Everyone experiences coronavirus in their own way. But as anyone who’s traveled from a major city into the less populated suburbs, exurbs, and small towns knows, those changes have been very different from region to region. Some of those differences have been cultural and some have been political, as blue states and red states have responded to the virus in markedly different ways.
As it happens, two Reason editors both recently moved across the country: Senior Editor Elizabeth Nolan Brown moved from an apartment in the heart of Washington, D.C., to a suburban apartment building in Cincinnati, Ohio, while Staff Editor Liz Wolfe moved from a house with a chicken coop in Austin, Texas, to a brownstone apartment in Brooklyn.
How have their lives and locales changed? How does New York compare with Texas, D.C. with Ohio, and Ohio with New York? Are any of these Americas the real America? We brought Brown and Wolfe together to discuss how politics, culture, commerce, food, and their own lives have transformed under the coronavirus.
From Washington, D.C., to Suburban Ohio
Elizabeth Nolan Brown, 11/9/20
I’m writing this from my home office—a legit room of its own, with four walls and a tall window and a big closet that I’ve turned into a sort of walk-in filing cabinet/mini-library. If I close the door, I can only distantly hear my husband on the phone in his own office, which looks out on a somewhat dingy but reasonably large balcony. This amount of space—there is not just a washer and dryer but a whole room of their own, too—is new and revelatory for us.
We spent the first six months of the pandemic (and years before) in a cramped one-bedroom, one-bath in a massive Washington, D.C., complex. Now, for several hundred dollars per month less than we were paying in D.C., we are renting a three-bedroom and two-bathroom apartment in Cincinnati, Ohio, not far from where I grew up.
Like a number of people, I’ve returned home temporarily during the COVID-19 pandemic. With no particular professional reason to be in D.C. right now, my husband and I decided to take this perhaps once-in-a-lifetime disruption of city life to spend some time closer to family and save money while we’re at it.
Pre-pandemic, our D.C. life was heavy on social gatherings with friends, in-person professional events, and traveling by foot or by Uber. Our apartment building on 16th Street NW—with communal laundry in the basement and more than 2,000 others living in the building—was just a few miles from the White House but universes apart, with old people who had been living there for decades and some whole families packed snugly into studios and one-bedrooms. We were cramped, but not as cramped as some people around us, or many friends in newer and nicer places, and we had oversized windows, a market on the first floor, and a community patio. We were also used to working from home.
So, when the pandemic first hit, we weren’t too stressed about our living situation, although we started avoiding the busy elevators right away (this was before almost anyone was wearing masks) and wiping down or waiting to handle things from the downstairs market or the package room.
We started connecting more with old friends, via texts and calls and group Zoom chats, and for a while I reveled in the idea that the pandemic revealed who you would hang out with if geography were not an issue. Having no way to get outside without going through masses of people and crowded streets once you did get out got old pretty quickly. And even though I liked working from home, I came to realize how much I also depended on having a third space—the Reason office or a coffee shop or bar or park—to get away to sometimes (also how much my husband is on the phone for work throughout the day). Those were small annoyances, though.
Ultimately, we fled—first to a temporary apartment in Northern Virginia, then to Cincinnati—because the building’s periodic bug problem got to be too much for us. On our way out, we would learn that D.C.’s first documented COVID-19 death was a man in our building, a Franciscan monk who lived on our floor and had just moved in last fall. A mailroom employee also reportedly died of the virus, and another fell sick, The Washington Post reported.
Before the article, we had only heard rumors of coronavirus in the building, from someone who used to live there (had for decades) and had once helped me find our lost cat (who was just hiding in the apartment still). She moved out near the start of summer. A lot of other people did too, or at least it seemed that way as we were moving out: There was furniture piled in hallways, trucks in the side lot, painters putting fresh coats on the walls of empty units. The building hadn’t told anybody about the very local outbreak.
But I’m not sure if that’s why people were leaving. Maybe it was also just the stir-craziness, or the variety of tiny pests. Maybe they too were sad to go. It was a really splendid hotel once, in the ’50s and ’60s. On our way out, we left canned soda and unopened dry goods in the hall by the elevators, the customary signal something was up for grabs. It was quickly taken, along with a jello mold tin from a theme party, some small appliances, unused household cleaners, and many other things.
Ohio is a huge departure from our former life. We have a car now, and a lot fewer Amazon boxes. We have a toddler nephew who actually knows who we are. We take walks outside that don’t require a mask (since the streets are so wide and since so few people walk around here anyway), make s’mores in my sister’s backyard, and have movie nights with my parents. We are all careful about the coronavirus, but not obsessively anxious. In our complex, the only communal spaces we have to go through are outdoors. There is no package room.
When I need something that can’t be bought at a store within walking distance, I have started remembering to not immediately turn to the internet. This is weird for me—more than a decade before the pandemic, I started getting groceries delivered and turning to Amazon for both bulk staples and specialty items.
Living carless in D.C., then New York City, then D.C. again, it was so much easier than trekking through city streets with arms full of groceries or making do with whatever was at the corner store. And Amazon paper goods and other household items subscriptions made group living much easier—you chipped in this much a quarter for toilet paper and dish soap, and no one fought over whose turn it was to get (or who forgot to get) those things.
Life in a smaller city or the suburbs was always more convenient than living in a major city. One of the (many) tradeoffs used to be lack of options when it came to food, drinks, and other consumer goods. That’s definitely changed.
Now we hop in our car once a week and drive five minutes to Kroger, where in addition to every normal food imaginable, you can also find, say, a variety of kombuchas and every weird vegan meat, delicious seasonal beers brewed not far away, freshly made sushi, local pumpkin jam, and several brands of almond flour. This is where my family shopped when I was growing up, and it wasn’t until sometime early last decade that it became more than just a greatest hits of the standard American diet. To me, it’s representative of a larger shift in the areas around here and in suburbia writ large.
The neighborhood we’re in now is definitely suburban, though still highly walkable—being able to dash out for something without having to get in a car was important to me. It neighbors the area where I grew up and much of my family still lives, situated just across Cincinnati city limits. I can walk to a spot where I kissed a floppy-haired boy in 8th grade, and a spot where I used to hide to smoke cigarettes when I smoked cigarettes. There’s an outdoor pavilion across the street where all the old ladies would swoon over Peter Noon from Herman’s Hermits each summer.
It’s funny to me that I’m living in this particular area, having always pictured any eventual return to involve a cool neighborhood in Cincy proper, or perhaps right across the river in charming Covington, Kentucky. But the pandemic effectively nullifies the need to be near nightlife and city amenities. We just wanted to be near my family.
Even in the midst of a pandemic that has limited how much we go out and where, it seems undeniable to me that suburbs and small towns are simply better places to live than they were 20 or 30 years ago.
That’s a result of many different trends, including movements to eat local and pay more attention to food ingredients, the rise of local breweries and people caring more about what they drink, the elevated social status of good cooking, and boomers’ desire for walkable communities with things to do rather than far-flung spots they can retire to. All of this had produced even greater consumer choice outside major urban areas.
Now, within a few miles of my suburban Ohio apartment complex, I can choose from four local independent breweries (plus a number of other restaurants that at least keep a couple of local and seasonal beers on tap). I can get good Thai food right on my block and fast-food mediterranean fusion across the street. I can find decent wine and grass-fed, organic beef at the nearest gas station convenience store. I could find, were it not for the pandemic, free park yoga and a farmer’s market. And in part because it is the pandemic and in part because these are just our times, most cultural or intellectual products I want can be accessed online.
I know these are all small or aesthetic things on their own. But being back here has really driven home how certain parts of the suburbs that used to, well, kind of suck don’t suck anymore.
One downside? There are far fewer drive-in movie theaters around than when I was growing up. Bring back drive-in theaters!
From Texas’ Blue Island to a Brooklyn Brownstone
Liz Wolfe, 11/10/20
Choosing between four different local breweries sounds great, Liz, but what if you want to get scowled at by a bartender in Bushwick while paying $16 for a four-pack?
That regrettably happened to me a few weeks ago, since my semi-homeward migration has been the opposite of yours. I went from a two-story, two-bedroom house with a large yard, replete with four feathered friends and a chicken coop, in Austin, Texas, to a smaller two-bedroom apartment in a Bed-Stuy brownstone in Brooklyn, New York.
I moved in June, right after New York had been hit hard by the pandemic. A city removing its freshly filled refrigerated morgue trucks is in no way appealing, but we wanted to be closer to my in-laws, recognizing that travel wouldn’t be possible for people in their 70s for many months to come. Also, my husband got a new job—one in a Manhattan office building that will allegedly be used for working again, someday—and I’ve been working remotely for four years.
Many of our material comforts remain the same, by our own choosing. Our old house was small; we lived in East Austin a few blocks south of E Cesar Chavez St., in a speedily gentrifying, bar-filled historically Latino neighborhood close to downtown, so we never got a ton of space and were always fine with that. Can’t miss space if you’ve never had it (or so the sad millennial mantra goes). Our New York apartment is about 600 square feet, but it has a large yard and patio precisely because we were willing to pay a premium for personal outdoor space if lockdowns happen again.
We have sacrificed some comforts, though, and I think the difference between Before Times New York and Pandemic New York would have been striking had we been here from the get-go.
Restaurants and bars here have more occupancy restrictions than in Austin, as expected. Still, the very existence of bars, even in modified form, remains comforting. The last time I was out at a bar—like, really out, smushed together with other people, not a sanitizer bottle in sight—was March 6, the day the music and film festival SXSW was canceled.
I went to a grungy dive in Austin, with my husband and a dear friend. We smoked cigarettes and drank Champagne Velvet beer and got chili cheese fries, acutely aware of the fact that our rituals might be gone soon. Every conversation around us was about the festival being canceled since it looms large as an employer of service-industry Austinites and a shot at a big break for musicians. Service workers wondered how they were going to pay rent for the next few months, whether their album release would be pushed back, whether this was an overly aggressive move or a way to avoid imminent disaster.
The start of the pandemic drove home the gap between people who were very plugged into the news and the Dazed and Confused–style creative layabouts who are a fixture of Austin’s scene, as well as the many residents who migrated from smaller towns and consider Austin the biggest city in their orbit.
In late April, a person at my church wondered aloud about how the virus was transmitted, not grasping the issues of personal proximity, ventilation, and aerosol transmission that had already become apparent. Other acquaintances dismissed my mid-March concerns about the virus as silly, a red-state skepticism that was present even in a quite liberal city.
Among other things, it reminded me that returning to a place like D.C. or New York was important to me, wanting to spend more time with writers and other friends in creative industries—especially if regular travel to the East Coast became much less regular.
Pandemic New York has some silver linings despite all the terribleness. People are clearly relishing being outside, together, in any form. For months now, Herbert von King Park, near my house, has been the place where people congregate and unwind, empty bottles of beer and wine, play fetch with dogs, and deejay random sets in the absence of real clubs and venues. At Fort Greene Park last weekend, you could see each group’s tailored level of caution—some picnic blankets had a dozen people sitting close together, at others a group of four would all be wearing masks, and tons of configurations were in-between. Most groups were joyous, having animated conversations and delighting in the fall weather.
Pandemic New York is better than I thought it would be, and I’m glad we weren’t spooked by New York naysayers. There’s still a lot to love.
I do see what people mean when they say the things that drew them to this city are no longer here: Without fine dining, packed concert venues, sticky diner booths and free coffee refills, the ability to smoke a blunt with a stranger in the park, or, more broadly, the ability to be fully carefree in the presence of—sometimes because of—other people, why live packed like sardines in a place with high taxes and seemingly endless construction?
Still, museums have opened back up, masks required, and they’re quieter and less packed than before. I went to a Studio 54 exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum last weekend, an NYC-by-the-numbers data art exhibit a few weekends back, and still have a MoMA P.S. 1 visit looming. I cycled all the way up to the Cloisters and ate cannolis nearby; I cycled to the Bronx to eat Colombian; to Corona, Queens, where I ate empanadas from a street vendor and chased down a guy selling cotton candy; to Astoria for Greek food; to Brighton Beach for chebureki; to Greenpoint for donuts and milk. It’s a bit funny that my life—one of cycling and gluttony and drinking beers in my backyard with friends—has remained pretty similar despite moving.
The unsucking of the suburbs is such a cool trend. It’s hard for me to judge how recent it is; do you have any idea? Does it change your allegiance to cities, D.C. in particular? Although I left Austin, I could imagine myself boomeranging between Austin and New York for many years to come, spending a few years in each but never quite committing to one or the other.
It sounds like you’re describing something adjacent to the oft-criticized rise of “AirSpace”—how coffee shops and bars and coworking spaces have begun to share the same curated, anesthetized, tidy, well-lit, good-coffee, fast-internet millennial aesthetic, with certain markers of convenience and poshness, no matter where they are.
So many people talk about this as if it creates a heterogeneous, colorless world without acknowledging how many formerly disconnected parts of the country now have richer cultural offerings, especially when it comes to food. In other words, it’s easier to be a vegan in Memphis now.
Maybe places aren’t as differentiated as they once seemed, at least for now, when some of their character has been stripped away by distance from the people that make them interesting. I wonder how much will return, or whether we’ll need to just get used to some of this sameness.
Do State Authorities Have Any Idea How to Handle COVID?
Elizabeth Nolan Brown, 11/12/20
I miss scenes like you describe in the parks, all the spontaneity and weird joy of NYC. And I’m glad to hear you guys have some of your own outdoor space. (The most I had in my first Brooklyn apartment was a fire escape fit for two if you scrunched.)
Your whole New York life so far seems very lovely and I’m happy to hear you’re finding ways to enjoy it despite the circumstances. It must feel weird and a little frustrating, wanting to devour your new home and getting only little tastes of it. But now you get to experience the city’s charm unfolding over time. In a way, you get to prolong your tenure of being new in NYC. That’s a great thing to be if you are the sort of person who likes the city, and you seem to be.
We were back in D.C. during election week and it was refreshing to see friends and drink in backyards with colleagues. And one thing D.C. definitely has over Ohio is decriminalized marijuana and an easy way to buy it. For now, I’m just stocking up whenever I’m back.
Washington didn’t seem to have too many pandemic-related restrictions happening when we visited—outdoor and indoor dining going on in a lot of places—though everything was boarded up because of election-riot-potential panic. But now it looks like new restrictions are rapidly ramping up everywhere, including in New York and Ohio since we started writing this earlier this week.
Cincinnati public schools just shut down in-person learning again. And Ohio’s governor gave a speech quoting Churchill, promising more restrictions on social gatherings, and imploring people not to meet in groups of more than 10. I get it: The whole situation is a mess, with cases rising, cold weather coming, safe outdoor socializing limited in general, and people traveling and gathering for the holidays, But you can’t tell people not to have more than 10 people in their own homes. You can’t enforce that, anyway. And things like 10 p.m. curfews just seem likely to make places more crowded while they’re open.
I think the authorities really have no idea how to handle this. I also suspect they know they don’t have the power to. They’re not going around knocking on doors and counting heads. People are going to do what they’re going to do. (Which leaves law enforcement lots of room to use it as a pretence for selective harassment and shutdowns.)
My extended family mostly lives nearby each other. Many are planning on getting together for Thanksgiving, though some family groups are sitting this one out, and everyone understands.
As for the new aesthetic sameness, the fact that you might be able to find a few of That Brooklyn Look coffee shops in any city now might mean something negative from a bird’s-eye view, but if you’re in a city where each one previously looked like the set of Friends and served basically nothing but scones to eat (or was a Starbucks), it’s an improvement. When I lived in Lafayette, Indiana, for a bit, there was exactly one “hipster” bar (back when that was still a word people used), the Black Sparrow, and I loved it because it reminded me of places in my Brooklyn neighborhood. There’s also this tendency to romanticize whatever was before, as if every new mason jar beer joint now is replacing some place rife with unique local character, when a lot of times it was just a boarded-up auto shop or an old Red Lobster.
Finally: I’m glad you brought up SXSW. I was scheduled to go for the first time this year, to be a part of a panel on FOSTA, the poorly conceived sex-trafficking bill I’ve written about frequently.
The week before, my husband and I were at an event in Indianapolis, and everyone was still eating buffet meals together indoors and shaking hands and generally going about business as usual, both within the conference and in the outside world. But I was scared about going to Austin: What if there was an outbreak and we all got quarantined there indefinitely? So I was somewhat relieved when I read from my Indianapolis hotel room that the whole event was being canceled.
It was also the first thing that really drove home how big this was about to get, and made the rest of the isolated conference seem a bit surreal. Then Indiana declared a state of emergency while we were there, and Tom Hanks had it, and sports were shut down… In many ways, the SXSW cancellation was my aha moment.
Do Places Still Matter?
Liz Wolfe, 11/13/20
I had forgotten you were planning on speaking at SXSW! In an alternate universe, I could’ve taken you to Sam’s Town Point, the best honky tonk in town, with cheap beer and whiskey and old folks dancing and biker dudes telling tall tales about their adventures. Some other year, I guess, if such things still exist the way they used to.
Your point about the prolonged newness of my move to New York has occurred to me, too. Since I’m especially hesitant to make new friends right now, it feels like I get the joy of retreating into old friendships, ones that are largely cozy and familiar and easier to navigate. But at some point in the future, that will change. And my version of New York will change with it. I felt this way when museums opened back up in September and October, several months after moving here, and the universe of available activities expanded slightly.
Yet now things are closing back down. Ohio and New York’s incoming rules sound similar: no gatherings of more than 10 inside a private residence, and 10 p.m. curfews for bars and restaurants.
What concerns me is that this might shift social gatherings indoors, despite the limits on indoor gatherings. There have been several nights where I’ve been out with friends and, after dining outdoors, we contemplate our next move. Paper-bag tall boys in a park as rats scurry around our heels? Palomas at that Lower East Side bar that does them so well? A scotch nightcap at our friends’ apartment?
Part of that decision is typically made based on a glance at the clock and a quick calculation of how much time we have left until bars close, at the ungodly early hour of 11 p.m. When that state-mandated closing time shifts up, how many people with higher COVID risk tolerance will say, well, let’s go to someone’s apartment? With the weather turning worse, it was already bound to happen. But this seems like it has the potential to exacerbate that problem.
Like with so many things, this is a tale of unintended consequences and the inability of central planners to forecast how people respond to restrictions. The ever-changing restrictions will also blindside restaurant and bar workers, many of whom have put considerable effort into adapting to previous rounds of rules and restrictions.
It’s hard not to feel bad for the bar on my block, which opened in December 2019 and was hit with pandemic restrictions less than four months after opening. Like so many other Brooklyn and Manhattan restaurants, the bar extended seating into the street, and the ugly barricade boxes were transformed into gorgeous planters. The patio got a roof and removable walls in the last few weeks to protect bargoers from the elements. They’re doing everything they can to adapt, but it still might not be enough to stay profitable.
I’m horrified by how many service industry folks—and people in other high-contact industries that can’t be made remote, like tattooers—who have worked incredibly hard throughout this pandemic might descend into undeserved pauperdom as the virus and the state work in tandem to shut things down.
I see this reflected in the disparate effects between my New York and Texas social circles. In New York, many friends are white-collar workers who can work remotely from home, whereas a striking number of friends in Texas have encountered loss of income or significant work disruptions that arise from working in jobs where you can’t transition to remote. In Texas, I know nannies and pastors and animal control responders and bouncers and barbacks whose jobs have changed dramatically since March. And some jobs no longer exist at all, of course.
It’s strange to think about what all this was like when it started. I had a naive, starry-eyed sense—shared by others, even libertarians—in the early days that we could lock down briefly and build out testing capacity. I thought the short-term pain borne out lockdowns would lead to better ability to control the virus’s spread and get people back to work.
I recant, and I really should have been more cynical from the start. None of that happened. Most people don’t test themselves regularly, regardless of their economic status or geographic location. People in most parts of the country have encountered some form of work disruption, with many going on unemployment for the first time in their lives. Everyone’s been affected by this in one way or another.
The good news in all of this, if there is good to be found at all, is that human beings adapt and persevere. We are shockingly resilient. We started this to talk about the differences between the places we both live now, and the places we used to live in.
But maybe the real story is that we’re untethering ourselves from places, becoming temporarily unmoored and disoriented and a bit more socially awkward, but refining our sense of what matters to us in ways that will prove long-lasting.
Or maybe these changes won’t stick, and by March 2022, we’ll be gearing up for SXSW season all over again, happily packed into that characteristic mixture of sterile conference rooms and grimy concert venues—just like we planned, only two years late.
The Dark Winter Comes to Ohio
Elizabeth Nolan Brown, 11/16/20
Re: your last two paragraphs: It’s important to be able to find ways to live, and some measure of happiness or contentment, whether things are transformed for a while or whether they get back to normally relatively quickly. That’s what we’re talking about here ultimately, how we’ve both been lucky enough to be able to experiment in a pretty big way with what that means right now.
That’s probably especially true considering the months ahead of us. In the days since we started this correspondence, the coronavirus has been getting real in a lot of places where it previously seemed more remote.
I’ve heard of many more cases and exposures to cases around my hometown and family in the past two weeks than at any point since the pandemic started. A few at a wedding, a few through school or workplaces. My former school is shutting down in-person classes again, after parents kept sending kids with the virus to classes or to sports events. Most of the people I knew here had some work interruptions when the pandemic started, and many still do (while that’s very rare among people I knew in D.C.).
A few of my family members are changing their behavior again in response to the rising cases, but many aren’t. I’m worried about people’s health and livelihoods.
On a silly personal level, I’m slightly bummed I’m back here for the whole holiday season for a change and yet so many of our typical extended family traditions are on hold. But we’re plotting new ones. My sister and I decided last night to commit ourselves to the gargantuan task of baking some healthy-ish Christmas cookies that my mom doesn’t hate. At least we’ve got the miracle Kroger.