Hey, look, a pandemic positive! Neighborhoods emerge as vital social oases

By: - September 1, 2020 12:40 am

On a recent evening in a Clintonville/Columbus neighborhood, numerous residents were out and about. Photo by Terry Smith.

If one is rooting around for a positive about the ongoing pandemic, anecdotal evidence suggests that neighborhoods may be just what the doctor ordered.

Face it. Most of us have only limited time and tolerance for in-person contact with our fellow human beings. Pre-pandemic, what with working all day, visiting friends, going shopping, going out, many of us took the old ‘hood for granted. Wave to the neighbors and off to the job in the morning; later on, wave again as you head off to take the kids to the library or soccer practice, drive to the fitness center, meet friends for dinner, or beeline to a nightclub.

Likewise, for kids, the neighborhood was just one of numerous non-virtual social outlets, from school to sports to library events to family outings to visiting friends.

Once COVID-19 abruptly ended or curtailed those activities, including going to work for many people, the human need for face-to-face interaction didn’t just evaporate. There’s ample anecdotal evidence, with some academic support, that as other opportunities for human contact have been lost, many neighborhoods are filling the void. It’s not that hard to maintain social distance when you’re on the front porch or in the yard, talking to folks from 10 or 15 feet away.

Neighborhoods as social saviors appears to be a reality in Ohio and other parts of the country, based on the views of a wide cross-section of current and former Ohioans over the past couple of weeks. The overwhelming weight of solicited feedback on social media was that despite the pandemic’s many negative and dangerous impacts, the emergence of neighborhoods as social oases has been a good thing. Many people living on the same suburban street, small town, apartment complex or downtown block have pulled together for social succor.

Nancy Schell and Jacky Brown leave scissors and a jar out for passing neighbors to help themselves to flowers in the garden in front of their home near Athens. Photo by Terry Smith.

“Our neighborhood has become a dog walking Mecca,” confirmed Nancy Schell of Athens. The retired health-care worker lives in a rural, hilltop subdivision. “People have started to congregate around our garden in the cul-de-sac. We have a jar and scissors out so people can cut flowers to take home. We are also sharing produce, baked goods and occasionally meal swapping with neighbors.

“I believe more people are out regularly,” she added. “I have lived here four years, and this is the first year it truly feels like a neighborhood to me… So it’s not just more interaction; it’s a deeper quality of appreciation.

Charlie Hartman lives with his wife and small child in Granville, a small college town east of Columbus. While the village has a reputation for friendliness that predates the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems even more so now, according to Hartman.

“It’s hard to quantify exactly, but yeah, I would say it’s become more close-knit since the pandemic started,” he said. “Even more people walking around than usual, lots of chatting from the sidewalk with people sitting on their porches. I also feel like we’re seeing the younger people in the neighborhood a lot more, since they are staying in instead of going out.”

Kelley Finan, who lives in a complex of stand-alone condos in northwest Columbus, said most of her neighbors are in their 60s and 70s. “Several months ago, I noticed groups of 8-10 neighbors sitting in our green space on their own chairs, (each of them) at least 6 feet apart. They’d chat for hours.”

In some neighborhoods, the need for more social interaction to replace what’s been lost elsewhere has produced creative solutions. Former Ohioan Genevieve Mahoney lives in Canton, Georgia, north of Atlanta.

“In March, we went into lockdown. After several weeks, we texted our neighbors and asked if they each wanted to come to their own front porch and share a very distanced cocktail hour and conversation yelling across the yards,” Mahoney recalled. “It became annoying over the next week being so far apart. We decided to move our get-together to the cul-de-sac, and each person brought their own chair and distanced about 10 feet apart. It was a lot of fun. We did that for the duration of the lockdown with food and drinks. We played music and sang and talked and this brought us together like a family.”

IN MANY CASES DURING this pandemic, people have mobilized to help elderly or incapacitated neighbors in need, people they may have only communicated with in passing before the novel coronavirus invaded Ohio earlier this year.

Finan said that she and several other people in her Columbus condo complex have offered to run errands and shop for groceries for anyone who is high-risk. “I also encouraged neighbors to pick my hundreds of daisies to cheer themselves up!” she said.

The shelter-at-home imperative — whether mandated or voluntary — has had some surprising results.

Kerri Shaw, a community activist who lives outside of Athens, says the situation has improved life for her father Roger Shaw.

“My dad has been walking a mile every morning with his neighbor, like clockwork,” she said. “My dad has always been a worker, but he’s NEVER been a walker. Now, rain or shine, he’s out the door at 8 a.m. He’s nearly blind, 76 years old, and lost his wife of 45 years last summer. He now knows everyone on the road, and he’s parceled out his garden produce to the neighbors so now they bring him zucchini bread! I believe that, quite possibly, COVID has saved my dad.”

Shaw said her father also joined a senior group, “which he wouldn’t have done if he had to go to the actual agency but they are now meeting outside under the neighbor’s trees, instead, so he goes over and sits in a big circle and socializes over snacks. He calls it ‘meeting with the old folks’ because he doesn’t see himself as one of them.”

Residents of a neighborhood in NW Columbus spaced out patio chairs for social distancing in their front yard so they can enjoy the comings and goings in this bustling neighborhood. Photo by Terry Smith.

NOT SURPRISINGLY, NEIGHBORHOODS apparently have become more essential for the social health of many children, especially those who attended school virtually this past spring and are just starting that same experience this fall. When you no longer have school/after-school to play or hang out with other kids, what does that leave? For many, it’s the neighborhood or nothing.

Dave Waters of Athens said he knows a number of Athens youngsters in the 8-12 range, most of whom have sought to avoid getting physically close to one another. However, he has observed “bubbles” of kids who hang out together.

A social bubble of people, in pandemic parlance, is a cluster whose members know one another and feel comfortable with their contacts, who spend time together relatively safely as a group. CBS News aired a segment about the social bubble phenomenon in an Aug. 16 broadcast (the pertinent section about neighborhood bubbles can be found at about the 6:10 mark).

“There’s been one bubble, a small group (of kids) masked up for soccer kick-arounds,” Waters said. “There’s been another small free-range crew on the Near East Side (of Athens) that decided early on to ‘bubble up’ together. The two bubbles collided a couple weeks ago for the first time since march. My kid was thrilled.”

It’s not just classic city or suburban neighborhoods where people are drawing closer together during the pandemic.

Heidi Shaw, a school nurse with the Athens City School District, said her “neighborhood,” a rural ridge outside of Athens, “is turning into a farm.

“Our neighbors on the back of our ridge got sheep, then we got chickens; other neighbors know they’re next. But seriously, this has brought us closer and made me truly realize how fantastic and kind they all are. It’s made me love my home with all its flaws so much more.”

TWO ACADEMIC EXPERTS in Ohio interviewed for this article confirmed the positive role that neighborhoods can play during the ongoing pandemic.

Dwan Vanderpool Robinson, associate professor of educational administration/leadership at Ohio University, affirmed what most of us know from personal experience — that the COVID-19 pandemic and the responsive government, media and social encouragements to shelter in place have “caused a tremendous sense of isolation for our citizens.

“Children as well as adults are feeling the strain of being secluded,” said Robinson, whose research area is family, school and community partnerships. “Many people are experiencing social and emotional strain and anxiety and stress as a result of loneliness and lack of socialization as a result of the pandemic, social distancing, loneliness and lack of socialization.”

Citing scholars going back to Aristotle positing the innate social nature of human beings, Robinson noted that “the move to sequestration, while necessary to keep us safe, runs counter to these instincts.

“I contend that current circumstances due to the pandemic are driving people back to the camaraderie, companionship and fellowship in small groups and neighbors as chronicled by Robert Putnam, in his book ‘Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community’,” said Robinson.

In addition to the ongoing pandemic, Robinson said, “Movements against social injustice and anti-racism and circumstances of these times have pulled communities together; people now have more concern for the other. People are not as invisible to others.

“People are checking on one another if even from a distance; parents and extended families are having to spend more authentic time with kids… During this era of the pandemic, people can be found connecting more with nature, exercising, sitting in the grass, walking, working, snacking, playing, riding bikes, swinging in parks, etc.,” Robinson said.

The good news, according to Robinson, is that neighborhood communities “can replace the sort of structured non-academic human interaction that they get at school through community and civic organizations that are trying to fill the gap.”

As an example, Robinson cited Columbus City Schools having put together “small cohorts of neighborhood-related supports for children and youth.”

James Wirth, an associate professor of psychology at Ohio State University-Newark, agrees on the importance of neighborhoods during this time.

“Individuals have a fundamental need to be connected with others; it’s almost as important as food and shelter,” said Wirth, whose study area is group behavior. “Given we’re limited in our ability to connect with coworkers and family, our usual sources of connection, neighbors become an immediate source for someone to socially interact with because they are right by. Even seeing neighbors outside may be enough to remind those who are homebound of the social world around them.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Terry Smith
Terry Smith

Terry Smith in May 2020 left The Athens NEWS in Athens, Ohio, after editing that award-winning publication for 34 years. His columns and editorials have placed first in the Ohio News Media Association’s annual weekly newspaper awards in recent years. Before returning to Athens and his alma mater, Ohio University, in 1986, Smith reported for newspapers in Ohio, Arizona, Idaho, Colorado and West Virginia. He is currently freelance editing and writing from his home in Athens.