ORLEANS — You won't be breaking the law if you walk down the middle of Main Street between routes 28 and 6A next Wednesday night. If you don't believe us, you can ask all the police officers doing the same thing.
From 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. on Aug. 16, that stretch will be closed for the annual Orleans Police Block Party, a downtown tradition since the town's bicentennial in 1997.
“I think I have been to every block party since '97,” said Lt. Kevin Higgins, who organizes the event. Twenty years ago, two reserve officers, Omar Chartrand and Phil Deschamps, spun platters for an old-fashioned sock hop right on the street. Back in the day, they had been the deejays for dances at Orleans High School.
“Right from the beginning, it was very popular,” Higgins said, “We had people dancing in the streets.”
Two decades later, the “sock hop for adults” has morphed into a family event. “Matty plays a lot of music to get kids up there dancing,” Higgins said.
“Matty” is Matty Dread, aka Matthew Dunn, operations manager at community radio stations WOMR and WFMR. He took over dishing the discs in 2013.
“Around that time, the station had put up a transmitter in Orleans, so we were looking for ways to develop more relationships and expand our presence,” he recalled, “To do a public event on behalf of the radio station in a high-profile way was a perfect fit.”
When he stepped in, the music was “straight-up '50s and '60s bubble gum pop. That fits, with the classic cars on Main Street. It's a very mainstream American party, and I want to keep it accessible to everyone. I've been branching out a little bit; in the later hours, I kind of expand the playlist to include a little more folk and soul, blues, reggae.”
Working with Higgins “has been a dream,” the host said. “He could not be friendlier and more supportive. He's been great to work with on every level.” The DJ admits to “trying to loosen him up a little bit. After all, the point of the exercise is community relations. We want to put a more social face on the department. We slap each other high-fives, shoot each other grins and have a good time with it... The police department has a hard enough job the rest of the time.”
Higgins said most of the department's officers will be out on the street to greet townspeople and visitors.
“We do get a lot of compliments,” he said, “ a lot of positive feedback. That's not to say that everybody's all patting us on the back. Some residents take the opportunity to talk with police officers about events they may be dealing with – someone might not be happy about traffic – but it gives us an opportunity to talk.”
There are a lot of moving pieces to the party puzzle, including vehicles from the town's departments that will be on display and dozens of classic cars, another popular feature.
So popular, in fact, that there's a major change this year. In the past, drivers would gather at the Orleans Marketplace and be led down Route 6A by Higgins in the department's 1946 police cruiser. The familiar route continued down Cove Road onto Route 28 and up Main Street to parking spots, but so many wanted to take part that gridlock was the result.
“This year, I'm telling (classic car owners) at about 5:30 to come right to Main Street on the Route 28 side and go past the detail officer,” Higgins said. “If anybody comes down to watch the cars, the best place is right at the Corner Store. We usually get enough cars in to go back to the library.”
In case you're wondering what to do with your car, the lieutenant pointed out that “none of the large parking lots that are attached to Main Street have a sole entrance to Main Street” and can be accessed by side roads. He recommends the Orleans Marketplace lot and the Nauset Regional Middle School parking area just above Snow Library for anyone unfamiliar with other spots. That section of Main Street will be closed to vehicle traffic at 5 p.m.
Higgins offered thanks to the departments, volunteers, and donors who help make the Orleans Police Block Party a success year after year. “You need a lot of hands to make an event come to life,” he said.
Noelle Pina, executive director of the Orleans Chamber of Commerce, is a big fan of the party, as is her 4-year-old son.
“It's just nostalgic family fun,” she said. “We love going to see the antique cars and all the police and fire vehicles. My son thinks where I work there are fire and police trucks outside all the time.” Dancing to Matty Dread's music and enjoying the light show he puts on are other favorites.
Pina, who lists the party as a signature event in the chamber's publications and online, says close to 3,000 people attend annually. Shops that can remain open during that time “say they really enjoy the block party,” she said.
The event is good for the town and good for the department, according to Pina. “It enhances their community policing effort,” she said. “It keeps them in touch with the community. It makes the police a more personal agency. She and her son “just have a roaring good time every year.”
Recently, Higgins said, some families with younger children have told him they plan their vacations around the block party. “To me,” he said, “that's almost like an accomplishment to be able to create something people are looking forward to every year. In a way, it's overwhelming. There's not enough time to be able to talk to everybody I would like to talk to that night.”
Fortunately for fans of the Orleans Police Block Party, there's always next year.