At this point in the pandemic, it’s fair to say that many of us have become a bit too well-acquainted with our couches and the Netflix lineup.
At the beginning of this, almost a year ago, there were shows of solidarity and front porch concerts amid the mask wearing and social distancing, but as the pandemic wore on and winter arrived in earnest, some of that early spirit-lifting fell by the wayside.
On one block in Oak Park, however, the efforts haven’t faded. Neighbors on the 200 block of Clinton Avenue have bonded together, in all the seasons, to come up with ways of celebrating life’s milestones — big and small.
Michelle Hess recalls that last summer, when her son was home from college, he and her husband started playing music together. One night neighbor Kim Garnett brought out a boom box to play music outside, and thus began almost three months of nightly music. At first, Hess says they tried for a nightly theme, but eventually it was enough to listen to music outside with others, safely distanced.
Her musician husband got to know the musician across the street.
“They ended up forming a band and would set up every Friday night and do a concert,” Hess said.
Over the summer, the music nights evolved, sometimes involving guest singers. Neighbors would lug their grills into their front yards so that they could fashion some sort of neighborhood meal together.
Garnett says the pandemic was responsible for this newfound appreciation of the neighbors.
“We’ve all liked each other of course, but we probably really talked once a summer at the block party before this and waved as we walked to and from the train,” Garnett said.
Hess, who has lived on the block for seven years, adds, “We’ve gotten really tight-knit over this past year due to COVID.”
When Hess’ daughter and her boyfriend had to miss prom in 2020, their moms decided to make a fake prom for them. While the couple were taking “prom” photos at a nearby park, neighbors helped set up lights and music back at the Hess house and then donned their old 1980s prom wear to surprise the couple when they returned home.
When another young neighbor was missing his in-person graduation from OPRF, the neighbors stepped in again. While his family was watching the online graduation ceremony, the neighbors set up a stage and an OPRF banner and donned blue graduation gowns.
He emerged from his house to hear traditional graduation music and got to accept his diploma from his father on a stage in front of the block.
As the weather turned colder, nightly outdoor music turned to indoor Zoom game nights, but the block was still looking for ways to keep spirits high.
Hess notes that the very active block group chat led neighbors to decorate their yards for the holidays with Santa flamingoes. Pre-COVID, the neighbors would stick a plastic flamingo in their yard in the summer if they were open to neighbors dropping by the backyard for a drink. One neighbor found an inflatable Santa flamingo and shared it with the group chat, and before long, the inflatables were lining the street.
“Of all the years to do something stupid and gaudy in our yards, this was it,” Garnett said.
The block wasn’t feeling inspired to decorate for Valentine’s Day, but one neighbor originally from New Orleans inspired a Mardi Gras house decoration scheme. In New Orleans, locals have taken to decorating their homes like Mardi Gras floats since the traditional parades cannot take place.
The 200 block of Clinton decided to do the same. Hess’ house has the krewe name of Flaminglow, and another is known as Glamingo. Clearly, the flamingo theme has staying power.
Garnett created a poll and signs so neighbors and passersby could vote on their favorite home.
“I feel like it’s our way to check on people and give them something to do on these dreary days,” Garnett said.
Hess says that the unity among neighbors has been the bright spot of the pandemic. When the family car was buried in the recent blizzard and they needed to get out to pick up her daughter at the airport, she said that there were 15 people out with shovels ready to dig it out and push the car to get it going.
“It’s that kind of block,” Hess said. “I will say COVID has made us inseparable. Now, we are super close and really rely on each other.”