In December 1997, Eric Williams opened the Silver Room at 1410 N. Milwaukee in Wicker Park, selling jewelry and hosting intimate music and art events. As the store evolved into a commercial and cultural hub, Williams became an important voice in the community—and while serving on the board for the neighborhood’s chamber of commerce, he voiced his frustration about its street festivals largely ignoring musicians of color.
In 2002, he launched the Silver Room Sound System Block Party in an alley next to his shop on the third weekend in July—two weeks after the Chosen Few Picnic and one week before Wicker Park Fest. Williams never advertised the event, but thanks in no small part to his store’s stature and his place in the community, the block party blossomed into an important institution through word of mouth—especially after Williams’s shop moved to Hyde Park in 2015. (It’s since opened a second store back in Wicker Park.)
Last year 40,000 people came to 53rd Street for the block party, which featured dozens of musical acts on three outdoor stages and in seven shops, plus a mini film festival and basketball drills and exhibitions. Williams has always been the main organizer for the free event, but he’s hardly done it alone; for this oral history, I spoke with several of the people who’ve helped the Silver Room Block Party (as it’s often called for short) become one of Chicago’s most culturally important events.
Silver Room Block Party
Dozens of mostly local acts from a wide variety of genres perform on outdoor stages and in indoor venues in Hyde Park, including the parking lot of Harper Court (5235 S. Harper) and half a dozen nearby storefronts. Sat 7/20, noon-10 PM, multiple locations, free, all ages
Eric Williams The block party was born as a response to not being included in other festivals. The first one was in this little alley next to what’s Cumin now. I lived above the original Silver Room.
Ron Trent (DJ and producer) His store was always a meeting place, and people would come hang out. We figured it might be good to just invite our friends and have a big block party, and celebrate music and dance like we normally do.
Eric Williams I called some friends up: “Hey, you DJ,” “Hey, you sing.” Called up maybe ten, 15 people, and they called some friends. We did it in the alley.
Ron Trent I’ve always had equipment or been savvy in terms of sound, so we were able to utilize the system that we had.
Eric Williams We had no generators. We had extension cords coming out of my house. No permits, no security, no nothing. The first year 200, 300 people came.
Ron Trent First time, it was just me. After that we had a special guest: Kool Herc, who is the infamous godfather of hip-hop.
Mario Smith (poet, educator, activist, and radio personality) The first one I went to was the first one I was a host at—I want to say it was the third block party.
Eric Williams The first two were in the alley, but then I moved the store to 1442 N. Milwaukee. Then we did it on Evergreen Avenue, which was slightly bigger but still not huge. We didn’t even have permits, even then—we had a little block-party permit.
Mario Smith The second time I hosted, I did the entire block party—none of the people who were supposed to host showed up. And I just did it. I was way, way more exhausted than I imagined I would be. But I just did it, ’cause it was for Eric, and the block party was really cool. I was like, “OK, I’m doing this again,” and I have not stopped doing it. I’m grateful for that day that nobody showed up.
Eric Williams All my friends are artists, and I DJ, so it was not hard to find people to perform.
Ron Trent I utilized my relationships, people that I knew, and called in favors.
Eric Williams We just explained to them, “This is what’s going on—we don’t have tons of money.” But they wanted to come be a part of the vibe.
Rob McKay (former tour producer and Connect Gallery co-owner) At first I was a supporter, and that was probably around ’08—from there on, I’ve been an integral part in making sure everything goes up when it’s supposed to.
Eric Williams We didn’t do radio ads, none of that—it grew organically.
Mario Smith Eric invited everybody, right? And he took care of everything—and he made everybody feel included. I noticed that from the beginning.
Rob McKay Large-scale festivals, they garner the top acts. We look at the artists that are bubbling under, that fit this demographic of Black, Brown, and white—from everywhere. The curation side of it is very purposeful, to get that vibe. We take a lot of pride in doing that.
Mario Smith My involvement increased because I started going, “Hey, so-and-so would be good to play. Maybe this would work if we tried that. What do you think about this, Eric?” I’m always in Eric’s ear about something regarding the block party, honestly, starting the week after.
Eric Williams We’re not really based upon, like, headliners. The word “headliner” doesn’t exist; everyone’s font is the same size. People come to the block party not because of who’s performing; they come because it’s a good time. They know it’ll be good music there.
Ron Trent I saw, “OK, this potentially can be something.” I had been doing a lot of work internationally—I saw the growth potential there.
Eric Williams Before we moved to Hyde Park, I remember thinking, “This is probably 10,000 people.”
Candice Washington (former education coordinator at the University of Chicago and founder of Brown Books & Paint Brushes) The last time it was in Wicker Park, I stumbled upon it—I was like, “Oh my God, what is this?” It was a giant diaspora of beautiful creatives doing they thing.
Mario Smith When he moved from the store in Wicker Park and came to Hyde Park, that day I was like, “You’ve got to do the block party.”
Eric Williams I was like, “I’m never gonna do it ever again.” It’s a lot of work—I was losing money.
Amy Srodon (marketing communications manager for the University of Chicago’s Commercial Real Estate Operations) It sounded like such a labor of love. The fact that it involves art, culture, and music—it sounded really unusual and wonderful. We all thought it would be a great addition to Hyde Park.
Eric Williams We really had to have a different kind of structure to be able to pay for it—to really seek out sponsors.
Amy Srodon In 2016 and 2017, the university, we were able to underwrite a portion of the festival.
Eric Reaves (program manager for the South East Chicago Commission) When they opened up their brick-and-mortar store, we’d had one festival event. Eric told me about what he was doing. I said, “We still need to have two events in Hyde Park—why don’t I just be the key sponsor for you?” It sounded like a good mission and a good event.
Eric Williams Moving to Hyde Park has been a whole different thing. I have to do it by the books. The generators probably cost more money than the first nine block parties total. You’re dealing with a different kind of footprint; you’re encroaching on people’s communities now.
Eric Reaves We work as a conduit with the City of Chicago Department of Planning, helping him put the application in. We work with local businesses, with local residents, and with him directly. Also we provide a sponsorship investment.
Mario Smith That first year, Harper Court is full of people. I looked at him, and I said, “You’re not gonna be able to be in Harper Court for long.”
Eric Williams The first year we did it in Hyde Park, 15,000 people came.
Eric Reaves It actually blew us away, the number of people who came. I believe the first year it was 20,000 people.
Ron Trent It was a sign that obviously this was something that the south side of Chicago was thirsting for.
Eric Williams The second year, it was 30,000 people.
Mario Smith The last couple of years, it’s more of talking to the committee, which is Eric, Rob, Susan, Amy, and everybody—getting them to say “Yeah, that works” or “No, that doesn’t.”
Eric Williams We have a team of people—we all just volunteer. I don’t want to lose this block-party vibe. The more people you get, the harder that is—to keep this thing that was 200 people.
Amy Srodon After that 2017 block party, I said to Eric, “Hey, you know, what do you think about having a dedicated kids’ area? Would that be something that I could help you with?” And he just loved it.
Eric Williams I love seeing kids dance with their parents, because I have a ten-year-old daughter. You can dance with your kid and it’s safe, and everybody’s having a good time.
Candice Washington I got in touch with Amy—we got to planning.
Amy Srodon For the 2018 block party, we had the first-ever kids’ area, and that was held in Harper Court.
Candice Washington I called up some of my friends, people that I’ve worked with through my nonprofit, and I got them involved. My vision, along with Amy’s, was to create a mini Silver Room Block Party within the Silver Room Block Party—for kids.
Eric Williams We had maybe a hundred vendors last year, between food and retail.
Mario Smith Last year, we had the Sean Haley music pavilion for our brother who passed away before the Block Party; 40,000 people on 53rd Street, all these kids; and Amara Enyia, who had announced her run for mayor, being on our stage.
Eric Williams It’s a huge impact—this last year was $2 million in economic impact at the block party. All the businesses make money; all these vendors make money.
Eric Reaves Businesses realized a 200 percent increase in sales compared to the same day the previous year.
Eric Williams This year’s theme is the greater good. Last year’s theme was beautiful people. Every year the theme helps push forward positive energy.
Amy Srodon It’s like a family reunion for a lot of people. You see a ton of people hugging. You see people of all ages, from little kids in strollers to grandparents. There’s really something for everybody to enjoy.
Eric Williams We’re gonna build a 10,000-square-foot roller-skating rink in the bank parking lot.
Rob McKay We want people to say, “I can do this, I can do a version of this.” That’s a big part of why we do what we do.
Mario Smith It is the most unique thing in the city—it’s its own ecosystem now. To be able to be a part of that, it’s humbling. v