As pandemic lockdown tightens everyone’s orbit, Seattle neighbors are left surrounded only by the people and landscapes they care most about.
By Brice Maryman, FASLA
Don does not live here or there, but “around.” We don’t know if he’s experiencing homelessness or receives a housing voucher. He’s too proud to tell us, instead deflecting vaguely with “around.” During the past few weeks, he has been knocking on our door every day, looking for work. He is 60-something, with a wild beard and a broken-down physique from a lifetime of hard labor. He seems always glad to work. We try to find things for him to do around the house. He and I both weed the garden. We at least offer him some food. Before the stay-home, stay-safe orders, Don’s primary source of income came from cleaning up bars after closing time: sweeping floors, taking out garbage, mopping the bathrooms. Now that the bars are closed, there is no money. The veneer of stability he had is peeling away, leaving him to confront a terrifying future.
Our immobility is unprecedented, for Seattle during the pandemic and for the human animal across our history. Last week, the New York Times confirmed what Seattleites have been feeling for weeks: Our lives have compressed, rescaling to just beyond our homes. Residents of the Emerald City used to travel some 3.8 miles per day, and have now adjusted to a retiring distance of just 61 feet. When have we traveled less and been more attuned to our neighbors, like Don, and our neighborhoods? In this focus on the commonplace, we have seen small dramas, marveled at the mundane, and questioned how design can serve us as we face down this crisis in the great nearby.
We have traveled past the food bank innumerable times, but, embarrassingly, it had never registered in our consciousness until the spray-painted lines on the sidewalk showed up. The lines were wobbly and thin—improvised urbanism: crude, temporary, and effective. The next day, we watched as older people lined up for food, six feet apart. As the crisis wore on, the food bank workers painted more lines across the street and down the block. Soon people were arriving so early that other human needs required tending. The food bank added a portable bathroom and an outdoor sink to its planting strip. Neighbors who might have objected vocally in the past nodded with understanding.
A few days later, we met one of the mothers from our son’s school in the park. In an act of both instinctive neighborliness and the new choreography of “health and sickness, life and death,” we both stepped to opposite sides of the path, allowing enough space for people to still move through. She’s a physician’s assistant, and we could see the stress on her face as she told us a little bit about what’s going on in the hospitals. The number of COVID cases was still climbing, and she was already having to reuse her personal protective equipment. We asked about the bags of takeout in her hands—this neighborhood is still new to us. “They’re a great family,” she said of the restaurant’s owners. “Our daughter went to preschool with their girl. We’re trying to make sure they’re still here when this is all over.” The restaurant, or the people? We wonder.
A woman, past middle age, came down the block under the long canopy of flowering maples that makes it such a pleasant place to walk. I recognize her; she lives at the end of the block. Her live-in grandson goes to school with our son. The boys ride bikes together, jumping off a wedge of concrete sidewalk that the maples have heaved a foot into the air. While they play, she usually stays close to home. Today, she has hiking poles, stabilizing her unsteady gait. My eyes must have asked the question and she explained the poles: “I’ve recently had surgery, but they won’t let me come in to do physical therapy.” I look at the bike jump then to the sidewalk beyond, overgrown with barberry and laurels. “The doctor says I’ve got to get moving to heal, but it’s hard.” In the years we have lived here, walking around the block was never something we considered hard; it was a new way of seeing.
As the coronavirus tightens our orbit, we are focusing on these overlooked and unconsidered neighborhood vignettes while the phantasmagoric national discourse about responsibility, preparedness, efficacy, and planning plays out in the background. The parks, streets, and sidewalks are real. There are no illusions in them or in the trails, schoolyards, and community gardens where we see our neighbors. Everyday landscapes that we inhabit tell a story about what, and who, matters.
The ordinary can be heroic, and small fixes can be the next big infrastructure stimulus project. In every park and on every sidewalk, every too-wide road and deteriorating urban forest, on every barren, blacktopped schoolyard and underused parcel is a shovel-ready project waiting to happen. Investing in everyday Americans should mean investing in everyday places. It takes only the smallest of gestures—a line of paint, a space to meet, a fixed sidewalk, a dignified job—to remind us that, in our fervent mutuality, we care.
Brice Maryman, FASLA, writes about and lives in the Central District of Seattle.