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The first thing I asked my husband Charlie to build after we bought our teeny-tiny house seventeen years ago, was a picnic table.  Our little cottage was 700 square feet.  An efficient two bedroom one bath that we got for a steal , it had no real place to sit and eat dinner.  We dined at our coffee table.

So, as soon as the weather improved he set about building a big social picnic table so that we could have friends for dinner.  During the winter, we did have friends for dinner from time to time but two people would have to sit on the floor and two on the couch to use our coffee/dining table.  We only invited our closest friends to sit on our hardwood floor and eat.

True to his nature, Charlie designed and built a beautiful oversized picnic table with perfectly comfortable proportions for getting in and out without banging knees, with plenty of width to hold bowls and platters of food in the middle without crowding the diners and the most comfortable distance for conversation.  The top of the table was just a couple of inches shy of 4’ x 8’.  The structure was simple and clean.  We applied a translucent stain to give it a pickled look and protect the wood a bit.

That picnic table sat out in our yard for 15 years and played host to countless meals with friends and family.  The wood aged to a comfortable silver grey.

When we designed our new home, the center point/nucleus/origination point for the entire design was a large table that could host a new generation of meals with friends and family.  It took us two years to build our home and during that time the economy collapsed and along with that were any immediate plans to spend additional money furnishing the house….or finding  that perfect table.

Since it was November, we decided to bring our beloved picnic table indoors.  The top was pretty beat up from spending so many years outside in Seattle weather.  So Charlie fastened a new top to the table.  A 4×8 sheet of maple veneer plywood.  He put a nice edge trim on the top and finished it with the leftover polyurethane finish we used for our bamboo floors.

The result was a new favorite!  Smooth, glossy mod top with silvered, weathered soft bench seats….and you can even find a little moss underneath leftover from its previous  life in the outdoors of the Great Northwest.  It seats  8 comfortably and 12 is cozy…adding chairs to the ends.

It doubles as a ping pong table after dinner.  And an art project table.

So, we’ve decided we no longer need to search for that perfect dining table.  Now, what we really need is a new outside picnic table!

Some new friends invited us to their boat docked in Lake Union, here in Seattle. This is the first year they’ve been at this dock and they are trying to get to know the other boat owners.  Although they’ve owned their boat for 5 years, they were docked at two other marinas with beautiful boats and tighter security but they were “dead”.  They were looking for more social interaction.   People they could recognize and say hello to.

I have never been a boater and did not grow up in a boating family, so I don’t know what it’s all about.  But it was obvious from the time I set foot on the dock  that part of the fun of boating is just to enjoy it while it is docked…which  means enjoying the  folks hanging out on the neighboring boats.

I know this is true for camps back east.  I know people that leave their homes on an acre or more, to go to their ‘camp’…a camper/trailer that is parked in a campground all year long.  The camper may be all of 12 feet wide and their whole campsite may be 30 feet wide.  They spend their summer weekends and more  hanging out in this small space just to be social with the other campers.  They sit outside and chat with everyone that walks by.  They drive their golf cart or ATV around the campground and say hello to everyone they meet.  They spend the day cooking, eating, tinkering around and being social.  They spontaneously  invite passersby to join them at their picnic table or around their fire  for drinks or dessert.  They go to a friend’s camper for dinner or morning coffee.  They take walks.

The same seemed to be true for the boaters.  They walked the dock and chatted with other boaters.  They wave or shout to everyone that walks or boats by.  They invited people for appetizers or spontaneously accepted an offer of margaritas from Keith, the guy who has a perfectly good house three blocks up the hill from the dock in a very desirable neighborhood…but he chooses to live on his houseboat that’s decked out in party lights and palm trees.

I find myself longing for the same thing this summer.  To take off and set up tent camp at a campground somewhere and narrow life down to making meals, tinkering around, watching the boys play, chatting with others and hopefully sharing a spontaneous margarita or a meal with a fellow camper.

I find it interesting that when we want to get away, take a break from our schedules and responsibilities, many of us move toward opportunities to be social with other people…even strangers!

At the same time, how many of us incorporate opportunities for social interaction into our everyday homes and lots?  We put up 6 foot fences around our yards.  We choose the homes with the bigger lot, further from neighbors, set back from the sidewalk and street.  We orient our lives toward the back yard and ignore the front yard and front porch (if we have one).  We choose neighborhoods with no destinations within them…no reasons for people to walk along the sidewalks.  All in the name of ‘privacy’.

We do design into our homes wonderful spaces for socializing like big social kitchens or back decks and patios for planned BBQs or parties.  But these interactions take some effort to instigate.  We have to coordinate schedules and invite people, grocery shop, cook, etc.

We don’t spend much thought or effort designing for spontaneous social interaction with neighbors walking by.  These are the freebies.  No planning involved.  A chat at the sidewalk or the fence.  A beer on the front porch.  These seem to be the same kind of social interactions we seek out at boat docks and campgrounds.

And I have to wonder….are we lonely at home?

I need some old people. My 5 ½ year old talks so much, has so much to say, that we have long ago reached the limit of what we can listen to on a daily basis.  But he keeps going.   He is smart, insightful, creative, comedic, and if my definition is correct, an extrovert.  Or maybe it is just part of being 5 ½.  He seems to process most of his thoughts out loud.  He loves to challenge me with his ‘tricky’ word puzzles and he wants math problems.  He likes to play twenty questions.  Constantly.  All day.  Every day.  Non-stop.  See where I’m going with this?  Car rides can be mentally exhausting.  I take naps now.

When I was a kid, we had lots of older neighbors.  The Steinacker’s lived right next door.  Willie and Katie never had children so they became like grandparents to me.  According to my mom, I would go over there almost every day…either knock on the door or press my nose up against the back screen door to see into the kitchen or join Katie while she was gardening in the back yard, hanging up laundry to dry or sitting on the back step dipping her arthritic hands into a coffee can full of hot paraffin wax.  We talked.  We hung out, really. 

On the other side of our house was Lizzy.  She lived alone. But I would go over to her house and knock on the door.  She always had a full candy dish on her dining room table.  That may have been my excuse for going over to hang out with her.  Otherwise, we would sit at the kitchen table and talk, while she drank her coffee.  I remember she would fill a tea cup full of coffee, then put cream in it so that it overflowed onto the saucer.  She would stir it so that more would spill on the saucer.  Then she would remove the cup and drink from the saucer, since the temperature of the coffee in the saucer was cooler.  I loved watching her do that.  I would hang out with her while she worked her flower garden.  She grew huge orange and black poppies and enormous peonies.  I can’t remember what we would talk about.  Just chatting I guess.  I didn’t have the kind of childhood where I experienced any trauma and needed someone to talk to about being sad.  I guess I just liked to hang out with people.  And these people were right next door, they were home and they didn’t send me away.

On the other side of Lizzy’s house lived the other Steinacker’s.  Geraldine and Les were brother and sister and I spent a lot of time with them as well.  Geraldine always greeted me in German.  “Guten Tag!”  I had my very own special little drawer in one of the pieces of furniture in their dining room.  Geraldine would put stickers or anything interesting she received in her junk mail in “my drawer”.  So I would knock on their door and when I went in, my first stop would be my drawer.  And then we would just chat.  I liked to rock in the rocking chair in their living room.  Or eat Saltines and Fresca  with Geraldine while her other brother Norm sat at the kitchen table on Sundays doing the crossword puzzle. 

So, it seems a big part of my daily life as a child consisted of dropping in on my elderly neighbors and hanging out with them.  And since reconnecting with childhood friends via Facebook over the last year, it seems they, too, spent their childhoods doing the same thing.  We have been sharing stories about what a huge impact our older neighbors have had on who we are today. 

And I can’t help but think…this is what my 5 ½ year old needs.  I could see him confidently walking door to door, visiting, chatting, wondering aloud about infinity and war and growing watermelon and how hot the sun is and  playing twenty questions. 

This idea of kids needing or being enriched by the attention of seniors in their neighborhood connects to bigger issues in urban planning, housing and community building.  But for now, I will keep it at the simplest level.  I need some old people.

So, how would I do this?  It’s not like signing him up for camp or gymnastics class…I guess I have to go knock on my 90-year old neighbor’s door and schedule a “play date”.

As I mentioned in one of my earliest blog posts, when we designed our home, I included space in the bathroom and the kitchen for growing plants indoors.  I wanted to design this in for so many reasons including improving indoor air quality, the ability to have fresh herbs during the winter and …the smell of Jasmine makes me happy! 

 While I do love gardening, I do not have a green thumb.  I have killed all of my indoor plants by neglect.  But by designing these indoor planting areas next to a water source and next to south and west facing windows…and in places where I am looking directly at them SEVERAL times each day…I am hoping to improve their odds of survival and my odds of success. I have been looking for months for a planter to start my indoor plant experiment in the kitchen. I found a planter online a few weeks ago and after several shipping snafus, have planted my first indoor box.

Now, for the Jasmine.  I started with Arabian Jasmine because it is my favorite.  While it does really well in warm and tropical climates, this “true” jasmine has to be a houseplant in the Pacific Northwest.  This is the kind of  jasmine that is used in tea.   The smell is amazing…soothing, lovely.  I put three small Jasmine plants into the planter and within two weeks it bloomed.  The scent in the kitchen is SO wonderful.  It makes me take a deep breath every time I walk up to the sink…another benefit. 

 There is almost nine feet of windowsill in the bathroom.  That’s going to be the next target.  Nine feet of Jasmine!  Yum.  I wish this blog had “smell-o-vision”. 

The next experiments will be with herbs in the kitchen.  I may have to find larger planters.

So, I highly recommend this to anyone that has a windowsill!  Enjoy!

Glass window sill planter

wonderful scent, small white flowers turn purple.

But maybe not in the way you were thinking…

He walked to work.  When he entered the house, he changed his shoes and put on a cardigan…a ritual to symbolize he was about to begin something special. 

He connected learning and growing to being a part of a community.

He visited friends in the neighborhood to learn new things and meet new people.  Friends stopped by to drop off interesting things that he asked to borrow or they thought he would like. 

He frequented the local bakery, music shop and other neighborhood businesses and turned those visits into learning opportunities.  Those business owners often hosted special events in their stores to feature other local artists.

His “educational” visits weren’t so kid-centric that they involved the over the top silliness that we seem to think kids require these days like dancing characters or goofy high energy songs.  Mr. Rogers introduced jazz and cake decorating and ballet and violins…all through the people in his neighborhood. 

He asked questions.  He modeled how to ask people about themselves and their work.  A page right out of Dale Carnegie and still the best way to engage others and learn. 

He held the role of neighbor up as something special.  It meant kindness, respect, sharing resources.  Granted, some of his “neighbors” were a little unsual.  Hyperactive Mr. McFeely comes to mind.  Just like in the real world, our neighborhoods have their “characters”. Even characters play an important role in a neighborhood, helping to ad to its identity and flavor.

Mr. Rogers sat on the front porch or front steps and waved to passers by.  He played games on the sidewalk.  People walked by with their dogs or rode by on bikes.

Maybe that’s why many in my generation are drawn more and more to walkable urban neighborhoods with coffee shops and other shops. While we were watching TV in the 70’s, the grownups were building suburban neighborhoods that were more conducive to driving a car to the store or playing with other kids just like us in our own cul de sac.  Not too many characters here. 

But we have a longing to be somebody’s neighbor… to wander into Joe Negri’s music store and hear an impromptu jazz session…to be recognized by the store clerks and to be waved to on the street…to be taken care of at our favorite neighborhood restaurant.  We have that familiarity of Mr. Roger’s neighborhood buried somewhere in our childhood brain cells and it feels right. 

Mr. Roger’s fictional neighborhood held a richness of daily life that some of us get to experience today and some of us don’t.  As a whole, we have become more and more fearful of people we don’t know which make it more difficult for us to participate in a “neighborhood”.  That fear creates isolation.

Mr. Rogers’ modeled interacting with people.  We can model the same for our children. 

When children are known to others, it feels good.  They walk a little taller.  The world is a little friendlier.  People notice when you’ve lost a tooth or that you got a new bike.  There are friendly faces when you have a school fundraiser and have to test your salesmanship skills or just get up enough courage to get words out of your mouth. 

The impact of our “neighborhood” or lack thereof  goes so deeply into how we feel and how our children feel about themselves.  And it really comes down to the physical forms that we as planners and developers have created. 

So, I don’t know if Mr. Rogers really thought about all of this when he was creating his show and its fictional setting.  But I suspect he did.  He had the gift of distilling things down to their basic elements…in the way he spoke to children about feelings and the songs he wrote…in his intentionality of his daily rituals…in the way he asked others questions.  I think he completely understood the immense learning opportunities presented by a diverse and walkable neighborhood.  And he was decades ahead of planners in the 70’s who were busy designing something much different. 

 

This topic has been following me, not so much haunting me but regularly tapping me on the shoulder at dinner parties and conferences and coffee with friends. 

We do not grow food or even for the most part, allow residents of low income housing to grow food. 

“They won’t do it.  If it’s not fat and sugar and salt, they won’t eat it”, say my neighbors…an acupuncturist and a nurse. They see the up close results of how many of our low income…and not so low income…families eat, in America.  Processed, fattening, no nutrients, food dyes. 

 I don’t subscribe to the idea that people will do that which is in the best interest of themselves and their families.   Look around.  So I don’t think that healthier food will be the reason that people participate in food growing at an apartment community. 

 But growing fruits and vegetables in low income housing is not only about eating healthier food and providing healthier food for our children, but it is about having a reason to walk out your door.  It is about that meditative state of pulling weeds and working in silence.  It is about chatting with your neighbor and offering a taste of a sweet cherry tomato or a seeing a child’s face light up when she tastes that just picked sweet raspberry.  It is about constantly learning new things and problem solving which wakes up the brain.  “Let’s try this kind of seed.”  Maybe if we mound it like this.”   It’s about sharing. “ I have some extra bean seeds, would you like them?” 

We have over 50 million people in our country that have a hunger problem.  And what I’ve recently learned is that a hunger problem in the US means poor nourishment.  Poor nourishment manifests itself in physiological problems:  diabetes, hypertension, ADD .  Our country’s poor or low income buy the food that they can afford, that fills them up.  I remember walking into people’s apartment units and seeing the same scene in the kitchen repeated from home to home.  The poorest quality food filled their cupboards…High fat and salt, lots of food dyes, low nutritional value.  Box macaroni and cheese that you can get for $0.50 a box, sugar drinks.  Not a fruit or vegetable to be found.  The children were living on this.  It’s no wonder that most of them claimed to have ADD or ADHD.  Other than school lunch, they weren’t getting food with any nutritional value and their bodies and brains were trying to grow and develop without the proper fuel. 

When you are on food stamps, you have a very limited amount of money you can spend each month…so you have to do your best to make the food you purchase last for the whole month.  (Think about it.  You probably did the same if you were unemployed this year or concerned for your job security.  Did your grocery purchasing change a bit?)  You buy the cheapest and most filling products.  These also happen to be the ones with little or no nutritional value.  And because our food has changed dramatically over the last 30 years, a cycle has started.  The poor are now cycling through generations where the young parent, who grew up on low nutrition, poor quality, processed foods are now feeding  their children on food stamps from a grocery store that offers them these low cost options.  Do I spend $2.50 on a red pepper or some broccoli…or for that same $2.50 I could get 5 boxes of macaroni and cheese or 5 cans of condensed soup or an 8 pack of ramen noodles.  Today’s low income children are barely even tasting vegetables as children…so they only know the sweet and salty processed food.

And when children do not get nutritious food while they are growing, their brains suffer most of all.  They are not able to concentrate and the rest is downhill from there.  They are not able to keep up with their peers academically.  They have behavioral problems… sitting still, focusing, moody, tired.

So bringing food growing into low income apartment communities is not about trying to create new jobs or income for residents that grow and could sell the produce.  That is making it do too much.  There is a  much more immediate problem…poor nourishment.  Hunger. 

The opportunity to produce your own healthy food should be afforded to residents in low income apartment housing.  A huge proportion of this housing has land that is planted with grass and other plants for “curb appeal”.  The property pays thousands of dollars each month to a landscaping company to weed, mow, trim, prune and even plant flowers. 

But residents that try to take over some of the dirt outside their patios or grow vegetables in pots on their patios are disciplined.  They get a notice to comply or move out.  Not because the property manager is mean, but because the landscaper sprays pesticides/herbicides and cannot keep it off the patio plants.  And because the rule in multifamily management is keep everything visually the same.  When people even put things on their patios, it looks junky.  There is this desire for uniformity.  Gardening is anything but uniformity. 

I went to a site that was made up of two separate apartment communities but they happen to be right next to each other.  The larger one was off the main road and it housed the manager and the office.  The smaller complex was up on the hill behind the first.  You could either climb up some pathways on a relatively steep hill for walking or you had to get in your car and get there via back streets.  You could see the back of the complex from the one below. 

The manager was an older woman that had been there for years.  And she kept the place in pretty good shape.  The lawns were always mowed, no trash lying around and there were always lots of flowers planted in front of her office.  She had had some pretty big things happen in her life over the last two years and had been distracted.  In addition, she had hurt her leg and could not walk very far without pain.  But because she lived in a unit at the lower complex and worked in the office…perhaps a 25 yard walk to work…she didn’t complain. 

What was happening, or not happening, was that she had stopped walking up to the apartment on the hill in the back.  It was an elderly building so it was usually pretty quiet.  There was nothing pressing forcing her to climb up that hill.  And she could see it from below.  The landscapers were mowing and it looked fine from the vantage point of the apartments below.  Weeks turned to months and months turned into more than a year…she didn’t walk up there. 

When I arrived and asked for a tour, we hiked up the hill to the apartments in the back.  I was delighted.  She was horrified.  The elderly residents had taken over every square foot of dirt and patio space for gardening.  There were at least a hundred pots lining the walkways and clustered outside their front doors and on the balconies.  They had put small fences around their patio areas and began creeping into the lawn with small gardens.  Someone must have found an old greenhouse because they now had one!  And it was full of seedlings. 

The property manager looked like she wanted to explode and disappear at the same time.  She was so embarrassed at her obvious lack of oversight that she was ready to take it out on the residents with a full force clean up and threatening letters and notices of rule violations. She kept apologizing for how bad it looked.  I could only grin.  I thought it was beautiful.

It was beautiful because I knew people were taking care of themselves.  They were coming out of their apartments and gardening.  They were sharing seeds and seedlings and tools.  They were sharing their harvests.  They were talking with each other.  They had built a quiet little community out of sneaky gardening….that grew while no one else was paying attention.

They are different.  They stand out a little or a lot.  They may be “eccentric”.  Or they may have some mental challenges that cause them to always be way outside the “normal” box. 

When I was a kid, we had Mr. Bender who always wore a bowler hat and was seen regularly being dragged down the street in our town by his huge german shephard.  He always tipped his hat at ladies and mumbled some jibberish that could only be interpreted as suggestive.  You could also catch glimpses of him in other towns, without his dog, attempting to get a ride back home by shuffle dancing around, bowing, waving and tipping his hat while hitchhiking.  I suppose someone from our neighborhood would drive him there and drop him off.  I think he was mostly alone.  I don’t remember seeing him much with other people…other than when he got a ride.  We had a few other characters, but most were not as colorful as Mr. Bender.  It was a small town. 

Living in an urban neighborhood as an adult, we have plenty of characters.  “Running lady” who always wears braided pigtails, bright red lipstick and runs to the bus stop as well as home from the bus stop…not because she’s late for something.  It’s just what her body or mind tells her to do.  “Yelling guy” who rides a bike in cowboy boots and yells at imaginary people.  The old guy in the dark grey suit and fuzzy grey white hair and beard that shuffles around mumbling.  These are the characters that really stand out. 

But there are others that you may not think of as characters.  The guy with the tattooed head who could always be spotted pushing a double stroller.  The cyclist that rides to and from work each day pulling his dog behind him in a laundry basket on a trailer.  The neighbor that is always organizing stuff, attending neighborhood meetings or passing out fliers.  The super friendly clerk at the game store or the owner of the BBQ joint with the distinctive voice that stands in the doorway and talks to everyone. 

These people are filling an important role in a community.  They add to its identity.  They create common experiences and knowledge that can shared by members of the community.  “You know the yelling guy?”  “Yes!  He rides by our house all the time!” 

They enrich our daily experience while we are moving through our day and along our familiar paths to work, to school, to the store.  Our communities are not only the buildings, streets, and parks that create the spaces we occupy but the people that create the energy and the color of our experience.    Without them, our experience might not be as colorful.

I have to say, they all make me smile.  Some make me sad.  On any given day I can be reminded of the fragility of the human brain.  I can appreciate their creativity and ingenuity.  I can be fed by their friendliness.  I can admire their authenticity.  I appreciate that range of emotions they spur in me.

I had a sister with Down’s Syndrome that died when she was only three.  But I think of her.  And I think that had she lived to be a somewhat independent adult, I would have wanted her to live in a community where she could walk to stores to get what she needed and ride the bus.  But most importantly, I would have wanted her to live somewhere where people would know her, recognize her and say hello to her.  She may have been a neighborhood character, because she would have been noticeably different and I imagine she would probably have been very social and said hello to everyone. 

I appreciate that my children get to experience this with me.  They have grown up knowing that there are SO many different kinds of people…no one is weird just because they do things differently.  It’s ok to be just who you are.  I am so thankful for that gift. 

One of the underlying reasons a community has or does not have characters is housing.  If a community has all different kinds of housing options… large, small, affordable, not so affordable, condos, single family, apartments, group options, rooms for rent, or ‘mother in law’ apartments …a wider variety  of people can live there.  A mix of uses is another key.  Shops, restaurants, library, post office, bus stops, grocery stores, services within walking distance can support a wider variety of people…with and without cars.  A walkable, mixed use neighborhood is not just a trendy idea for coffee shops and sidewalk cafes.   This gets people out into the world.  Young and old, rich and poor, able and disabled… Otherwise, we wouldn’t experience each other. 

And we wouldn’t experience our neighborhood characters.  They would be in cars.  Or somewhere else.

I would love to hear about the characters in your community!

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