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February 23, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Where neighbors meet Where neighbors meet (February 23, 2005)

From restaurants to parks, local spots offer a place for community members to bond

by Sue Dremann

Allan Perry is in search of a new hangout. He used to sip his coffee with neighbors at Cafe Sophia, but the beloved Charleston Center café closed down Feb. 10 to make way for Peets Coffee, a chain known for strong brews -- and little or no seating.

Perry, a retired printer, spent the last few days trying to define a new comfort level at Palo Alto Café. On a Monday morning, the Midtown neighborhood hangout was brimming with neighborhood denizens -- middle-aged men sporting Australian bush hats ensconced on sofas discussing world events, and young mothers gathered for adult companionship, childrearing tips and gossip.

Nearly every neighborhood has a place where neighbors meet -- a coffee house, park or other local spot. Each gathering place is a window onto the neighborhood, a living room outside the confines of home. Where neighbors meet and the activities they engage in define the character of a community, neighbors said.

For Anne Horgan and Charlene Temple, the Palo Alto Café provides a welcome place for the busy women to socialize. On Tuesday mornings, the pair to catch up on news and "complain and commiserate," Temple said, often joined by four others whose children went to the same preschool.

"Timing-wise, there's no place where we see each other anymore, so there's a standing invitation among our group to meet here. Whoever comes, comes," Horgan said.

Dave Goldman, Craig Laughton and Penny McDermott gather nearly every day at the café, where photos of café denizens hang on the walls. Today's topic is cinnamon as an insect repellant. "Ants don't like cinnamon," McDermott said.

Sports is a favorite topic among the trio, but the conversation is bound to take off in any direction. Talk about sex is allowed, but politics is verboten .

Even those not engaged in conversation are attracted to the gathering spot. Some huddled over their laptops, sitting around the wrap-around bar encircling the coffee grinding machine.

"All sorts of groups meet there, or consider it their 'office.' I know I do," Midtown Residents Association Chair Annette Ashton said.

Restaurants offer another venue for people seeking a little community. At Boston Market, the clicking of tiles mingles with coffee and conversation as the Palo Alto Scrabble Club meets Monday evenings.

"We have players of all levels, ranging from people just learning how to play to those assisting their English as a second language," said co-director Mitch Bayersdorfer. "The nicest thing is that people feel they've done something really challenging, but just for fun. And they get to meet people from all walks of life."

The restaurants of Barron Park neighborhood offer the Barron Park Seniors group a rotating lineup where they can expand their gustatory experiences while socializing.

Thirty to 45 seniors ages 60s to 80s enjoy regular haunts such as Compadres, Su Hong, Hunan Gardens and Cibo.

"We will eventually hit all the Barron Park restaurants that have space for a large group," Mary Jane Leon, the seniors committee liaison said.

The group, she said, gives people a chance to "renew acquaintance with someone they knew years ago, when they had children in school and were active in the PTA, sports or music."

Parks provide another popular spot for neighbors looking to come together. From May to October, Ventura neighbors between West Meadow Drive and Page Mill Road gather at Boulware Park for potlucks they call "Magdalena's Dinners."

The attribution makes Magdalena Cabrera laugh.

"It started out six or seven years ago when my kids were smaller. I was looking for ways to get adult interaction, so I distributed fliers and invited people to have a potluck in the park, usually on the first and third Sundays of the month. We meet in Boulware Park at 5:30 p.m. and spread out blankets. The kids play; we share recipes. There's no pressure. It's just a good way to get to know your neighbors a little bit more," she said.

Some people even grow so close, they take their socializing outside the neighborhood. One group of women went on a hiking trip to the Italian Dolomites, Cabrera said.

Perhaps the most unusual gatherings take place in Bol Park: the Sunday morning donkey get-togethers. Weather permitting, at 9:30 a.m. Perry, a handsome 10-year-old miniature who was the model for the "Donkey" character in the movie "Shrek"; and Miner 49er, who is 20 going on 21, go for a leisurely Sunday stroll in the park with one or more of their 16 handlers, said Inge Harding-Barlow.

Neighbors come to pet and fawn over the animals. "It's a great way for children and adults to learn about large animals, and the donkeys love the attention," Harding-Barlow said.

Donkeys have been a part of Barron Park since 1936 and give the Barron Park neighborhood a singular character, and provide a rallying point for the community, she said.

E-mail Staff Writer Sue Dremann at sdremann@paweekly.com.


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