Everyone's a Localist in a Pandemic
A few weeks ago, I started reading my local daily newspaper.
I should have done this years ago. Every time I pass a news stand, I feel a twinge of guilt. After all, I teach a news writing course and I serve as faculty advisor to a college newspaper. I have no excuse for not supporting local journalism. But like many Americans, I have been seduced by the news feed, pop-up notifications on my iPhone, and, very occasionally, a Buzzfeed article or three.
And then the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Cobb County, Georgia.
The first person to die of coronavirus in Georgia expired at Kennestone Hospital, which is less than a mile from my house. This was a wakeup call. I realized that except for the emails I was receiving from the superintendent of my daughter’s school, I knew almost nothing about the local impact of COVID-19. So I downloaded the app for the Marietta Daily Journal and started reading. From it, I learned the precise location of the intended drive-thru coronavirus testing center. I read articles about a local state senator and a Marietta city councilwoman who have both tested positive for the virus. I also read that the school board might purchase 700 hotspots to boost the wireless access for students around the city.
This new interest in local news is part of a larger story for me and my family, and perhaps millions of other American families. For many suburbanites, the coronavirus has both shrunk and re-centered the scope of our lives. Two weeks ago, I was commuting across the breadth of the Atlanta Metro region each workday—an hour’s drive each way—to the college where I am employed as an associate professor of English. Because of this long commute, my odometer logs about 20,000 miles a year, which averages to 378 miles per week—about the distance from here to Raleigh, North Carolina. Consequently, I spend a lot of time strapped into a car seat listening to podcasts while thousands of trees stream past the passenger-side window in a greenish blur. Ten days ago, the college suspended instruction until the end of March. Last week, at home with my wife and daughter, I used my car once to drive a few miles, but I have spent many hours on the stone patio behind my house staring at just a handful of trees. Like it or not, my life has been suddenly and dramatically localized.
In a crisis, the local often comes into sharper focus. Here’s an example: a month ago, the choice between Home Depot and Pike Nurseries to buy organic fertilizer for my garden might have been one of convenience (Home Depot is closer), but a neighbor shared that Pike‘s is enforcing social distancing at the register, among other prudent pandemic-related precautions. This is useful information.
Here’s another: when the canned goods sold out at Kroger and Publix, the Dollar Store still had an ample supply in stock. I learned this through the school-mom network, a source I do not normally consult for shopping advice. The pandemic has made all of us pay attention to aspects of the local economy that are invisible to us under normal circumstances.
The locasphere matters. I have long believed this. I go out of my way to support local business and agriculture. I have become a locavore in my eating and shopping habits. But buying locally and thinking locally are not the same thing. The former is shallow and can be performed on the level of consumer choice—this restaurant vs. that one, wine from the local winery vs. the Napa Valley bottle purchased from Kroger. The latter is a deeply rooted worldview that comes from the long swath of human history and lived experience preceding the modern era, a perspective that is now rejected in nearly every corner of our consumer capitalist civilization.
This week, I was painfully aware of just how deterritorialized my life has become. Stuck in my house, self-quarantined and fearfully watching the coronavirus cases skyrocket in Georgia, I felt a strong desire to have my family and friends close. There were video conferences of course—FaceTime and Google Hangouts—but these left me feeling the sting of absence afterwards. My support network is far flung, from Boston to Sarasota, Florida. Why is it that the people who are closest to me live so far away? Am I really OK with this distance, or have I simply adapted to it over time? How much can I rely on my neighbors? How much can they rely on me?
The alienation I have been feeling is at least partly structural. Most suburban neighborhoods do not revolve around the “local” as the locus of work, community, and civic life. The suburban lifestyle is constructed around cheap gasoline and automobile-accessible retail and entertainment—an inflation of human desire across a physical space that would have been impossible for our ancestors to imagine. In this reality, ”walkability” is an accessory rather than a necessity. The park behind my house. The gym two blocks away. The hip coffee shop a mile away in the town square. The fact that I can walk to these places adds value to my neighborhood, certainly, but they are merely options in a vast buffet of consumer choice. I might prefer the bike path at the park across town, for example, or the new LA Fitness in Kennesaw because it has a pool. Maybe the drive-thru of Starbucks near the off-ramp for Sandy Springs is cheaper and more convenient to my daily commute than the cool coffee shop in town that makes my chai tea just the way I like it.
”Everyone’s a socialist in a pandemic.” I’ve been seeing this meme everywhere lately. The message, I think, is that a serious viral outbreak makes everyone aware of the government-funded safety net, especially as it relates to health care. As focused as many of us now are on the strengths and weaknesses of our current national health care system, the federal government is still an abstraction for most Americans, including myself. I want to know more about those blue tents going up on the premises of Kennestone Hospital. How prepared are they for this pandemic. How many ventilators do they have? How many masks? I won’t learn the answers to these questions by watching CNN or listening to a White House press conference.
For many Americans who find themselves suddenly homebound with their families, forced localization has been difficult. Working from home is no picnic. Supervising your children’s online learning is stressful. And let‘s not even mention the empty shelves and the unease of being in public places. Can I sit on that park bench? How far should I stand from the pizza delivery person on the front porch? How many times a day must I wash my hands? All of these negatives are real, but I have also seen things this week that I would have missed in my old life—wonderful things. Yesterday, I was mesmerized by a turtle dove building a nest in the silver maple in my backyard. She made at least two dozen trips to the patch of pine straw in my neighbor’s yard to pick out the best pieces and then fly back to that special crook in the tree branches. Later that afternoon, I watched two hawks circling in an updraft for twenty minutes. Finally, one of them flew down to roost in the top branches of a Leyland cypress just ten feet from where I was sitting.
There are benefits to a life lived locally, lost continents of knowledge about community and family and the natural world that have been paved over to make the suburban lifestyle many of us live. In the coming weeks, I’ll be paying attention to this new local reality. Sometimes it takes a crisis for us to see what is right in front of us.