- Darlena Cunha is a writer who has lived in her neighborhood in Gainesville, Florida for three years but never really got to know her neighbors until recently.
- For Cunha, an unlikely outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic has been her neighborhood coming together and connecting in ways reminiscent of an earlier time.
- She and her neighbors have been doing socially distant exercise dates, happy hours, and lunches together from the safety of their lawns.
- Without our usual social safety nets, humans, as social creatures, seem to be forging new ones, and are making friends the old-fashioned way, Cunha writes.
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With people home from work, children home from school, and everyone discouraged from going out anywhere, the internet is getting a workout — but so are the sidewalks.
An unlikely outcome of the lockdown due to the global pandemic is neighborhoods, and neighbors, coming together.
It’s true in my neighborhood in Gainesville, Florida, in Alachua County: As I take my dog for his morning walk, what used to be an empty street, devoid of life other than a car or two struggling to get to work on time, is now a bustling center. People are gardening, sitting out on the front lawn watching their children play, talking across driveways, and living comfortably with each other — at a distance, but somehow closer than ever before.
Mary and Chris live right next to us, in one of the few two-story houses in the cul-de-sac here in central Florida. They have a son too young to play with my tween twins. She’s a pharmacist, he’s in childcare.
Marsha and David moved in across the street about a year and a half ago. They’ve reroofed and repainted, and work on their lawn every week. They have two teenagers.
Danielle and Ken are on the corner, with their three boys who cycle, skateboard, and play tennis on the street, in front of the “Slow — children at play” sign.
Down the street, Tom walks his small white dog slowly, with the aid of his cane. Terry’s oldest daughter just graduated high school. Her younger daughter is my twins’ best friend.
I’ve lived here for nearly three years, but I’ve only just started getting to know these people
Why? The coronavirus. Interestingly, now that we’re forced to stay more than six feet apart, neighborhoods seem to be getting closer.
The rules now enforced by society have done away with previous social protocol that kept us at a distance far greater than a few feet. Previously, if we wanted to sau hello, we wondered if we’d we be bothering them. We assumed they were probably busy with something. We were probably busy with something. We decided to nod and move on quickly, to avoid that ‘hug/handshake?’ debacle.
Living near someone doesn’t mean we have anything in common. We had coworkers and friends and for that social nourishment. Until we didn’t.
Of course, I’d seen my neighbors in passing throughout the years. Sometimes we would wave at each other from inside our cars as we passed. Sometimes we’d ask our partners or children, “Wait, what did she say her name was again?” after a brief morning greeting or pat two-liner about the weather.
But even though we lived right next door, the most we ever knew about each other was what could be gleaned by glancing at the recycling bins once a week. We were close in proximity, but each in our own social bubble.
Until COVID-19 took away nearly everything else.
It’s not that we didn’t want to get to know each other. I remember back in my youth, my parents had neighborhood parties that seemed like the epitome of adulthood. Wine glasses clinked and grown-up laughter filtered through the closed laundry-room door, where my young ear was pressed. What were they joking about? The housing association notes, again? The ungodly hour of garbage pickup? It seemed magical.
“Hey, do you have a printer?” Mary asked the other day while I was watering my rose bushes. “We have to return something, and wouldn’t you know, we have to print a shipping label.”
“I sure do! Give me a sec, and send it to me, I’ll run it out and leave it on your driveway. Just make sure I don’t have to print it on toilet paper. I’m all out.”
“I just got some! Let’s trade.”
And when I got back outside with the label, there were three rolls waiting for me.
A group of us now even work out together from across the street, since we can’t go to the gym
People are going to the store for each other, and checking in, always from six feet, but never closer in spirit. We do happy hours and lunches from our front lawns, or via computer, leaning on each other and on our proximity, even as closeness is barred to us.
Without our usual social safety nets, humans, as social creatures, seem to be forging new ones — or at least ones new to us. In reality, we’re just rediscovering the communities we lost when the internet, capitalism and having to move frequently for work uprooted traditional neighborhoods.
COVID-19 is set to be with us for a long while yet, and these habits we are making don’t have to disappear with a vaccine.
It’ll be up to us to make sure the friendships and neighborly back-and-forth don’t fade into the distance when the distance-requirement fades.
Darlena Cunha is a professor at the University of Florida and a freelance journalist.