After a one-year hiatus, the Silver Room’s Sound System Block Party—an annual day bash thrown by the beloved local jewelry shop—returns this Saturday with a new location. And this year, it's bigger than ever.
The cult-favorite shop owned by Eric Williams decamped from the rapidly gentrifying Wicker Park to Hyde Park this spring, joining a family of restaurants, shops, and performance venues like A10 and the Promontory helping to expand the neighborhood beyond its ties with University of Chicago.
This year’s block party also comes at a poignant political moment, as protests in the city sparked up again this week following two high-profile police shootings. Titled "Freedom Love Joy Peace," the party will double as a neighborhood-wide toast to art and culture—a means of bringing the community together. Williams discussed his plans for the event with Chicago.
You funded this year's party in part through crowdsourcing, whereas in past years you paid for it yourself. Why did you decide to have the community help?
I think that it actually adds to the energy of the party. The first few years, it was just me and some friends and customers. It was a very, very small event. As it grew, expenses grew, and permits and everything that goes along with having a festival grew. I began to realize it was a very special kind of block party—and I say block party and not festival because the intent was to make it very simple, and bring back memories of childhood.
Everyone should have ownership of this block party. If you’re an artist, you donate a canvas; you volunteer or you donate some money. It's very important to me that everybody take ownership of this event; that makes it have more meaning.
The Silver Room recently moved from Wicker Park down to Hyde Park. What was the impetus for that? What sort of differences have you found in the new location?
I actually moved to Wicker Park about 20 years ago. My store was there for 17 years. I think Wicker Park was known for being a very diverse community—an artistic community—and that’s why people moved there. But over the years, it's changed a lot. It shifted demographics. It wasn’t so artistic, and wasn’t so diverse anymore.
I think what we’ve always had in the store is not just about jewelry, but the artwork and the community events. That was more embraced by folks on the South Side. My lease ended in Wicker Park and I had an opportunity to do a second store with the University of Chicago, so I came down. They just really, really wanted to bring some flavor to the South Side.
What I realized is that the South Side needs this space. They want this. People there would come to the North Side to get this, and now we’re in their backyard. People come into the store and say, “Thank you for being here.” We're much busier. We have more traffic. It’s more engagement with the community.
In what ways do you think the block party has grown or changed over time, and how do you think it will change this year?
I try to keep it the same—the same energy, the same inspiration. That means all-ages, all- inclusive, and different kinds of music. We have Indian dancers. We have house music. We have young folks. We have video performers. It’s the best of what urban life is about, to me. It’s about diversity. It’s about freedom. It’s about art.
The only real difference is that this year's on the South Side. People on the North Side don’t go to the South Side, so I think it’s a great opportunity for people to see what’s happening in Hyde, and to see that there’s different parts of the city besides downtown and Wicker Park.
The party this year is called Freedom Love Joy & Peace. Where did that come from?
A Prince song, “America.” I was listening to it after he died, heartbroken. In it, he goes, “Freedom / love / joy / peace,” and I thought, “Wow, what’s something everybody wants." I knew that had to be the theme, given his death, and with this past week, it’s even more appropriate. Words matter, and titles matter. Even the fact that you brought it up shows that it has a certain kind of energy. You already know what kind of event it’s going to be.
It seems to be resonating with a lot of people.
I felt like with those police killings [in this last week], people were just in this very, very weird mood. The thing we’re trying to do is bring folks together. I love seeing different races, different ethnicities, different sexual orientations just having a good time and dancing. Sometimes music and celebration and dance can be a protest. There’s different ways to protest, and this is mine: showing that we can all get along and listen to music and have a good time.
How do you choose performers for each year’s party?
Nine times out of ten, it’s people I already know. I DJ, and I know the music industry from being in the retail industry—they're all shoppers. Everybody [playing Saturday] shops. They’re a DJ, but they also need to buy a ring for their girlfriend. They need to buy a pair of sunglasses.
This year I’m doing it a bit differently. The original idea was to do this in Wicker Park with different satellite spaces hosting different performers. Instead, we’ll have two main stages, and the rest will be in-store performances. So it’s at A10 restaurant, the Promontory, the Silver Room. You’ll come to the neighborhood and you’ll get a map to see where to go. It’s a way to bounce around the neighborhood and see what’s going on. It creates this motion and energy in Hyde Park.
Do you have any goals in mind for this year?
Well, number one is freedom, peace, love, and joy. But I think most important is to celebrate Chicago. We have so many things going on. And to just have one day to forget about your problems, one day of people just dancing, smiling, and having fun and seeing a vision of how things could be. It’s like my version of utopia.