On March 25, the Mayor's Challenge — a series of athletic events designed to bring neighborhoods together — will kick off with an open-play table tennis competition, which will take place at five venues around Palo Alto.
The challenge came out of discussions with Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN) leaders who said residential relationships have shifted toward less discourse and less interaction, Mayor Yiaway Yeh said.
As of Thursday, out of the city's 64,000 residents, only 15 people had signed up for the inaugural event, according to Stephanie Hannah, director of communications for the Palo Alto Family YMCA.
The table tennis tournament, the first of the mayor's challenges, is focusing on five locations throughout the city (see map). The challenge is open to all age groups and there is no age limit.
So far three neighborhoods are represented — Barron Park, Green Acres and Triple El — and Hannah said she hopes there will be many more signups, even on event day. Yeh lives in the Evergreen Park neighborhood.
Some residents said they thought the challenge is a good idea, but others seemed uncertain about whether it would create a strong incentive to be more connected.
Neighborhood building, in whatever fashion, is an asset to crime reduction and way of life, residents said, but the means for achieving connection seems as varied as the city's 34 neighborhoods.
"I like the mayor's plan to engage neighborhoods with each other; it's always a good idea to increase contact and meet others within one's community," Southgate Neighborhood Watch coordinator Jim McFall said.
"I believe getting to personally know the people on your block is one of the best ways to build community on a macro level. Getting to know your neighbors is also an effective way to address crime; witness the recent incidents where observant Palo Alto neighbors have noticed unusual activity on their streets, contacted police and helped to solve recent burglaries," he said.
Triple El resident Laura Lombardi said she and her family will attend at Jordan Middle School.
"As our kids go into new experiences, new schools, graduating on to middle school, high school, there is a huge benefit to know someone, even if it is just by recognition or first name. It adds to feeling more comfortable going into those new situations as opposed to feeling alone, unknown or out of place. True for us adults too," she said.
"It's a great idea to organize it at community centers, local school gyms, etc. It's flexible, (you can) show up when you can. It's very non-threatening. It's not necessary to come up with conversation or talk a lot unless you want to."
Barron Park resident Bob Frost said he had signed up to play at Terman Middle School.
"I will probably watch as much as I will play," he said. "It just sounded like fun."
Frost said it would be interesting to see if people come out. But for others, the challenge fell flat.
"I personally would not go to a neighborhood pingpong tournament, mainly because I have too many scheduled events and parties already (one of which happens to be a pingpong tournament) from our school community at Addison," Downtown North resident Corrie Sid wrote in an email.
There are other challenges on which her neighborhood focuses its energy, she said.
"The struggle with traffic in our neighborhood has left parents unwilling to leave their children to play on their own, even in their own front yard. ... If the mayor really wants our neighborhood to come together, we should block off some of the streets again ... I think we'd have many more opportunities to come together naturally, just because folks would be outside more often than today.
"Perhaps a block party would entice more interest, ... make it more social, versus an activity that forces folks to know a skill or how to do something other than say, 'Hi, I'm your neighbor,'" she said.
George Browning, Charleston Gardens Neighborhood Association leader, said he did not think many in his neighborhood would participate in the pingpong tournament.
"Neighborhood building will be difficult, since the neighborhoods are quite far apart — physically and economically. It will take a lot of work to find common ground — probably achievable in some areas but not others," he wrote in an email.
"This can be done with small beginnings in local neighborhoods, not the entire city. Journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step. He's trying to make a giant leap for mankind," Browning said.
Some residents said they could not discount the importance of personal, face-to-face connections. In Greenmeadow, the association has had a neighborhood meeting house, park and swimming pool since the 1950s — all were built by developer Joseph Eichler as part of his community concept.
"I'm glad Mayor Yeh is being proactive about this. Having fun together is a great way to build relationships. That has been Greenmeadow's philosophy for about 50 years," Penny Ellson of the Greenmeadow Community Association said.
"I think stable, happy communities are like stable happy marriages. Building relationships, understanding each other, happens when we make time to be together," she said.
"A friend of mine used to say, 'Love doesn't just happen. It's a habit. The habit of acting in a loving way makes love happen.' I think community is a lot like that."