Tales of Lollipop Lane: how to organize a mini-neighborhood potluck

The weather is warm and most of us are vaxxed and boosted. How about putting together a block party to get to know your neighbors again? Ours on Lollipop Lane has been going for half a century. With planning and a little luck, yours can, too. I’ll tell you how.

Three or four years ago as a relative newcomer to Bolton Hill, I took on the role of organizer for the monthly Lollipop Lane potlucks. Lollipop Lane is a small alley which runs behind West Lanvale from Jenkins Alley to the 1300 block of Bolton Street. I have been told that its name commemorates a kind old lady (probably younger than I am now) who, a hundred or more years ago, stood at her back gate and passed out lollipops to children taking a shortcut home from school.

In the 1970s Debbie Phinney, who lived on Lanvale, started a monthly potluck, weather permitting, in the alley itself. She and her husband Ralph provided folding tables and put out dishes, napkins, etc. Nearby neighbors brought most of the food and drinks. In time, these summer events were extended year-round, with hosts opening their patios and, in less balmy months, their houses. Debbie recruited the hosts and with volunteers she distributed paper invitations to a fiercely guarded private list of neighbors. When I moved here in 2016, I was told by more than one friendly neighbor that I could aspire to being put on that list. 

In time, somehow, Debbie passed the torch to me as she prepared to move out of Bolton Hill. She let me have the list, and I shifted to an e-mail invitation process. The monthly parties continued until spring 2020, with average attendance of 30 – 50 guests and an unbroken record of gracious hospitality and high hilarity.

The gatherings were suspended because of the pandemic. As the public health situation has evolved we revived the schedule, using outdoor spaces when possible, and trying to balance responsible caution with everyone’s desire to be together again. Many of us who attend are, um, over 25 and perhaps juggling health challenges, but also fully vaccinated and boosted. Thus, our masking, distancing, and indoor-vs-outdoor protocols are still a bit fluid, depending on comfort levels and calculations of risk.

First-time hosts often anticipate daunting logistical and culinary challenges, and then afterwards they invariably say, “Oh, that was one of the easiest parties I ever gave!” Guests always step up with wonderful contributions to the food and drinks, and there always seems to be more than plenty.

Here are few of our trade secrets, which might work for others considering the launch of something similar for their mini neighborhood:

  • One coordinator maintains the e-mail invitation list, recruits the monthly hosts (the roster can extend months into the future), stays in touch with them and sends out invitations about a month before, with a reminder a few days ahead. The coordinator keeps the e-mail list private by blind-copying the invitees. Some neighbors prefer to use their work addresses but also do not want that contact information shared.


  • The hosts’ responsibilities are simple: Pick the date and time, usually but not necessarily a Friday or Saturday evening. Specify an ending time, perhaps. They may invite friends of their own and may request that they be added permanently to the invitation list. Make sure the coordinator clearly states the hosts’ house policies on children, pets, potential allergens, alcohol, etc. The host provides dishes, linens, some wine and soft drinks, and at least a main-course protein.


  • The coordinator’s invitations always ask the invitees to bring a protein, salad, dessert, appetizer, drinks or some combination of the above. (When guests arrive last-minute or from another engagement, welcome them empty-handed.)


  • Guests may not want to take home leftovers of what they brought to the party. They often forget to take their dishes. Hosts end up with some unidentified dishes, which they can then take to – and leave at – the next party, hoping that the rightful owners will claim them. (Some dishes have circulated for years.)


  • Hosts may notice that they end up with a bottle or two of lovely wine which kind neighbors have brought and left, and which hasn’t been opened – not a bad outcome.

Most of us are aware of at least two or three similar gatherings in Bolton Hill, and I can testify that the Lollipop Lane tradition is both hallowed and rip-roarious. I’m happy to offer free advice to anyone who would like to start one in his or her own microclimate.

John C. McLucas