What are the intangibles that create community?

I can’t say for sure, but I’d swear that the gristled carnival barker who took my two-year-old’s ticket for the car-carousel was the same guy who took my ticket when I was two years old almost fifty years ago. I had returned to Como Park in Saint Paul, Minnesota for the first time since I was a child, this time with two young daughters of my own in tow, and to my jaded 49-year-old eyes nothing had changed. Not even the staff.

The rides bore the dents and rust and faded paint that suggested decades of service in the humid Minnesota summer. Some even had brief histories posted on them to describe what any observer would naturally guess, that these contraptions were old. My favorite was “The Himalaya,” a whirling set of cars that as early as 1910 thrilled the locals and, true to its name, momentarily relieved them from the humid heat by swirling through cooling blasts of air. But my two-year-old’s favorite was clearly the carousel of automobiles that I couldn’t get her off. After her fourth consecutive ride spinning the functionless steering wheel I asked the old barker if he’d bring her home for me at the end of the day. He just gave me a gap-toothed smile, a gentle silent comment that he’d seen it all working his post here since the days when I was a child.

Como Park has a small free zoo, many acres of picnic grounds and pavilions and shade trees and open fields for games of all sorts. Its conservatory of flowers is reminiscent of and almost as grand as the famous conservatory in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. It is an important public facility that, like so many similar facilities across the land, has served its citizens humbly and ably for many generations.

We didn’t go there often when I was a child growing up on the Minneapolis side of the Mississippi River. In those days it was a bit of a journey to Saint Paul, and we found our entertainments closer to home. These days there are so many freeways in the Twin Cities area that you can get anywhere fast, when the traffic isn’t snarled, that is, and the cities have sprawled way beyond the farm country that was inconceivably distant at that time. In the week that I visited recently I did more freeway driving than I’ve done in the past five years, and I began to wonder if the area wasn’t becoming something like Los Angeles, with suburbs out beyond the edge of the imagination and a car necessary for even the simplest errands, a freeway drive required for all but the most insignificant trips.

Como Park started me reflecting on the past, but it also illustrated those mysterious differences between your own children, products of the same genes and upbringing but worlds apart in their personalities. My first daughter, almost five, chickened out of ride after ride even though she wanted to try them. We only got her to go when her little sister said yes and boldly strode forward when asked if she wanted to ride the cars. They rode together, big sister having a ball but two rides was enough for her.

Watching little sister gleefully “steering” her car as it circled and circled, we sweltered on benches in the shade with other families, and I soaked in the sense of “we’re all in this together” that I hadn’t noticed much in my home of San Francisco. Was it the heat that created this sense of community? Was it the magic of this amusement park and all it represented, the history and tradition and love it has absorbed and created and captured these many years? Was it the overwhelming sense of innocence and joy I’d observed in the people here in my few days in Minnesota?

It got too hot for us to tour the zoo, and we’d promised the girls a visit to Legoland, so we left Como Park and got on the freeway headed for a very different kind of place.

When the Mall of America was built on the site of my hometown heroes’ baseball park I vowed I’d never set foot in the joint. Everything it represented was anathema to me: consumerism, phony entertainment, false environment, a palace of excess boasting that it was the biggest of its species in all the world. Blah!

But on a visit home a few years back my mother really wanted me to see a small piece of it, and who can disappoint his mother late in her life? So I went, and found that it wasn’t as demonic as I’d thought. This time we agreed to let the girls see the Lego display because they enjoy playing with Lego so much at home.

When we parked I was surprised, and delighted, to see that the parking lot hadn’t been paved since the Minnesota Twins played baseball there at what used to be Metropolitan Stadium. Even the lane dividers at the entrance, pock-marked and crumbling, dated to those early 1960s days. The same old light posts were there, quite possibly even the ticket booths where my younger brothers used to plot ways to sneak into games.

When we stepped inside the Mall of America the temperature dropped 15 degrees, and we were hit with energy of a different sort. Kids raced about, parents struggled with shopping bags, a high-tech roller coaster rattled above the crowd, a brass band strutted by blaring horns and drums. Soon we were in the middle of “Camp Snoopy,” an amusement park based on the Charles Schultz “Peanuts” cartoon. A massive ax rotated beneath a cathedral ceiling 50, 60, 80, 100 feet tall carrying dozens of passengers in rows of seats on a rotating platform. Screams of joy and anxiety radiated out over the crowd, but they didn’t sound the same as those I remember in places like Como Park. Maybe it was the echo of the indoors, maybe it was the reverberations in the great spaces of my memory.

We found Legoland and the girls got to build to their hearts’ content. They marveled at the Harry Potter sculpture even though they have no idea who or what he is. They enjoyed the flying machine contraption that moved back and forth on a tightrope, and they were especially thrilled with the ice cream cones we got before we left. Through it all the strangest thing happened. The longer we stayed the more I believed that we were actually outside. Daylight shined through the glass roof, but deprived of its heat. Camp Snoopy was designed to look like an outdoor site. The scale of the place seemed too large for an indoor space. Everything was comfortable and pleasant and I began to think the mall was all right.

They say the old home plate from Met Stadium is still there, embedded in the floor somewhere in the middle of this gargantuan place. They say also that the seat in left field marking Harmon Killebrew’s longest home run is still marked, again, somewhere in this giant mall. But I’ll never know for sure, or at least I don’t know yet, because I didn’t have the stamina to go look. When we stepped outside into the fresh air, the sticky, humid, hot fresh air of a Minnesota summer day, I suddenly realized what had been lost. The ballpark was gone, and in its place was a shopping mall and amusement park, all indoors to escape the climate that connects people to their roots and community. Como Park may be old, but it feels real in a traditional, old-world sense that the Mall of America does not. Today’s mall and its indoor entertainments are as real for today’s kids as Como Park was for me, but it was designed first and foremost to make a buck, not to serve the community.

Being inside may have its advantages. It’s certainly more comfortable. But it’s not real, it’s fantasy. It removes you a step from the earth, and in the end the Mall of America experience is as virtual as a computer game. With everyone essentially shopping, not sharing in the joys and wonders of a hot summer day, the sense of community is gone. Maybe I’m just a sentimentalist, but I’ll take Como Park any day. I’ll take the outdoors, with its heat and humidity, and community of people who know where they live.

About Larry’s Corner:
Larry Habegger, executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, has been writing about travel since 1980. He has visited almost fifty countries and six of the seven continents, traveling from the frozen Arctic to equatorial rain forest, the high Himalayas to the Dead Sea. In the early 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and since 1985 their syndicated newspaper column, “World Travel Watch,” has appeared in newspapers in five countries, and can also be found on WorldTravelWatch.com and on TravelersTales.com. As series editors of Travelers’ Tales, they have worked on some eighty titles, winning many awards for excellence. Habegger regularly teaches the craft of travel writing at workshops and writers conferences, and he lives with his family in San Francisco. Click here to learn more about Larry Habegger.