From Social Distance to Social Isolation

When does social distancing lead to social isolation? Will the coronavirus epidemic lead to a loneliness epidemic?

These questions came to me on lucky Friday, the 13th of March, when I checked out a book from my neighborhood library, walked the three short blocks back to my house, and turned on the computer to find a message from the same library l had just visited:

“In light of the rapidly evolving situation regarding the COVID-19 virus, the Board of Trustees has decided to close Princeton Public Library from Saturday, March 14, through Sunday, March 29, at which time the closure will be reassessed. This decision was made in consultation with municipal officials and in consideration of the well-being of our staff and community. . .

“While the building is closed, library cardholders can still access a broad range of digital resources including e-books, audiobooks, movies, music, tutorials and research tools through the library’s website. For updates, see the library website.”

The announcement struck me as cold and institutional. As many of us in town realize, the Princeton Public Library is far more than a repository of books and a venue for occasional literary events. In our town, and I suspect most other towns, the public library has become a bustling “third place” for people who seek a change of pace from home or the workplace. For people who manage to survive without a car in a mostly-car dependent suburb, the library is also especially important as a physical gathering place with friends and casual acquaintances. For some residents, who no longer have a workplace for whatever reason, the library is now the “second place.”

On behalf of those people, I would have liked some acknowledgment from the library management, something like “We understand that the library serves many roles for many people. Those whose daily routines are disrupted by our closing are in our thoughts. Our hope is to return to normal as soon as possible.”

But soothing words, even if they had actually been offered, can go only so far. What else could be done to forestall the onset of a loneliness epidemic? Here are a few ideas, many of which will be familiar to advocates of good public places. Most could be implemented easily and inexpensively, especially as winter gives way to spring:

Go for a walk. Walking around town may be one of the last activities allowed for individuals not showing any signs of illness. If you walk briskly – more than three miles per hour — for a half hour or more it will be a good cardiovascular exercise. A walk at any speed will be a good emotional experience.

Consider self-guided tours. Now is the time to consider taking a tour of historic sites in your community, or outdoor art installations. In Princeton I can walk through an amazing collection of outdoor sculpture on the university campus. Or I can follow the plaques marking historic sites in the John-Witherspoon neighborhood, including the birthplace of Paul Robeson, now being renovated. Or I could take a short car trip to any number of access points on the Lawrence-Hopewell Trail (see comment below).

Say hello to people you see on the street. The Centers for Disease Control has advised that people not congregate in groups – the size of a “group” has dropped from 100 to 50 to 10 as the virus has spread. The experts say that even symptom-free people can transmit the virus. But you can easily steer clear of other pedestrians and also share your good fortunes with them by offering a simple greeting and a smile.

Welcome “triangulation.” William H. Whyte, the urbanist who was an early mentor of Jane Jacobs, wrote about “triangulation,” the circumstance when two strangers strike up a conversation as if they were longtime friends. The stimulus could be a piece of public art, or a friendly dog, or an unfriendly one. You can still be sociable, even at a healthy distance.

Buy local. If your neighborhood bookstore normally sponsors in-store discussions or book signing, they are certainly now all canceled. Now is the time to show up and buy a book instead of mooching on the free wine and cheese at a reception. Princeton’s bookstore, Labyrinth, will take orders and deliver the books to your car or t a [pedestrian on the sidewalk with glove-covered hands.

Order take-out or have food delivered. Restaurants, coffee shops, and taverns that are otherwise closed still need your business. And their staff, rarely covered by the benefits others take for granted, will appreciate tips.

Bring the arts to the public. Already we have heard stories of house-bound Italians singing to one another from open windows and balconies. Our town isn’t quite dense enough to benefit from that, but I could imagine a solo busker belting out some tunes at various public plazas around town. In recent years a violinist did just that in front of the lone movie theater in town. If the assembled group of listeners turns into more than the CDC-recommended total, the busker could just pack up his or her instrument and move a few blocks away.

Painters – consider working en plein air. Watching paint dry might be the quintessence of boredom, but watching an artist put paint to canvas is a remarkable experience. A pedestrian who passes an artist at his or her easel can return a half hour later to see a completely different view.

Turn those blank walls into canvasses. As William H. Whyte wrote in his 1988 book, City: Rediscovering the Center, blank walls in an urban setting “proclaim the power of the institution, the inconsequence of the individual, whom they are clearly meant to put down.” At the present time, of course, individuals are far from inconsequential. In fact, by our individual behavior any one of us could block the spread of the virus — or accelerate it.

Perhaps a theater troupe could use the blank wall as the backdrop for an improvisational exercise or play reading. As with the musicians on the street, the performers could take a break if the crowd became CDC-non-compliant. Or perhaps the blank wall could be turned into into a pleasing visual experience for passersby. An arts organization could line the wall with plywood and invite a graffiti artist to create some art.

Is this asking too much of our arts organizations? I don’t think so. In fact some of the artists may be facing their own form of isolation caused by the separation from the audiences that would normally be a source of energy. Could a small ensemble perform on a nice day outside a senior care facility? Could a singer perform a favorite song outside the home of person in quarantine? It would be a small but highly appreciative audience.

I’m reminded of a trip that my son’s high school jazz band took to Hawaii on the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. The band performed at one of the monuments, playing mostly tunes popularized by the big bands of the World War II era. After the performance was over and the crowd dispersed, the kids – eager to enjoy some of the Hawaiian tourist destinations — began packing up their instruments.

At that point a lone veteran in a wheelchair showed up. He had missed the performance and was disappointed. He had hoped to hear the band play “In the Mood.” The band director didn’t hesitate. He ordered the kids to return to the bandstand, unpack their instruments, and play that classic – to an audience of one.

The band’s micro-concert was the one most talked about later.

Bringing people together – even if that requires keeping a safe distance between people – is the primary function of any town center. And even in these trying times, we shouldn’t forget the wisdom of William H. Whyte: “What attracts people most, it would seem, is other people.” And I would say that’s true even when the other people are few and far between.

A footnote: The book that I checked out just before the abrupt library closing was Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class. As Florida wrote in 2002, the creative class is drawn to cities that have an “organic and indigenous street-level culture,” in particular places where people have “a chance to experience the creators along with their creations.” There may still be ways to turn these trying times into creative moments. And creativity has been known to be very infectious.