setting. Other police-community interfaces, such as “meet an officer” days at public schools, tend to target specific demographics. Low-key mingling may help defuse police-community tensions where present.
5. It Can Improve Neighborhood Cohesion
Neighbors who know each other tend to be, well, more neighborly. Your annual NNO event is a great opportunity to elect block leaders if your community has them, discuss issues that warrant the attention of neighborhood and municipal officials, and form new neighborhood groups around areas of shared interest or concern.
At our most recent NNO, for instance, a group of neighbors broke off to discuss a city-funded initiative to plant native landscaping on the barren grass strips between the sidewalk and street. Even if you don’t agree on anything specific at the event itself, NNO is a chance to get your neighbors’ contact details and continue the conversation later.
6. It’s an Opportunity to Talk About Crime Prevention
This is NNO’s forte. Even if you don’t get to chat with a police officer at your NNO, the event is perhaps the best opportunity of the year to talk – and start doing something – about crime in your neighborhood. At our last NNO, we chatted about a recent spate of vehicle break-ins and collectively decided to petition for more frequent police patrols.
7. It Provides Free Food & Drink to Less Fortunate Neighbors
In lower- and mixed-income neighborhoods, NNOs and similar community gatherings provide a measure of food security, if only for one evening.
Cons of Hosting an NNO in Your Neighborhood
National Night Out™ isn’t without its drawbacks. Consider these potential issues before agreeing to host or advocating to bring NNO to your neighborhood:
1. It Requires an Out-of-Pocket Investment
If you’re responsible for purchasing food, fuel, beverages, or any other items for your NNO event, you – and possibly your neighbors – will need to put up some money up front. Applying for grants or organizing a neighborhood collection could eventually defray or completely offset these costs, but that’s no help if your cash flow can’t bear the temporary hit.
2. It Takes Time to Plan & Organize
Even a low-key NNO requires some effort to plan. At a minimum, you or a fellow organizer will need to hit the store for supplies and devote time for setup and take-down on the evening itself. Last year, my wife and I spent about 90 minutes setting up and breaking down our NNO area, plus about an hour at the supermarket.
3. It Takes Place on a Tuesday Night
Tuesday evening isn’t the most convenient time for a block party. If you’re concerned about attendance on a weeknight, consider hosting a non-NNO gathering on a Friday or Saturday evening or a weekend afternoon.
4. Some Neighbors May Not Be On Board
Your NNO event isn’t guaranteed to sit well with everyone in the neighborhood. Complaints about noise, traffic, and closed streets are likely, though a concerted effort to raise awareness about your plans in the lead-up to the event should mitigate any backlash. In smaller communities, centralized NNO events may reduce local impact.
5. NNO’s Crime-Reduction Rates Are Unclear
There’s limited evidence that NNO reduces crime in participating communities. If you’re banking on this event to turn things around in your neighborhood, temper your expectations.
Even if you’re put off by the controversy surrounding NNO, or if you have reservations about NATW’s close association with law enforcement and public safety groups, there’s a lot to be said for stepping up to host some sort of casual neighborhood gathering each year.
My wife and I both agree that our lives are fuller for knowing our more social neighbors. We’re also grateful that we feel comfortable enough with our immediate neighbors to ask them to watch the house while we’re out of town and to do the same for them.
Reaching out to your neighbors won’t transform your community into Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood overnight. But it’s a solid starting point.
Does your neighborhood have an annual National Night Out™ celebration? Would you consider hosting or starting one?