The myth of notoriety
If you wanted your street to be the most renowned block in the city, what would you do?
Would you start a social media campaign and a hashtag, goading your neighbors to share a photo every day about why it’s so great to live in the neighborhood? Would you survey your neighbors and find out who has the most influential job, then use them as clickbait when you pitch a local news outlet? Would you consider digging into the historical archives to find something of significance that took place there? Or would you host a block-Halloween party just for your closest neighbors?
One of these choices seems most unlike the other. But only one is what caused the block of West 69th Street in New York City to be renown throughout the city, nearly 50 years after their very first humble beginnings. Each Halloween, this block shuts down street traffic to offer trick-or-treaters with candy, costumes, and community. And it’s a clear winner of “best block in town.”
Lately I’ve been noticing an actualization problem with role models and idols in any field or domain. To be at the top of your craft, to aspire to the very pinnacle of the thing you are best at, it’s easy to look up to those at higher levels who have been there, done that. We’ll say things like, “Oh, well Steve Jobs wore only black turtlenecks, so I’ll simplify my wardrobe too.” Or, “Wow. Cheryl Sandberg is a champion for all women. I need to support my tribe like she does.” Or even, “If I want to be as visionary as Elon Musk, maybe I should Tweet more often.”
The problem is that what we’re seeing in the narrow wedge of the lives of these people that we’re exposed to…is irrelevant. Steve Jobs didn’t derive his brand around mocknecks, and Cheryl Sandberg certainly wasn’t saying “lean in” during her first few months at Facebook. We’re not seeing the means to the end; we’re only exposed to the exhaust. And if we strive to emulate these people, to achieve the same greatness that they do, looking at their exhaust isn’t good enough. We need to see their day-to-day output, thought patterns, and hard-won work.
The first Halloween party that West 69th Street hosted was not intended to be a neighborhood phenomenon. Nor did they intend it to become one. They weren’t looking for fame or Instagram stories. The residents on this block wanted only one thing: Safety for their children to trick-or-treat in NYC in a risk-free environment. (Remember: New York City 50 years ago was a very different place than today.) So they designed a safe space for their kids to play. And had a good time doing it.
I’m sure that first party was by no means revolutionary. There were likely no Broadway show-like setups, no elaborately costumed homes, no people masquerading as gargoyles swinging from trees. It was likely pretty basic.
But guess what? Going from good to great isn’t about starting off as great. It’s about doing it again and again…and again.
And every year, for nearly 50 years now, these neighbors band together and commit to another year. When new people move onto the block, they refuse to let the tradition subside. Even if you move in on October 24th, like one woman I met, the next day, you’ll have people knocking on your door asking, “What are you doing for Halloween?” And if you don’t know, they’ll help you get there.
This is community and perseverance and consistency at its best. And over time, with enough heads in the picture and new ideas in the midst, more and more people got creative. Somebody brought out a violin. Somebody decorated the steps of their front porch. Somebody volunteered to hang lights from the trees. And before you know it, it’s 2018, and something amazing is happening.
Today, the stretch between Broadway and Central Park West on W 69th Street receives more than 10,000 visitors each Halloween. The street closes down entirely, and every neighbor is asked to carry at least 3,000 pieces of candy. Brownstones and apartment complexes alike derive elaborate theatrical routines in costume, and the local block association sells street-wide swag with the motto, “I got mine on West 69.”
It’s an incredible testament to community, neighborliness, and commitment. But make no mistake: They didn’t start this project aiming for success, fame, and notoriety. They started the project to meet a need for an underserved community, then iterated on it slowly over time, year after year. They kept at it, through continuity changes, through block zoning regulations, and through newfound terrorism threats in the city. Their success today may be a trending Instagram story tomorrow, but this is not the beginning of the story. The success they see today is decades in the making.
This, I’m realizing, is the myth of notoriety. Rather than set out to “win” or to “be the best,” we should simply set out to do the one thing we can uniquely do better than anyone else can do that thing. Maybe it’s creating the next-gen smartphone. Or maybe it’s a Halloween block party. The rest will follow suit.