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Cities are often monolithic in the collective imagination, but what really makes them interesting is that they are collections of neighborhoods, each with its own feeling, vibe, and diversity of residents and experiences. Next month, I will have lived in Washington Park West for 13 years, and over that time I’ve become attuned to how the area feels. I’ve gotten to know the bartenders at my favorite pub; I make small talk with my dry cleaner; and I’ve become friendly with Michael, the owner of my neighborhood liquor store. I’m there enough that if Michael has a certain, desirable brand of bourbon in stock (a rarity), he’ll ask if I want a bottle he has kept behind the cash register. These kinds of relationships make living in a particular neighborhood feel special. They comprise, as the old cliché says, the fabric of the community.
Having worked downtown for 14 years now, though, I’d never felt that sense of shared experience, even though I frequent the same sandwich shops over and over. I suppose that shouldn’t be a surprise. Bustling city centers are different than quiet residential areas—people don’t ask your name unless they’re writing it on a to-go cup. The pandemic changed that for me.
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This past January, I started taking my eldest son, who was in eighth grade, into our empty office so he could better focus on remote learning. We’d both work in the morning and then head out together for sandwiches at lunchtime. The shops, of course, were quiet, and the employees were grateful for customers. Slowly, we got to know one another. There was no pre-pandemic lunch rush forcing us to dispense with chitchat, and having a 14-year-old in tow, usually with his skateboard, was a conversation starter. Sometimes they’d rib him about his orders—an Italian hoagie and chocolate milk?—or inquire about his skating. When he wasn’t with me, they’d ask where he was. In turn, I’d ask about their days and their businesses.
During those early weeks of 2021, I had lots of nice but not necessarily memorable interactions—until President Joe Biden’s inauguration. Almost no one was downtown that day, but after I had popped into the office, I ordered a sandwich at my regular haunt. The cashier said, “Well, you braved downtown today,” somewhat sarcastically. There was nothing, really, to brave, and we both knew it. She asked about my son. And then she said, sincerely and earnestly, “Thank you for coming in.” For the first time in all those years of working downtown, I finally felt like I was part of the neighborhood.