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Let the Healing Begin

By Diane Dorney

"When I heard about the [attack on the] Pentagon, I immediately drove home. I just felt I wanted to be home in Kentlands at this time." Richard Nakles.

It didn't take long for Americans to seek comfort after the September 11th attack on America. For some, the search took them no further than just beyond their own back yards. Throughout the history of our country, parks, greens and plazas have been used as places for people to gather in times of crisis. During the week of September 11th, these places saw their share of candlelight vigils, prayer meetings and informal gatherings of people brought together by a national tragedy.

Victor Dover of Miami, Fla., was visiting a neighborhood his firm, Dover Kohl & Partners, helped redevelop in Davie, Fla. He said he felt fortunate to witness a candle ceremony held by the townsfolk to honor the fallen rescue workers and to pray for the United States. Dover said people walked, biked, skateboarded or drove to the small public space in front of the community's town hall. "Although the ceremony could have been held in a field or parking lot," he said, "it seemed to have far more dignity because it was held in a space made years ago for such gatherings."

"It's nice to have a space to go and gather with your neighbors during a time of crisis," said Eileen Dougherty, a resident in Kentlands located in Gaithersburg, Md. Dougherty organized a candlelight vigil on their neighborhood green in a matter of hours by sending out an e-mail message to a list of her community friends, who then passed the word on to others, and so on. That night several hundred people gathered on the green to light candles and sing patriotic songs. One of her neighbors led everyone in a moment of reflection. "I think we all felt a little better being together," she said.

At the seven-year-old community of Fairview Village, Ore., a News 'N' Brewz meeting had been publicized for the night of September 13. Sarah Holt, vice president of marketing for this traditional neighborhood development, had second thoughts about holding the meeting after the day's events. However, after some deliberation, she decided to go ahead with the event. "I think people were relieved to be able to get away from the horrific images on the television screen and come share a cold beer with their neighbors," she said. The meeting was held in one of the village's brickyard live/work rowhouses, which, like the library, are located on the main street of Fairview.

Just a few streets away in Kentlands' sister community, Lakelands, Dan Blitz was hurriedly putting together a vigil at one of their own recently completed public spaces. Blitz, one of the neighborhood's first board members, invited the city's mayor and Council and a reverend from the local clergy council, who led an ecumenical service for those who attended the vigil at Four Corners Park. Blitz said, "This will not be a mourning event but rather a show of spirit and patriotism."

Town Paper writer Karen O'Keefe attended the Lakelands vigil. "Since I do not live in Lakelands, I was struck by the strength of my online community and the support it offered me and my family by letting us know there was a place we could go last Friday night to gather with others," she said.

Approximately 200 people in Carboro, N.C., (17,000 pop.) banded together for a charrette to reinvent their downtown. These people included the entire leadership of the town. Dan Burden from Walkable Communities, who was involved with the charrette, said that when word of the attack hit there was discussion of canceling the event. Many on the charrette team could not get in. However, the event was held, along with an opening memorial, and people spoke from their heart for their future. He said, "It was one of the best public gatherings that I have had a chance to lead."

Public spaces have hosted many of our country's celebratory and joyful events -- it is how we most often think of their role. It is comforting to know our public spaces will be there for us in times of sorrow as well.