Meet Us at the Zocalo


May 4, 2010


Browse in Commons West Marin

We humans like to gather, and to be around other people in informal and unstructured settings. For time out of memory, places in which to do so were built into daily life. Medieval cities had squares outside of churches, which is where markets first began. Boston and other New England towns began with commons. Towns in Mexico have zocalos, or central plazas where people congregate and socialize.

At least one couple here in Point Reyes Station, California, met at a zocalo in their home town. Another local couple was married in the Boston Common. These spaces all are versions of the same thing: settings in which people can be in the presence of others, even if just to sit and read, or play dominoes or chess, or watch the world go by. The instinct to do so runs deep. The office coffee machine. The street corner outside a bodega. Front stoops in the city or the mango tree in my wife’s village in the Philippines — the gnarly roots provide a place to sit and the leaves offer protection from the brutal sun.

In almost any circumstance, people find a way to gather, or at least they once did . Over the last century, the money-centric forces of this country have systematically eliminated the informal gathering places from our lives. Cars enclosed us in hermetic boxes. Televisions lured us inside. (Ralph Nader’s father used to tell him that television had replaced the dictator’s ban on three or more people gathering in a public space.) Suburbs created a landscape that reinforced this isolation. There was no place to go, except in the car.

Not coincidentally, loneliness and depression became epidemic. Women relegated to this new environment became a lucrative market for valium and other mood re-engineering drugs. The sense of community waned, because there was little tangible experience of it. The word itself was ingested into commercial parlance, as in the “business community.” Politics became more abstract, ideological and vicious as people connected to it through media rather than through face-to-face encounters.

Today, we are told that computers and cell phones have replaced the front stoops and mango trees. I’m not so sure. I see people at the airport end a cell phone call, start to put the thing away, but then stop and stare at it, the way problem eaters stare at a refrigerator. People spend hours on email and can’t break away. In Hong Kong, a couple became so engrossed in raising a virtual child on-line that their actual infant died of starvation.

This is community as junk food — stimulation without emotional content. You feel more craving the more you partake. We are left in a paradoxical void — the loneliness of a wired age. And this is part of why common spaces are reappearing in cities and towns throughout the nation — from Copley Square in Boston to Pioneer Square in Portland, and Detroit’s new Campus Martius. Community gardens are bringing back some of the mutual endeavor of the traditional village; while farmers’ markets — over 5,000 at last count — are restoring the social dimension of commerce that malls and big boxes have stripped away.

It is happening too in small towns such as Point Reyes Station. Out here we now have community gardens, benches at Toby’s coffee bar and the Bovine Bakery, and tree rounds in the corner lot next to the bakery. There is also a farmers’ market on Saturdays, though that has become a mixed blessing — from the standpoint of community space — because of the tourist throngs it draws.

Apart from that, these common spaces have given a major boost to the “we” side of life out here. I can’t count all the friends I’ve made just by sitting at Toby’s during the day.

There still are gaps, however. One is the way Latinos still inhabit by and large a parallel society in the town. Except for West Marin School, our common spaces have not done much to bridge that cultural divide. At the same time, there’s a need for space that belongs to the community and is not geared primarily to tourists – and that is not dependent upon the generosity of a particular property owner or merchant who will not be around forever. As the town changes, we need to establish physical continuity that the real estate market cannot touch.

The answer to one could be the answer for the other. Stinson Beach, to the south of us, has created a village green that makes you want to sit and spend some time there. Bolinas, which is between there and here, has one in the works. Residents purchased and designed the space themselves. People in our town are asking, “Why can’t we be next?”

Some common spaces just happen, such as street corners and front stoops. Others are created consciously; and the design of these is art that borders on alchemy. People won’t pause and sit just anywhere. Some spaces invite, while others repel. People like to be close to other people but still able to observe them, for example. They like to sit on walls and steps (such as Manhattan’s main public library at lunch time.) A space needs to be where people already are; they usually won’t go far out of their way, except for a particular activity such as skateboarding or chess.

Cultural differences enter too. Art can play a major role, but it needs to serve the space, and not try to be a gallery for the avant garde. In Point Reyes Station, we began the process a couple of years ago with a talk by Mark Lakeman, a founder of the City Repair Project in Portland, Oregon. Lakeman got people fired up about the possibilities for common space here.

A lot of work followed, on various projects in town. Then a few weeks ago we hosted Milenko Matanovic of the Pomegranate Center, which is based in Issaquah, Washington. Milenko is an artist and community organizer who has been working with communities all over the world to conceive and create common spaces. He showed examples, and explained how the projects were conceived and built.

At a workshop the day after his talk, Milenko led us through an exercise in which we listed the activities that could occur in our local commons. People are tired of “visioning,” he said, because nothing ever happens. So we went for the mundane — reading, chatting, music, napping, and so on. A list of this kind reveals a lot about a community; what we do is what we are. It tells us about the needs to be met, and the conflicting desires to be reconciled.

Our aim here is to create a zocalo, or something that would embody the spirit of one. There’s a corner lot in town that would be perfect for this purpose. We are talking with the owner. Meanwhile, the process of deciding what the space could be, even hypothetically, is useful in and of itself.