Block Party Reconsidered

After last year’s Capitol Hill Block Party, I walked away skeptical of the event. “Is Block Party right?” I asked in my review, a question raised by excessive fencing, poor sound quality, influx of non-local attendees and general incongruence with its namesake neighborhood. I came down on the side of not really.

This year, former Block Party talent buyer Jason Lajeunesse has taken over as festival producer. He brings with him a shift in overall vision for the festival that signals a more sustainable, community-oriented direction.

Lajeunesse, a co-owner of Neumos and longtime Capitol Hill resident, admits ungrudgingly to Block Party’s imperfections. In terms of physical size, attendance and band stature, he believes it’s reached its limit, so he’s found creative ways to make the festival more attractive to the neighborhood. Taking advantage of normally dormant morning hours, the festival will host a kid-friendly party and performance and a free yoga class in the middle of blocked-off Pike Street. Where previously festival organizers paid lip service to “community outreach,” Lajeunesse has made actual connections: Capitol Hill design firms will build and install interactive art and lighting effects throughout the grounds, utilizing fencing and the Pike corridor’s building facades as canvases; Ghost Gallery will provide additional art installation around the grounds; SIFF is co-sponsoring a festival-oriented filmmaking contest, the winner of which will see her or his short film screened before films at the Uptown Theater all year.

Essentially, Lajeunesse wants Block Party to stand for something more significant than three days of teenagers trashing a neighborhood they’ll one day gentrify. For now, we’re taking him at his word.

City Arts: How have things changed now that you’re producing the festival?

Jason Lajeunesse: Something we wanted to do, but I was talent buyer so never had too much say in, is use the festival as an opportunity to promote and include the arts community. Capitol Hill has a big arts community. A lot of creative people work in the neighborhood, so it makes sense to make those people part of the festival.

So how did that happen?

I got an email from Laurie Kearny from Ghost Gallery about curating the visual arts stuff. The more we talked the more I was into her taking that role. Me curating the art myself wouldn’t do it justice, so it was great she was excited. And it was great that SIFF was interested in getting involved in the video contest. The more we talked about it, the wider the net got, so we reached out. We started this conversation with World Famous, a creative agency that’s our neighbor at Neumos. They did all the SIFF trailers this year, and they expressed interest in doing creative videos about Capitol Hill culture. From there we thought, what about all the other creative agencies in the neighborhood? We have Digital Kitchen up the street, Dumb Eyes on Pine. We were interested in creating digital art experiences, trailers, digital art media, having our multimedia curation in place through Ghost Gallery and a video contest through SIFF. And it all came together. Those are the three main visual art components we’re gonna launch this year. We’re gonna have the art program as part of the program guide, so the artists involved will have bios and information given at the festival. It’ll be represented properly.

Where will this stuff be located during the festival?

Some of it will be inside existing businesses. We’re doing a bloggers lounge inside the Vita Bean Room, so some of that space will be used to show art. Some of the installations are outdoors and interactive. We’re using the fencing as backdrop, there’s a piece going in on one of the walls we’re fencing, and beside it will be blank canvas for people to participate, painting and drawing on. Some of the wall space in the existing footprint will be activated. And we’re bringing in extra lighting to illuminate the festival itself at night. We wanna create a whole experience at night that’s different from the day.

The festival is unlike any other in the city and maybe the nation—we have all these buildings and walls to work with. The thing that binds us [i.e., city-block space constraints] is underutilized, so we hope to expand the festival grounds to make user experience more enriched. We’ve got the music programming down, all the stages in place, and the concept of expanding the festival has been about the size of the bands or the footprint, not just activating the space we have and making it more interesting.

That seems logical. It can’t get any bigger or more crowded.

We want it to be the kind of thing where the brand, Block Party, can sell itself and give us the room to be more creative and take more chances and book more bands on their way up, have more creative freedom with it if that can happen.

That’s been a problem the past couple years.

We were so overwhelmed as the festival changed and stage placement changed. As it grew it presented problems—new businesses had never experienced the festival before and we had challenges in getting the neighborhood signed off and convincing the city the neighborhood was comfortable with everything. This year it was a lot easier to work with the city and the neighborhood, so it gave us room to rethink the festival and be more creative.

Every year is a learning experience. It’s an organic process. It’s not a completely controlled environment, like a big field where we control every part of it. We need the cooperation of businesses and neighbors and there’s a lot of people to consider.

That’s smart. The neighborhood has changed drastically over the last few years and it seems the festival hasn’t really changed with it.

Those are the efforts we’re trying to make. I have a sense of the change as it happens, because I live in the neighborhood. On an annual level, it’s easer to get a sense of people’s comfort levels are because I can talk to them over coffee throughout the year. Understanding people’s concerns. It’s never going to be perfect, there’s always going to be thing that get overlooked. But we need to be as aware as we can if were gonna stay in this neighborhood.

The fun thing about those partnerships, which I didn’t anticipate, is you get more interesting programming in. Stuff outside my programming realm. So I think it’s enriched the festival experience by doing that. If we can showcase the neighborhood, and be an attraction for tourists in general—I think that’s a great thing. There’s money there that can be annual benefits, not just for the three days we’re there.

Right. Now it’s a matter of expanding in non-physical ways.

You don’t wanna find yourself in a stagnant position doing the same party every year. For as much positive impact it has on the neighborhood, there’s always gonna be some negatives. It’s not perfect for everybody. But you have to make the best effort you can to counterbalance and create opportunities that extend beyond the three-day period. The idea is to be more engaged on an annual level than it’s ever been. That’s sort of a primary focus for me and Block Party. To become part of the Seattle culture, the social fabric of Seattle culture. To do that we need to think bigger than just a weekend.

Having a limited role as I had, I just had to worry about the bands, and expanding the talent portfolio we were working with. That gave me a chance to watch how the fest grew in that capacity and see the negative and positive effects it had. When I was lucky enough to take it over from Marcus and Dave, they’d developed the infrastructure that allowed me to do that. All the tools were there for me to use.

That’s interesting—making Block Party some kind of year-round presence.

In small ways we’ll be able to do that and keep people engaged and have an impact throughout the city, whether it’s promoting quarterly concerts or sponsoring events. It’s about creating a community that identifies with the festival which is bigger than three days of drinking. That’s fun, that’s great, but the brand needs to be culturally more significant. Be enriched, have an impact, stand for the music and art culture that it supports and provides for.

Photo by Nate Watters.