I live near a crossroads of sorts in our town. It’s a large traffic circle at the intersection of two residential roads that serve as thoroughfares. It’s not a big Boston rotary, it’s more like a village square – only round. There’s a park in the middle that was recently named for a longtime resident, but I continue to think of it under its more prosaic name, Mannakee Circle.
Like a lot of communities, our neighborhood is not a walk-everywhere kind of place, but you are always assured of seeing a pedestrian or two wherever you go. There’s an elementary school a few blocks in one direction, a community college in the other direction, and a community pool nearby too. So people seem to collect informally on Mannakee Circle. Sometimes people walking will stop and talk to one another about whatever is going on. There’s nothing special here, a small garden, some shrubs, and a few benches. But it’s comfortable.
You’ll also see, if you wait long enough, just about all your neighbors drive by. Like I said, it’s a thoroughfare. It’s not a big, fast road, but the circle is at the heart of things.
People use Mannakee Circle for a lot of different purposes. In the early morning hours you can see and hear groups of people being put through their paces by a drill sergeant type as they do calisthenics in a “boot camp” style exercise program. There’s a teenager who seems to practice Tai Chi every afternoon around three. Midmorning brings a local grandmother who stops off and sits with her grandchild, watching the cars go around. Sometimes I sit on the circle and strum my guitar while knots of people walk by on their way to a local Italian ice store that is nearby.
While there are sometimes ceremonies that take place here, that’s not its main function. It’s not an official town center. It’s ad hoc.
I think of Mannakee Circle as one of my favorite public spaces. It embodies a number of characteristics:
- It’s a meeting place. We don’t have enough places where you can just happen upon people these days. This is one of those places.
- It’s informal. Mannakee Circle was not set aside for this or that civic purpose. It’s just a place. People go through it and meet up without having the feeling of entered some official realm.
- People make of it what they want. People use Mannakee Circle for all sorts of things, from a simple way from here to there, to a conversation salon, and even an exercise studio. It does not require a certain kind of behavior, set-up, or special rules. Just ordinary common sense.
- It knits together the community without being the focus. Mannakee Circle is by no means the main focus of town, but it is a presence and most people in the neighborhood have been there and know it. You can use it as a landmark, as a destination, as a Frisbee field, as a meeting place. Because it’s so gently in everyone’s consciousness, it connects us.
- It’s all potential. The circle is really just a large expanse of grass with some benches and shrubs. The only limits are safety (it’s in the middle of roads, after all) and imagination. It’s not an official “meeting room” in a civic building, nor is it even a “recreation area” in a park. It just is there.
- It can be more if desired. There is so much more that could be done. Why not have a block party there? How about an open air concert? Or maybe a community meeting? All these things are possible. No one has yet done them – but they could.
Today, almost every space in our lives has to be built have a purpose. Even a new park has months of planning behind it, as it gets laid out for maximum recreational impact and the proper playground equipment gets ordered in.
There are many groups that seek to build community, trying to recapture the magic that happens when people work out together, and for themselves, how they ought to approach a public issue. There’s even an office in the White House designed to do this. Many of these efforts seem formal, mechanized. It’s hard for ordinary people to grab a hold of them.
This is why I love this circle. It is unassuming and informal – just a space that people fill in their own ways, at their own pace, for their own purposes.
And out of this informality and possibility emerge meaning and community.