Where is the American Piazza? A Search for Unintentional Community

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

On a recent trip to the tiny mountain village of Scanno, about 2 hours east of Rome, I stood in the Piazza as evening fell and watched as hundreds of the town residents gathered. For no apparent reason. There was no festival or fair. No outdoor concert or play. They were gathering because that's what they do at around 6 pm each day while the weather allows it. Small children grabbed hands and ran around freely, while old woman sat on benches and talked, and men convened to drink and talk politics or share news of the day.

Taking in the scene, I turned to my companions and asked, not entirely rhetorically, "Where is the AMERICAN Piazza?" A wave of longing washed over me, as I couldn't think of where I would go in the evening in my own small town, which is actually about the same size as Scanno. And I realized that, sadly, the American Piazza may not actually exist.

It's not only the gathering part of the Piazza that I'm drawn to. It's the community that is created when people of all walks of life come together.

Having been involved in social change work and non-profit organizations for nearly 20 years, I have a wide "community" that is largely populated by people who do similar work, share similar values, and share a common world view. In other words, they are people very much like me. I also have my mountain biking community, my college friends, my Book Club community, and well... you see the pattern. In every case, it's a community that is based on shared interest or values.

But standing in that square in Scanno, I realized why I've never been drawn to the concept of "intentional community": ecovillages, co-housing units and housing communities comprised of people who share values and vision, and which by nature, tend to result in people who tend to agree with each other much of the time.

It's because I long for "unintentional" community. I crave gatherings not based on political affiliation, marital status, parenting status, or any other status. I crave the unintentional community of people who simply share a zip code.

On a different trip last year to Greece, my friend and I found ourselves talking politics with almost everyone we met, with no fear of hurt feelings or escalating conflict. Waiters would sit down at the table and for hours, we'd talk about any issue, always ending with a toast of "Yiassas" with big smiles and lots of laughter. As a Greek American born and raised on the East Coast, I have sometimes found that my penchant for diving into difficult and controversial topics at odds in my home in the Bay Area, where conversation often stays more pilot in mixed company. But on the tiny island of Skiathos, I realized again that community is about sharing ideas, arguing politics, and then toasting to life at the end of it all, without bruised egos or hurt feelings. This is fitting, since Greece is the birthplace of democracy, which by nature, relies on voicing opinions to encourage civil society.

Perhaps we are too conflict avoidant in our country. Or perhaps we have equated status with privacy and self-sufficiency, negating the need to call on your neighbors now and then. Or perhaps we just like the inside of our single family homes more than we like the fresh air of a town square. I don't know.

I do know that each time I visit a place where I see people, young and old, married and single, liberal and conservative gathering in a town square, I'm brought back to the same question. Where IS the American Piazza? If you know, I'd love to get directions.