The unique nonprofit in Issaquah is devoted to bringing back the concept of the town square. It takes on public-gathering projects in neighborhoods across the country and even abroad.

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TO THE NEIGHBORS of Washington Park in Walla Walla, there was nothing particularly inviting about the 12 acres they lived next to.

Playfields and basketball courts took up one half. But the rest didn’t amount to much. Few families found reason to stroll over on a lazy summer evening or set up a picnic there. The table likely would have been tagged with gang-related graffiti; the park, pretty much empty.

Yet the neighbors felt inspired to do something. They were weary, yes: of the drug activity, the vandalism, the pressure of striving for a better life in a low-income neighborhood bordered by railroad tracks and a busy arterial.

But reclaiming this park, their park, meant something big. They knew it could be done.

Two years ago, they set out to do it.

THINK, FOR A moment, about this: What would your neighborhood need to get more people of all ages outside to chat, linger and celebrate?

Now, would your neighbors be willing to volunteer hundreds of hours to make this thing happen?

Would you?

The answer always surprises Milenko Matanovic.

No matter how many years — and it happens to be 26 — that he’s helped create community gathering spaces, he’s awed by the power of what a group knows, what it can accomplish and what it is willing to sacrifice for the greater good.

Matanovic, 65, is founder of Pomegranate Center, a unique nonprofit in Issaquah devoted to bringing back the concept of the town square. The center takes on public-gathering projects in neighborhoods across the country and even abroad, organizing meetings, training leaders, coordinating volunteers and finding construction materials.

To get the job done, the center summons its cadre of Public Space Rangers — designers, architects and artists who offer up their skills pro bono. About 60 professionals are on what’s called the Ranger Roster. Their contribution last year was worth about $137,000, Matanovic says.

More than 40 gathering spaces have been built to date, the latest under way in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

In years past, Matanovic and a small team built projects for free to showcase the concept. But soon those communities began to notice something: A simple gathering place had the power to make people acknowledge each other in ways they never had. The impact went viral. Now, thanks to social media and word-of-mouth referrals, Pomegranate has to turn down requests.

Here’s how it works: Communities that want to engage Pomegranate submit proposals, which Matanovic and his staff comb through, looking for key pieces of information. Is there a great idea? A site? Are enough neighbors committed?

“Sometimes you see a lot of excitement, but people may not want to do the work,” Matanovic says. “I always say, ‘We will work with you. But we will not work for you.'”

That philosophy carries over into fundraising. Projects can cost anywhere from $40,000 to $200,000, so raising at least some cash telegraphs a level of seriousness. More important, when neighbors collect donations, even small ones, ownership starts to take root, Matanovic says.

When Matanovic built projects for free, he and his wife had two young daughters, and he felt the pressure to provide as any father would. But, he says, he was lucky enough to find supporters who funded these startup projects and “somehow, it was possible for me to do this and survive.”

Now, after weathering losses during the recession, Matanovic and a staff of four are bringing home paychecks and getting things done. Tully’s Coffee recently partnered with the center and donated $450,000 to build five projects during 2011 and 2012. The grant helped the center pull off four of the projects in the Seattle area within just seven weeks last year. In the Wedgwood neighborhood, a private Christmas tree lot — unused for 10 months out of the year — was converted into a community amphitheater. In Kirkland, a park was made over with a picnic shelter, benches and a stone storytelling circle where people can sit and watch children play. Residents on Mercer Island and in Sumner helped transform spaces outside a library and in an alleyway.

“Gathering places are really a demonstration of what is possible when collaborative principles are put into practice,” Matanovic says. “We now have a body of knowledge that has been hard-earned, with lots of mistakes and lots of misdirected steps.

“But lessons came out of it. And these lessons are being looked at as something valuable to contribute to the greater society.”

MATANOVIC IS all about big thoughts and big ideas.

He himself is not a big man. A few inches shy of 6 feet, he’s whippet-thin with long hands that move through his graying hair as he talks.

These hands once created works of avant-garde art that are displayed in Eastern European museums. But at 24, he says, he started to question this path and left his hometown in Slovenia at the northeastern edge of Italy.

He traveled. He met people. He started to see how art could, and should, be used to influence everything from buildings to shopping centers to parking lots.

This notion of art as a seed, to be planted and nurtured into something exquisite, is how Matanovic came up with the name “Pomegranate” in the first place.

Plus, calling it “The Center for Exploration of Community and Art and the Environment and Economy,” didn’t quite have the same ring, he jokes.

Inside the center’s cinder-block office in Issaquah, photo after photo shows the intersection of people and nature. Projects fuse elements like the wind, sun, native plants and animals because, Matanovic says, our happiness is inextricably linked to the natural world.

It’s also why sustainability — or, as Matanovic calls it, “surviving with less” — is integral to construction. Recycled materials such as wood, asphalt and rubber often take center stage.

The project in Walla Walla, for instance, paid homage to the area’s hops vines and used wood from blown-down trees for picnic tables and poles.

The Wedgwood gathering place on 35th Avenue Northeast had to be built with movable parts because a family uses the space two months of the year to sell Christmas trees. The solution: build benches with old bike tires.

Outside the Mercer Island Library, dogwood twigs, a trail of hazelnut shells, cedar and rock formed around the idea that heightening our sense of nature makes us more receptive to stories and each other.

Matanovic points to a cedar tree outside his window.

“Look at this branch,” he says. “How much can we learn just by looking at one tiny little branch of a tree?”

From that, he says, something more can grow.

A HEALTHY community is like a well-oiled wheel. The spokes align in the center, spinning in fluid motion. If one of the spokes is broken or uneven, the whole community suffers.

This troubles Matanovic, who noticed these broken spokes everywhere when he came to America in 1974. Where he grew up, in the city of Ljubljana, pedestrian centers were the focal point, much as they are throughout Europe.

“That’s where people bump into each other, kids run around and old-timers sip their wine and smoke cigars,” he says. “It’s the sum total of these actions that provides the infrastructure to community life.”

So why did that seem largely missing in the States? Blame it on our pioneer spirit or the invention of the automobile. Regardless, says Robert Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard University, leading our disparate lives costs us. Dearly.

Putnam has written best-selling books on social cohesion, most notably “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” published in 2000. In it, he says it’s imperative that Americans reverse this decline in “social capital” and re-establish face-to-face connections.

Matanovic believes part of the difficulty is that people are frustrated by the often endless public process. “They feel like they’re not heard.”

He started thinking. A favorite Albert Einstein quote came to mind: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

It’s not enough for like-minded individuals to agree on an answer, he said. Opposing views must be part of the dialogue. And ground zero for dialogue? Community meetings.

He came up with some ground rules:

• Share airtime. Everyone participates; no one is allowed to dominate.

• Assume that together we know more. Work to understand the assumptions, opinions and ideas of others.

• Reject the culture of blame. Be tough on ideas, gentle on people.

These meetings — limited to three or four to stave off diminishing returns — are where Matanovic and his staff flesh out their investigative work: What do you want? How should it look?

The answers are astonishingly specific, he says.

Take, for instance, the time his staff went to a community meeting in Richmond, B.C. The city sits south of Vancouver and lies just above sea level. People wanted an amphitheater that would form a graduated mound. Immediately, the mother of a young child spoke up.

It can’t be too high, she said. I want to be able to see my child playing on the other side.

Matanovic pressed: How high should it be?

Knowing she couldn’t say, exactly, “3 feet, 4 inches,” he tried another tactic: Show me with your hand.

She stood up and set her palm at mid-torso. Matanovic got out a measuring tape. It was almost exactly 3 feet, 4 inches high.

“Everyone is a little bit of an artist and designer,” he says, “even if they don’t know it.”

This kind of “collective wisdom and energy,” Matanovic believes, is among our last — and greatest — untapped resources.

“One of the simplest and most powerful sentences in our language is ‘What do you see?’ ” he says.

“Why not consult other people for their insight in order to get at the truth that is bigger than your truth or my truth?”

IT WAS SEPTEMBER 2010, and summer was closing in as workers descended on Washington Park. They arrived with tools, tents and sleeping bags. Camping let them work longer hours. And it sent a message: We are here because we care.

In nine days, volunteers donated close to 2,000 hours and completed a dance floor with carved poles, a walking path and picnic tables. More than 200 banners, hand-painted by parents and kids, waved above the floor.

Federico Diaz took it all in. Sweaty, exhausted, sleep-deprived, Diaz, a volunteer, says he felt something unfamiliar as he looked around this slice of the park — pride.

He’s 32 now and has lived in this neighborhood since he was 11. He was once a gang member, he says, and court records confirm he’s had his share of run-ins with the law. He remembers himself as a lost kid who spent countless hours “walking around with my chest puffed up.” The park was the place where young men would hang out and intimidate others with their stances and stares.

It worked. Parents didn’t want to bring their kids around, he says. And years after he left the gang and became a Marine, then became a parent himself, he started to ask a question: How can we empower kids in this community?

He came up with the idea of creating a children’s art wall in the park. It was Diaz’s first attempt to build something out of nothing in his neighborhood, and the project won a grant. He saw people connect and take control. He was hooked.

Diaz was one of the lead organizers on the Pomegranate project. He went door-to-door, asking people what they wanted. He shared his ideas at the meetings, and soon, he says, he started to see neighbors mobilize.

The process of building the project created a community unto itself. At breakfast, workers were given a rundown of the day’s goals. Carving, painting, sanding. Volunteers took a break for lunch, which was cooked by local women. Then they worked again until sundown. It’s backbreaking labor, Diaz says. But it wasn’t done without humor. Sometimes, in the middle of a job, someone would burst into song or start dancing.

“It just brought out the best in people,” he says. “And for some reason, you always wanted it to be the next day so you could get back to work.”

Certainly, a gathering place can’t alleviate poverty or drug dealing or joblessness. These problems, even incidents of graffiti and vandalism, still exist in Washington Park, officials say.

But a seed has sprouted. For proof, just look to the quinceñeras and concerts and birthday parties taking place on the dance floor. Or watch the couples walk alongside parents with strollers on the quarter-mile path and notice how nobody needs to step out of the way to let someone else move ahead.

“This,” Diaz says, “is what I call magic.”

Sonia Krishnan is a Pacific NW staff writer. Reach her at 206-515-5546 or Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.