Red State COVID vs. Blue State COVID
Everyone experiences coronavirus in their own way. But as anyone who’s traveled from a major city into the less populated suburbs, exurbs, and small towns knows, those changes have been very different from region to region. Some of those differences have been cultural and some have been political, as blue states and red states have responded to the virus in markedly different ways.
As it happens, two Reason editors both recently moved across the country: Senior Editor Elizabeth Nolan Brown moved from an apartment in the heart of Washington, D.C., to a suburban apartment building in Cincinnati, Ohio, while Staff Editor Liz Wolfe moved from a house with a chicken coop in Austin, Texas, to a brownstone apartment in Brooklyn.
How have their lives and locales changed? How does New York compare with Texas, D.C. with Ohio, and Ohio with New York? Are any of these Americas the real America? We brought Brown and Wolfe together to discuss how politics, culture, commerce, food, and their own lives have transformed under the coronavirus.
From Washington, D.C., to Suburban Ohio
Elizabeth Nolan Brown, 11/9/20
I’m writing this from my home office—a legit room of its own, with four walls and a tall window and a big closet that I’ve turned into a sort of walk-in filing cabinet/mini-library. If I close the door, I can only distantly hear my husband on the phone in his own office, which looks out on a somewhat dingy but reasonably large balcony. This amount of space—there is not just a washer and dryer but a whole room of their own, too—is new and revelatory for us.
We spent the first six months of the pandemic (and years before) in a cramped one-bedroom, one-bath in a massive Washington, D.C., complex. Now, for several hundred dollars per month less than we were paying in D.C., we are renting a three-bedroom and two-bathroom apartment in Cincinnati, Ohio, not far from where I grew up.
Like a number of people, I’ve returned home temporarily during the COVID-19 pandemic. With no particular professional reason to be in D.C. right now, my husband and I decided to take this perhaps once-in-a-lifetime disruption of city life to spend some time closer to family and save money while we’re at it.
Pre-pandemic, our D.C. life was heavy on social gatherings with friends, in-person professional events, and traveling by foot or by Uber. Our apartment building on 16th Street NW—with communal laundry in the basement and more than 2,000 others living in the building—was just a few miles from the White House but universes apart, with old people who had been living there for decades and some whole families packed snugly into studios and one-bedrooms. We were cramped, but not as cramped as some people around us, or many friends in newer and nicer places, and we had oversized windows, a market on the first floor, and a community patio. We were also used to working from home.
So, when the pandemic first hit, we weren’t too stressed about our living situation, although we started avoiding the busy elevators right away (this was before almost anyone was wearing masks) and wiping down or waiting to handle things from the downstairs market or the package room.
We started connecting more with old friends, via texts and calls and group Zoom chats, and for a while I reveled in the idea that the pandemic revealed who you would hang out with if geography were not an issue. Having no way to get outside without going through masses of people and crowded streets once you did get out got old pretty quickly. And even though I liked working from home, I came to realize how much I also depended on having a third space—the Reason office or a coffee shop or bar or park—to get away to sometimes (also how much my husband is on the phone for work throughout the day). Those were small annoyances, though.
Ultimately, we fled—first to a temporary apartment in Northern Virginia, then to Cincinnati—because the building’s periodic bug problem got to be too much for us. On our way out, we would learn that D.C.’s first documented COVID-19 death was a man in our building, a Franciscan monk who lived on our floor and had just moved in last fall. A mailroom employee also reportedly died of the virus, and another fell sick, The Washington Post reported.
Before the article, we had only heard rumors of coronavirus in the building, from someone who used to live there (had for decades) and had once helped me find our lost cat (who was just hiding in the apartment still). She moved out near the start of summer. A lot of other people did too, or at least it seemed that way as we were moving out: There was furniture piled in hallways, trucks in the side lot, painters putting fresh coats on the walls of empty units. The building hadn’t told anybody about the very local outbreak.
But I’m not sure if that’s why people were leaving. Maybe it was also just the stir-craziness, or the variety of tiny pests. Maybe they too were sad to go. It was a really splendid hotel once, in the ’50s and ’60s. On our way out, we left canned soda and unopened dry goods in the hall by the elevators, the customary signal something was up for grabs. It was quickly taken, along with a jello mold tin from a theme party, some small appliances, unused household cleaners, and many other things.
Ohio is a huge departure from our former life. We have a car now, and a lot fewer Amazon boxes. We have a toddler nephew who actually knows who we are. We take walks outside that don’t require a mask (since the streets are so wide and since so few people walk around here anyway), make s’mores in my sister’s backyard, and have movie nights with my parents. We are all careful about the coronavirus, but not obsessively anxious. In our complex, the only communal spaces we have to go through are outdoors. There is no package room.
When I need something that can’t be bought at a store within walking distance, I have started remembering to not immediately turn to the internet. This is weird for me—more than a decade before the pandemic, I started getting groceries delivered and turning to Amazon for both bulk staples and specialty items.
Living carless in D.C., then New York City, then D.C. again, it was so much easier than trekking through city streets with arms full of groceries or making do with whatever was at the corner store. And Amazon paper goods and other household items subscriptions made group living much easier—you chipped in this much a quarter for toilet paper and dish soap, and no one fought over whose turn it was to get (or who forgot to get) those things.
Life in a smaller city or the suburbs was always more convenient than living in a major city. One of the (many) tradeoffs used to be lack of options when it came to food, drinks, and other consumer goods. That’s definitely changed.
Now we hop in our car once a week and drive five minutes to Kroger, where in addition to every normal food imaginable, you can also find, say, a variety of kombuchas and every weird vegan meat, delicious seasonal beers brewed not far away, freshly made sushi, local pumpkin jam, and several brands of almond flour. This is where my family shopped when I was growing up, and it wasn’t until sometime early last decade that it became more than just a greatest hits of the standard American diet. To me, it’s representative of a larger shift in the areas around here and in suburbia writ large.
The neighborhood we’re in now is definitely suburban, though still highly walkable—being able to dash out for something without having to get in a car was important to me. It neighbors the area where I grew up and much of my family still lives, situated just across Cincinnati city limits. I can walk to a spot where I kissed a floppy-haired boy in 8th grade, and a spot where I used to hide to smoke cigarettes when I smoked cigarettes. There’s an outdoor pavilion across the street where all the old ladies would swoon over Peter Noon from Her
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