Assembling the Pieces

For those of you who don’t know me personally, I’ll let you in on a little secret. I love to build with Legos. But not just any Legos, mind you: I build the really complex sets that represent ships, planes, famous buildings, and monuments, plus some of the Star Wars ones. Once assembled, I leave them that way—which caused me to build a high, deep display shelf along one wall of my home office. My office has a vaulted ceiling, thankfully. Otherwise, I’d have a hard time fitting in my four-foot-tall Eiffel Tower (almost 3,500 pieces), or my three-foot-tall Statue of Liberty (almost 3,000 pieces, just about all of which are a particular shade of green), or my 3,000-piece, four-foot-long Star Wars Super Star Destroyer.

As an adult, I can afford these larger sets, which certainly don’t come cheap. But I’ve been playing with Legos since I was a kid, and back then not only could I not afford such things, I’m not sure Lego even made such sets. Many kids today, like myself back in the Sixties, content themselves with a large bucket of mostly standard pieces, and make with them whatever they dream up. This sort of creative play is very different from what I now do with Legos, and shows the versatility of the toy: the same basic bricks can either be used with a specific plan to build a predetermined object that is then left alone, or can be used to build fanciful objects that are then torn down and the pieces reused.

I’ve been thinking about these two different styles of building, and how they relate to the construction of a community. Communities naturally exist whenever several people get together, of course, but in order for larger groups to form a healthy, thriving community I believe that conscious efforts must be made by civic leaders. Those efforts are likely in the form of small nudges and encouragement towards desired behaviors, a series of which, over time, can create a community in which the members are happy and feel that they are a part. While I’m sure that our City Council would love a set of plans for building a successful community that are as explicit as what comes in the box with my Lego sets, they instead have to rely upon their own imagination to guide them. Fortunately they can look to other communities around the world for “pieces” that they can snap together in an effort to construct the kind of community that they envision. A new business here, a Farmer’s Market or an event there, a senior program or two, and voilá! We have a community!

Since taking up residence in Redwood City back in 1989, I’ve watched the community change and grow into what it is today: a vibrant one in which more people appear to be both informed and engaged (hopefully, in my own small way, I’m helping with that). I will freely admit that for many years after we moved here my wife and I were not very engaged, except perhaps with the local schools: we were very focused on our jobs, our kids, and paying for our house. But as our kids grew older and required less from us, and as our career successes helped solidify our financial position, we found ourselves able to look around us and start getting involved with our Redwood City community.

One of the first ways in which we did so was by attending “Music in the Park”—the Stafford Park concerts. Since Stafford Park is only a few blocks from our home, we began attending them right from the start. The crowds were light in the early days (and continue to vary from week to week, presumably due to weather or that week’s musical style) but overall they have grown to a nice, healthy size. While it’s the music that originally drew us, it is the community—the friends we run into and those that now regularly join us—that keep us coming back. We listen to the music, of course, but now it’s more of a backdrop to the social interactions that we have every Wednesday from 6-8 p.m. during the concert season. Now that that season has begun, come on over! You’ll see us at Stafford along with countless numbers of our neighbors, every Wednesday until the final concert plays its last note on August 19.

Creating the various summer concert series was one way that our City Council successfully worked to create a more cohesive community. Interestingly, however, it seems that minor tweaks to the formula—and perhaps the venue itself—has a strong effect on the resulting event. For instance, at the Stafford Park concerts you’ll see a wide variety of family-friendly activities: people dancing, kids playing, families and friends chatting and laughing over picnic suppers. The downtown Music on the Square concerts (Fridays, from 6-8 p.m., through September 4), however, have a very different vibe. For the first year or two of their existence my wife and I (along with some friends, usually) went to those concerts as well. The music was (and continues to be) great, but after a while we decided that those concerts just weren’t for us. For one thing, we didn’t really need a second set of concerts each week. For another, sitting in a chair on the hot concrete or asphalt simply doesn’t compare to the cool grass of Stafford Park. And perhaps more importantly, there was just a different feel to the crowd. Almost from the beginning the downtown concerts seem to have attracted a more adult crowd, and feel less family-friendly. You see far more overt drinking at the downtown concerts, and more readily see people consuming hard alcohol, which you I don’t ever recall seeing at Stafford Park (I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen, just that if it does, the park-goers seem to be a bit more discreet). And while for the first couple of years the crowds were manageable—that wasn’t an objection that we had at the time—the downtown concerts seem to be ever more popular, to the point where they’ve gotten a bit uncomfortable. I happened to be at last week’s downtown concert (albeit briefly), and, well, just look at it:

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Admittedly not every downtown concert may be quite this crowded: this particular concert was a Santana cover band, who may have been partly responsible for the sheer number of attendees. But at my age, at least, this isn’t really my idea of fun. I did check out the independent artists exhibiting their wares on the street adjacent to the courthouse, and I did listen to a couple of the songs, but I didn’t linger. As for the “community” aspect of these concerts, I got the distinct feeling—not based on fact, mind you—that many or even most of the concertgoers were not Redwood City residents. The downtown concerts seem to get advertised throughout the Bay Area, and I can’t help but think that a lot of people come into Redwood City just to attend. While this may very well be the intent, from anecdotal evidence it doesn’t seem that the downtown merchants are benefiting much from the influx of people. I certainly hope that the City Council is working closely with those merchants to ensure that the concerts are having the desired effect.

Enough on that—except that I should point out that Redwood Shores residents get three concerts of their own. While I have never attended any of these, I have to think that they are more akin to the Stafford Park concerts in that they draw primarily from the surrounding community.

Community building is not just about public events, however. Fostering a good mix of merchants that can fulfill a wide variety of needs goes a long way towards encouraging residents to shop locally, and thus spend more time within their own community. To that end, I’m always delighted to see new businesses spring up throughout the city.

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I took a pass through Sequoia Station on Monday and was delighted to see that the doors to our Habit Burger were wide open, the lights were on, and a large “Now Hiring” banner was hanging out front. As you read this, they may be officially open: from a sign out front it was clear that they were opening on Wednesday, but it wasn’t clear whether they meant June 24 or July 1. Either way, if you like this kind of thing, do be sure and check them out. I’ve tried the one in San Mateo, and I definitely prefer their product over Johnny Rockets’s, so I personally count this as a win for Redwood City.

Habit Burger may be a chain, but chain stores are a legitimate addition to the community mix. As are small independents, which I do admit to having something of a bias towards. Small businesses such as Kristi Marie’s:

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While not yet open when I went by on Monday, I was delighted to see not only the mural you see above, but a tall, thin chalkboard mounted near the front door proclaiming that they are “Coming Soon” and indicating that they, too, are hiring. Located at the corner where Arguello Street magically becomes Broadway Street and Broadway Street transforms into Marshall Street (that is, where Broadway crosses the Caltrain tracks), Kristi Marie’s will be serving coffee and espresso, cold-pressed juices, baked goods including sweet and savory Brioche, and salads. And as I mentioned in my post All in the Family, Kristi Marie is part of the Borrone family, with numerous connections to Redwood City.

I view Habit Burger and Kristi Marie’s as being the right Lego pieces in the right place to help form the giant model that is Redwood City. I think that the park concerts are similarly the right pieces in their proper places. The downtown concerts, I’m less sure of. The right piece, perhaps, but maybe added to the model in the wrong orientation? They definitely add something to the community, and perhaps what they add is what the City Council intends: after all, not every aspect of Redwood City is meant to appeal to every resident, and some aspects should certainly be aimed at those outside our community. Given that the City Council doesn’t have a step-by-step instruction book for putting our community together, they do what they can given the pieces they have and the vision in their collective heads: a vision, I might add, that is always in flux. That vision changes not only as the makeup of our City Council changes, but also to track the culture of the Bay Area, the country, and even the world. So if the Redwood City community was a Lego set, it wouldn’t be one that you build once and admire. No, it’d be a set that you constantly work on, fitting new pieces here and there, while occasionally removing and reworking whole sections. I enjoy watching the constant construction of our community as much as I enjoy building my giant Lego sets, and I’m very glad that I’m part of the set called Redwood City, rather than an outside admirer, looking at it sitting up on a high shelf.

3 thoughts on “Assembling the Pieces

  1. Thanks for the blog. I’ve enjoyed it from the start. I wanted to weigh in on the downtown concerts. To your point in the blog, not everything the city offers is for everyone. Personally, I enjoy the downtown concerts, much more than the park ones. I bring my kids and we buy food and enjoy the music. Personally, I like the music offered downtown better plus it’s hard to find time on a week night with the kids. Good for the city for drawing so many people in so they can have fun and then spend money downtown afterwards. Large crowd downtown on a Friday night, smaller/neighborhood crowd at the park during the week. Seems like a win/win to me.

  2. Hey Greg,

    Yet another great blog post. Given your love of Legos and building, do you have any interest in doing a post on the Downtown Precise Plan? It’s the ultimate instruction manual for building things. I’d be happy to loan you my copy.

    Regards, Kris Johnson

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