The Turquoise Table movement may be catching on in Champaign-Urbana.
A few months ago, after writing about a trend that started in Austin, Texas, to encourage neighborly connections, I got an email from local real estate broker Debbie Hensleigh.
Turns out she was way ahead of me.
The idea behind the turquoise table, from founder Kristen Schell, is to spark connections with neighbors or just provide a place where people can sit and talk. It was a huge success in her Austin neighborhood, creating bonds with neighbors she had never even seen before, and it has been copied across the United States and beyond.
At her sister’s suggestion, Hensleigh built a table herself last fall — "I really like power tools" — and had her husband paint it bright turquoise.
"It’s one thing to say that you don’t hate people. It’s something else to risk doing something actively to reach out to them," she said.
The Hensleighs knew many of their neighbors already, through an annual block party, their Christmas open house, and their son Joel, who tends to be a "social ambassador."
"We’re friendly," she said.
But the neighborhood has also seen some turnover in recent years, with more rental homes, and people are often too busy to sit and visit, she said.
When she plopped the table in her front yard last fall, she didn’t get many takers. Then winter hit, and spring was cold and wet.
But this summer, it has become a gathering place for kids and adults.
"Once the weather became not winter, then it was really fun," Hensleigh said. "I can sit out there, and people walk by and exchange names. A neighbor kid came over, and we played a game out there. The other day, I looked out, and there was a mom and her little kids sitting at the table, taking a break."
Across the street, neighbor Stacy Wathen wasn’t sure what to think of the table at first — and wondered why it was in Hensleigh’s front yard, not out back. But she loved the color — her mailbox is turquoise — and later a sign appeared next to the table:
"Please enjoy this turquoise table. It is here to encourage connections, so feel free to sit and visit."
"The simplest ideas are the best ideas sometimes. That’s exactly what this is," Wathen said Friday, cocktail in hand, enjoying a glorious summer evening with Hensleigh and her husband, Dave.
While they were chatting, neighbors Kelly Hill and Juli Kartel stopped by.
"I love it," Hill said. "This is a good reason to kind of bring people together, especially on nights like this. When it’s 100 degrees, we mostly just drive by," she said, laughing.
"I'ts just trying to bring people out of their houses and make them slow down a little bit," Hill said.
Hill’s brother, who lives in Boulder, Colo., recently visited Champaign and was enamored with the table, she said. He sat there for most of the week, by himself, talking with neighbors as they came by.
"He just thoroughly enjoyed this. I told him, ‘You have no idea how happy it makes my heart that you’re sitting at my turquoise table,’" Hensleigh said.
Hensleigh was at a funeral recently when someone asked where she lived. When she mentioned Edwin Street, they said, "‘You don’t have that turquoise table, do you?’ People know the turquoise table," she said.
Another table popped up nearby recently, on the corner of James and Daniel streets. On Friday, a bowl of nectarines sat on the table, free for the taking.
Hensleigh and her husband think it’s a healthy trend.
Dave Hensleigh runs a travel business to Mexico and said people there spend lots of time outside, walking and socializing, from Mexico City to tiny towns.
"People in Mexico smile more," he said.
"How do we get back from there?" he said.
People are out walking in the Hensleighs’ neighborhood, too, he said, but it’s usually because they’re running or exercising their dogs.
"They have a purpose generally. It’s never to sit and chat," Wathen said.
Debbie Hensleigh plans to be outside at her table chatting with folks whenever she can — and "it’s not 95 degrees and 100 percent humidity."
"I think it’s kind of fun. People just sort of smile," she said. "It’s definitely been worth it from my perspective."