Block party host Mario Smith of WHPK on the Freedom Stage at Harper Court Credit: Christopher Andrew

There’s nothing like a block party to bring neighborhood folks to the yard. And Eric Williams, owner of the Silver Room boutique, throws a block party that can’t be beat.

This Saturday, Williams spearheaded the 13th Silver Room Sound System Block Party. He’s a veteran when it comes to curating entertainment for and with the community, and this year he worked with renewed ardor to bring back his neighborhood bash, recruiting friends, sponsors, and other collaborators—he’d taken 2015 off while the Silver Room settled in at its new location at 53rd and Harper in Hyde Park.

“This takes months to plan,” says Williams. “So I wanted to give it time, get used to the neighborhood, let the neighborhood get to know me, and then do it the next year.”

Taking part in a growing trend among small businesses in Wicker Park, the Silver Room left the neighborhood in April of last year. Since opening in 1997, the store (which specializes in custom jewelry, accessories, and apparel) has earned widespread appreciation due to its commitment to customers and passion for showcasing local talent. Williams has helped many fellow entrepreneurs and entertainers get their names out, both by organizing events and by allotting parts of the Silver Room’s storefront to artists, musicians, and even an independent juice maker.

In 2002, the Silver Room put on its first block party, catering primarily to its most loyal customers and friends. Over the years, the event gradually expanded until attendance reached the thousands. With larger crowds came a larger lineup, and the free festival became more and more difficult for the Silver Room to manage on its own.

So when the University of Chicago asked Williams to move his shop down to Hyde Park (as part of its effort to transform the neighborhood by adding diverse retailers and increasing community engagement), he immediately saw an opportunity and leaped on it.

“We worked together on some other events to help bring some eyes to the neighborhood,” he says. “I think the biggest difference is there’s not as much happening on the south side as there is on the north side, so people on the south side would usually have to travel north for events like this. Now it’s in their own backyard, and it’s so much more appreciated.”

A performer from the Tofu Chitlin' Circuit production of <i>Black Girls (Can) Fly!</i>
A performer from the Tofu Chitlin’ Circuit production of Black Girls (Can) Fly!Credit: Christopher Andrew

Together with his friend, celebrated DJ Ron Trent, Williams handpicked more than 70 performers for this year’s block party—more than half again the number playing all three days at Pitchfork a few miles north. Many of the DJs they booked come from the same Chicago house-music circles to which Trent and Williams also belong. Other acts ran the gamut, including a live, denim-centered fashion show by CarterandPowell and an original play called Black Girls (Can) Fly! by the Tofu Chitlin’ Circuit Youth Ensemble.

To organize or finance other aspects of the event, Williams teamed up with the U. of C.’s Commercial Real Estate Operations, the Frankie Knuckles Foundation, Hyde Park’s two aldermen (plus its Chamber of Commerce), and Downtown Hyde Park Chicago. He also enlisted six nearby restaurants, venues, and stores (in addition to his own boutique) to serve as satellite locations for performances throughout the day.

Ron Trent, Adrian Loving, and the Frankie Knuckles Foundation presented an opening reception at the Stony Island Arts Bank on Friday, July 15, to showcase and discuss house music. Early risers on Saturday sweated to Gypsy Yoga and Cycle Therapy before the main festivities began.

Partygoers circulated among a total of nine venues, opting for one of the two well-attended stages in Harper Court (the Freedom Stage and the Joy Stage) or for a more intimate venue. A sunny day made for smiling crowds; kids rode on parents’ shoulders and fans danced to the music. Open Mike Eagle dropped his signature art-rap at the Promontory with Aquil Charlton, while Danny Krivit, Ron Trent, and Francois K ended the bash with a bang at both the main stage and an afterparty (also at the Promontory). 

A block-party newcomer but a five-year resident of Hyde Park, Samantha Moore, had nothing but praise for the event: “I love it. It’s like a mini festival in Hyde Park, and we don’t have that at all. It’s definitely beautiful to see all of these black people, especially in one place, really thriving and coming together.”

Harper Court during the block party
Harper Court during the block partyCredit: Christopher Andrew

This type of camaraderie was exactly what Williams had envisioned when he first set out. “Especially nowadays, we need this,” he says. “We have a lot of artists who never get a chance to showcase their talents. So for me, that these guys and girls get that chance is very, very important.”

Leah Eva and Ramon Smith, aka comedy duo Mr. and Mrs. Smith, hosted some of the performances on the Freedom Stage at Harper Court. They’ve performed at the Silver Room for years, and have continued to do so since it switched locations. The pair even mentioned that they’d picked out their wedding rings from the Silver Room.

“It’s really for the people,” Eva said of the block party, making an expansive gesture that took in not just the outdoor stages but also the festival’s live muralists, face-painting stations, food stalls, and other vendors.

As I spoke with another longtime block-party attendee, Dak King, we were interrupted repeatedly as he was recognized and embraced by friends making their way through the crowd. “This is the Chicago everybody needs to see,” he said. “It’s good that I can show my friends some culture in Chicago instead of driving so far every night to see things.”

DJ Duane Powell at the Promontory
DJ Duane Powell at the PromontoryCredit: Christopher Andrew

Jeneba Koroma, owner of Limba Gal Jewelry, spoke to the same feeling. “You get to see all your friends if you haven’t seen them in years, and it’s just fun. There’s probably more people here just because it’s closer to home for them. I mean, it’s just like family, community vibes here.”

Williams pointed out that those vibes are good for businesses too. “As a small business owner, you have to think of a lot of creative ideas to bring business to your community,” he said. “These small businesses here right now are going to make some money today.”

Koroma agreed. “You get a lot of people out, eyes on your pieces you wouldn’t normally get. And these are definitely my ideal clientele,” she said.

Williams was also enthusiastic about the degree to which attendees at the party had participated as more than just fans. He sees this as key to keeping the festival vital for years to come. “We want everybody to get involved, either to volunteer, donate an art piece, or bring some money to be involved in some way, so they can buy in and take ownership of their own entertainment.”

With keen supporters to back it up, the Silver Room’s long-running event seems to have been welcomed by its new Hyde Park home with ease.

“You can see the community coming in for everything that the Silver Room Block Party stands for. Not just something where everyone’s having a good time, drinking, whatever, but it’s a thing that stands for something,” said Ramon Smith.

In fostering the vibrancy and cohesion of Hyde Park—which in turn boosts small businesses and artists—efforts such as the Silver Room’s block party help Chicago neighborhoods thrive.

Dancer Willow Brown at the Freedom Stage
Dancer Willow Brown at the Freedom StageCredit: Christopher Andrew