To Sit and smell the roses
Years ago when Keith Gormezano sat on the porch of a historic 18th century home on the East Coast, he imagined neighbors and passersby from decades ago traveling the busy road that lined the front yard, bringing news from town.
In the small, cozy towns he visited during a six-month trip around the Unites States, Gormezano was often reminded that sharing with neighbors used to be a major form of news gathering and a way to stay in touch with the community. It struck him that this was no longer a characteristic of most American towns.
Even in a city like Seattle, it's hard to find these places where people can easily and comfortably communicate with each other, he said.
Gormezano, a 25-year Seattle resident, has been inspired by mini gathering places all over the city. In his own Phinney Ridge neighborhood it was the community reaction to a small park on Northwest 67th Street where he saw people gathering and connecting.
He soon offered funds, along with another community member, for new public benches. From where they sit in a garden area on the south side of the Phinney Neighborhood Association, the larger of the two faces the stairs coming down from the street to encourage interaction.
"They are arranged at a 90 degree angle to encourage people to comfortably talk to one another as well as eat lunch," said Gormezano.
The phrase, "Why be normal?" Gormezano's motto that was once plastered to the side of his old Volkswagen bus is etched upside down onto the left arm of the larger bench.
"If you are a kid and you see that phrase you might think about how we are always pressured to conform to what is considered normal," said Gormezano. "Maybe it makes us feel a little alienated from society if we don't think we are normal. Maybe by reading the slogan you can laugh and not feel so alienated or alone."
Gormezano lived in several communities in and outside of Seattle and learned that he preferred the closeness of the city with its walkable neighborhoods and communal parks.
"Just knowing there is a place a few blocks away that you can walk to with your kids and talk to your neighbors is a great feeling," he said. "I am for making better, friendlier and more social neighborhoods, if that's what it takes to get people to stay in Seattle."
City Repair Seattle, inspired by a Portland organization, has similar plans for creating more inviting, friendly neighborhoods to keep people living in Seattle.
Last year, the Greenwood Phinney Placemaking Alliance (GPPA), a companion organization to City Repair Seattle, received a Matching Funds Grant from the city to help neighbors create their own community gathering places, through "placemaking."
"These places can happen at the corner of your block, in a busy intersection, or even on a piece of a neighbor's own property that's been transformed into space for the purpose of knowing and connecting with your neighbors," said Cynthia Shick with City Repair Seattle. "Community placemaking is the process of community building itself."
The idea's range from a small shelter for trading used books, a bench, or as in one Portland neighborhood, a 24-hour solar-powered tea station.
These ideas are slowly building in many of Seattle's dense neighborhoods, proven by the 75 people from nine Seattle neighborhoods that showed up for a GPPA placemaking workshop earlier this year, said Shick.
"It totally snowballed," said Shick. "It showed us that there are people all over the city that know what we are about and are motivated to show up on a Saturday afternoon for their community."
Though the idea of placemaking wasn't in his frame of mind for the benches, Gormezano said the ideas shoot for the same goal; comfort with community.
Placemaking projects will begin this year in the Phinney neighborhood and Gormezano hopes the new benches and creative places built by residents will encourage a healthy movement that seems lost in today's neighborhoods.
"It was just my way of giving back to my community and encouraging people to talk to one another and share common ideas," he said.
"We want to restore that lost element back to our urban culture, one block at a time," said Shick.