Let’s talk about the hyperlocal places of Pandemica, where the successes of sustaining community may live or die.
They are on my mind this New Year’s Day, after a long walk in West Berkshire. I saw many local instances of non-compliance with England’s Tier 4 COVID-19 guidelines. I considered the ultimate consequences of this careless behavior on overworked health workers, particularly in Greater London.
Here is an idea. Before we obsess too much about the post-pandemic city, let’s remember that to get there, there are basic ways to assure the safety of our existing pre-vaccination spaces and paths.
One such stage is the corner store (perhaps better known as a convenience store), a landing place for conflicting pandemic realities. They invite those who believe in the 15-minute city of accessible milk and toilet paper. They are walkable stops for people along permitted leave-home, short forays. But they are also the darling place of those who pull up in cars, leave the engine running, and dart inside.
The former players are usually masked, and the latter are often maskless violators of the pandemic protocol.
To the urbanist in search of sustained local, neighborhood life, otherwise infatuated with the trappings of “character” and “authenticity,” the above may seem particularly mundane. But, to me, masks are now acoutrements beyond Jane Jacobs’s sidewalk ballet, as much a facet of a safe urban place as her “eyes on the street.”
For months, I’ve been dodging people around tight doorways, and in narrow aisles of little shops in several English cities and towns, thinking it a gesture to keep local businesses alive. Along the way, I’ve not hesitated to indulge in mini-interviews about the why-no-mask reality.
Among the answers: Silence, dirty looks, “I forgot,” or “I’m just out to get milk home for my kids.”
Then, two days ago, in a community-sustaining experiment, I spent five minutes with two maskless 13-year olds, their bikes and selves blocking the door and sidewalk in front of an otherwise prototypical little store.
We chatted, as follows, in the context of the place:
Me: “Have you heard about how in the pandemic it’s important to leave space to protect old guys like me?”
Young Man #1: ” My Mum does not tell me such things.”
Young Man #2: “You sound Australian.”
Young Man #1: “Do you like Donald Trump?”
Young Man #2: “I do.”
Me: “No, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I have an idea, why don’t you come over here, stand a few feet out of the way, against this little brick wall, and move your bikes right next to you, here, and then people like me will live another day?”
Young Men: Looks of realization.
Then they moved, as I suggested, in a simple community-sustaining way. For me, it was much-needed reassurance that hyperlocal places and interactions are much more relevant to the common good than they sometimes seem.
For other stories of the changing city, see Charles R. Wolfe with Tigran Haas, Sustaining a City’s Culture and Character: Principles and Best Practices, (Rowman and Littlefield, early 2021).