In Lockdown, a Neighborhood Opens Up

The residents of Bernal Heights, a dense little neighborhood built around a grassy hill in the south of San Francisco, have been under lockdown a long time — since March 17, to be exact, when the city became among the first in the United States to shut down.

With incomes and freedom lost, and boredom and anxiety setting in, the neighborhood turned inward. This has led to a flurry of new activity.

Neighbors in the upper-middle-class community have formed a small newspaper for children. Socially distanced street dance parties and cocktail hours have taken over, block by block, as the sun sets. Some people have created a new micro-social safety net, turning bookshelves into sidewalk food banks and garages into medical-supply distribution centers. Email lists and text chains for each block are buzzing. And as sheltering in place eases, some of the changes in Bernal Heights are turning permanent.

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It’s a sign of how Covid-19 has taken us back in time. Televisions had killed stoop culture. Those little stages for gossip, flirting and catching up went quiet as people retreated to the living room after work. Then phones killed the living room TV time and homes got quiet, too, each family member retreating to a bedroom or a far end of the sofa.

Now we have returned to the stoop.

For all the pain that the virus has caused the 25,000 or so who live in Bernal Heights, it has also brought them together as a community — a pattern that is playing out in neighborhoods around the country.

“The scale of life has changed,” said Francesca Russello Ammon, an associate professor of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania. “Your world has shrunk. The neighborhood and the block become really important.”

In a one-bedroom apartment on Wright Street, Ryan Stagg, 27, turns on the oven to bake the sourdough country loaf he has prepped the night before. A little while later, he revs up the countertop toaster oven for sourdough cinnamon rolls and brown butter chocolate chip cookies — the specialty of his fiancée, Daniella Banchero.

When the virus hit, the couple were hitting their stride. Ms. Banchero was cooking at Piccino, a hip restaurant in the Dogpatch area of San Francisco that is teeming with start-ups. Mr. Stagg was just opening Pollara, a new Roman pizza place in Berkeley, Calif. He was laid off. She was furloughed.

“We were finally getting a little bit of success,” Mr. Stagg said.

They started baking bread for neighbors, dangling each loaf in a basket, over the fence and down to the sidewalk. It was free. Demand grew.

Their landlord was unwilling to reduce their rent, so they started to charge $9 for a big sourdough loaf and expanded the menu, adding cinnamon rolls ($3), cookies ($2) and crumb cakes.

Their woodworker friend who lives down the road and was out of work welded them a boom arm. An artist a few blocks further painted them a sign.

In recent days, they have started using a commercial kitchen in a restaurant that’s been shuttered. And they applied to start a proper registered business: The Bernal Bakery.

Natalie Mead, who works at Instagram, was home on medical leave for chronic migraines when the lockdown happened. She was ready to help. One thing her house has that is rare in the neighborhood is a deep front garden. So she decided to make a scavenger hunt for children.

“I just went down into my basement and started looking around for anything fun, and it took me awhile since I don’t have kids,” Ms. Mead, 28, said. “But I found some Hot Wheels I still had from when I was a kid.”

She hid them in the garden and wrote in big chalk letters on the sidewalk: “I spy five Hot Wheels. “

Neighborhood children (and some adults), bored from staring at Zoom, were hooked. Soon, items to keep the game going were pouring in.

“People have brought over a lot of collections — stress ball collection, dinosaurs that their kids aren’t playing with anymore, action figures, billiard balls, little miniature board games,” Ms. Mead said. “This week it’s Smurfs.”

For social distancing reasons, neighbors usually leave the prizes to hide under her front stairs. Ms. Mead said she hears 10 to 20 families a day coming through her garden for the scavenger hunt. The hunters arrive first thing in the morning, when many children are often still in their pajamas.

“I have to keep myself from coming out and saying hi all day now,” she said.

Chris Colin, a freelance journalist, came up with the idea of a kids’ newspaper two days into the school cancellations.

“I looked up and realized that there were not only two children in my house with nothing to do but I just felt this, like a disturbance in the force,” he said.

Grown-ups have wine. Kids are struggling.

“The idea was not just to occupy them but to give them a way to explore what the hell has happened to their world at a very local level, a very personal level,” he said.

Mr. Colin emailed some parents in the neighborhood asking if their children would contribute articles. He expected a couple of submissions. He stopped counting after 100.

And so the paper, called Six Feet of Separation, was born.

In each issue, Mr. Colin accepts short reflections and recipes, pieces on loneliness or adventures. No writers above the age of 17 need apply.

One 14-year-old data journalist organized a bunch of children to climb to the top of Bernal Hill in different shifts to count the number of people walking up and determine peak crowd hours. He has started accepting “foreign correspondents,” who write missives from well beyond Bernal Heights.

“My editorial policy is, ‘Yes,’” Mr. Colin said.

He carefully formats each newspaper as a PDF and then blasts it out over email. He publishes when he has enough articles, every week or so. Parents then print out copies at home.

Now the paper is expanding through word of mouth among parents. A representative from AT&T found Mr. Colin. They are donating to fund its expansion around the country.

The food bank is just some bookshelves that Colleen Irwin, a nurse practitioner at San Francisco General Hospital, put in front of her house. But every day it’s full of fresh and canned food.

She started it after talking to a neighbor who told her there were day laborers in Bernal Heights who had not had anything to eat. She asked if he was hungry right then, and he said he was.

“So I text the Pussy Chicks,” she said, referring to her group of politically active friends, who named themselves after the iconic headgear of the 2017 Women’s March. “And of course people stopped what they were doing, they went in their cupboards, and so it started the next day. And I started talking to a neighbor, Dan, who was walking by with a dog, and I said, ‘Could you build a bookcase?’”

In the end, someone donated the shelves. She made a poster that read “Emergency Food Bank” and covered it in glittery paper. She handed out postcards to those who had orange and lemon trees in their backyards, asking for citrus donations.

“Everybody says yes,” Ms. Irwin said. She estimated that at least four times a day, the bookshelf fills up and empties out.

“It’s a dynamic little thing,” she said. “Little kids come by and the parents have them bring stuff and put it in there, and then the kids come back later and say, ‘Hey Ma, the chili, it’s gone.’”

Misa Perron-Burdick, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Bernal Heights, has many low-income patients. She wanted the women who see her to leave with supplies to shelter in place. So she reached out to friends and neighbors and set up an Amazon wish list and a PayPal account.

“It just snowballed. We get about 10 deliveries of supplies a day,” Dr. Perron-Burdick said. “Everything happens in the garage.”

Neighbors are shopping, donating supplies, and helping to sort, stock, and deliver goods. From the garage, they pack individual care packages and head out for delivery. Many of the volunteers were recently laid off themselves. The corner-store owner even made a deal to source products wholesale for her.

Dr. Perron-Burdick wants to hold onto some of the changes.

“I don’t want to stop relying on my neighbors for things, and I don’t want my neighbors to stop relying on me for things,” she said. “I hope that we don’t go back to the way we were.”

Some neighbors have banded together to shop on a rotation, taking care of the Target run or the grocery run for a half-dozen homes at a time. Others have bulk ordered groceries — 50-pound bags of flour, 30 pounds of blueberries, a giant salmon — to share.

There’s a Google map of houses with rainbows in the window for kids to “scavenger hunt” and count the rainbows from the safe distance of the sidewalk.

There is a “window pane block party” for people to “introduce themselves” by putting a sign on their window. One resident posts new jokes in the window every day.

Joyce McKinney and her husband are in the vulnerable-age category, and young people have volunteered to run errands for them, which did not happen before. The other day, she said, an unsolicited bottle of wine and a six pack of I.P.A. showed up on their doorstep.

J.T. Williams is a trial attorney who in 2016 moved from Texas to San Francisco. His dream had always been to sing opera, and here he would do it. In four years, he has performed in more than 100 shows.

Now, every day from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., Mr. Williams, a dramatic bass-baritone, stands on his balcony and sings.

He likes dramatic arias, like “Il Pagliacci Prologue,” “Cortigiani” from “Rigoletto,” “Nemico” from “Andrea Chenier” and “Eri Tu” from “Un Ballo in Maschera.” He ends most evenings with the “Toreador Song” from “Carmen.”

There are too many events on different blocks to fully document the stoop cocktail scene.

Some groups do masked singalongs or poetry readings. Every Saturday, a garage door rolls up and Sam Cooke’s “Let the Good Times Roll” plays at full blast. On Easter, a neighbor wore a bunny costume and walked around waving at children.

Around 8 p.m. there’s a drum circle on Bennington Street. On Sundays, there is a sing- and dance-along on Moultrie Street.

“Many of us didn’t know each other despite living within 50 yards,” said Sarah Gordon, a participant in the dance-along. She said she and her neighbors have learned the Electric Slide.

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