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Senior Correspondent

When reconstruction of the retirement residence where I live was planned, a much-loved small gazebo was left out of the plans. That hit a nerve with many people, because for decades the gazebo was an informal spot to visit. Right in the center of the campus, it was easy to get to and much more than a place to visit.

A men's quartet sang harmony there each July 4. Hawaiian dancers and musicians entertained for a luau, and one resident celebrated her birthday by bringing bagpipers there. Two staff members chose it for their wedding. 

The outcry was so loud that now we hear the structure has been dismantled and stored and may be resurrected in a different location when the redevelopment is complete.

The furor started me musing aloud at other places that draw us together, and a friend promptly came out with, “The sandbox!” She grew up in the Midwest with three siblings and their dad put together a box in the back yard. He put planks across the top so kids could sit there and reach down to the sand, and pretty soon other kids in the neighborhood came. No set schedule, just when you felt like it.

The front porch of a two-story house was the spot for another friend’s gathering. She and her friends brought their dolls — hers was a Shirley Temple doll — and each doll had a shoebox. “My  dad worked for a woolen mill and gave us blanket samples that just fit into the shoe box.”

This friend became an artist and as an adult gathered with other painters in the parking lot of a historic California church. Watercolors took up the morning, then at noon out came the sack lunches, after which they viewed each other’s work. Those ambitious enough painted into the afternoon.

One of my own early gathering places was simply "the vacant lot” near our house. A rough baseball diamond was traced out in the dirt and kids who showed up could take part in a game of what we called “workup” — you started in the outfield and played every position as you moved to the big moment when you got to bat. Someone had a bat, someone brought a softball, and one or two had gloves. I was the only girl who took part and the cries of “Easy out!” were heard whenever I took the bat.

Another, more social place emerged in junior high (now middle school) years. On Saturday afternoons, an event known as the Mickey Mouse Matinee was held at the local movie theatre. It was during World War II, and after a long line of us paid 11 cents each to get in and get seated, the program started with Kate Smith singing, “God Bless America” against a projected field of waving flags.

The theater was usually packed, and it was the first memory I have of noticing who was with who, and who wasn’t with the classmate they came with last week. Often there was some action-packed episode of an ongoing serial. Next came a newsreel, "Movietone News," on progress of the war. And then – the feature – not always memorable but definitely the start of my lifelong enthusiasm for movies. And why not? There were terrific movies like “Casablanca” with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper as “Sergeant York,” actually a World War I story although the film was made in 1943.

A more contemporary urban planning trend that draws people has been the rise of parklets in many U.S.(and some foreign) cities. A parklet usually involves the removal of two parking spaces, a design for seating and minimum landscaping to encourage passersby to pause and relax for a bit. Often a parklet will be in front of, or near, a food-serving business, but signs make it clear that it is open to all.

Robin Abad Ocubillo, who oversees some two dozen parklets for San Francisco’s planning department, says their role goes well beyond just added seating or a buffer from traffic. They can be “focal points where neighborhoods come together, adding open spaces where there is not great open space.” They are not intended for just more seating for cafes.

Architect John King, the San Francisco Chronicle’s urban design critic, calls the trend “another small piece in the puzzle of how to build a well-rounded city.” The trend is nationwide.

Another trend drawing people together is the presence of food trucks, which have evolved from an old-fashioned hot dog or ice cream stand to offer almost any kind of food. Portland, Oregon, gets credit for the start of food trucks, but they are spreading to many parts of the country. Off the Grid, a marketplace on a onetime military base in San Francisco, attracts 32 food vendors each Friday night, making it the largest weekly street food market in California.

What's so special about the informal gathering places in our lives? It's the precious gift of time, something unplanned. Things crowd our schedules each day, so when a few extra minutes come up, we often head for a place where others may be. There are exceptions, but as pack animals we tend to move toward our own kind. It's not so much the place but what is apt to happen when we get there.

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