Want to Build Community Spirit? Let it Snow!

My husband and I were not even married yet when a primary pet peeve of his revealed itself. He said we had to shovel our sidewalk “so the cement showed,” from edge to edge.

I wrote it off as some masculine obsession, akin to wasting a lovely Sunday polishing a car, until I took up running at midlife and later began commuting to work on foot. Now I appreciate the generosity of a well-shoveled sidewalk. I see the selflessness inherent in considering the safety of those who pass by my property.

My husband’s meticulous standards display a community spirit too rare in our fractious, either-or, right-or-wrong society. I thought of that Monday as I walked home from work during the fiercest snowstorm in Minnesota since 2011.

Everywhere I saw neighbors and newfound friends helping one another for the sheer joy of doing it. Stereotypes softened and resentments lost their edge as people worked together, without question or expectation.

  • A college student wearing no gloves and sporting the logo of an institution that some residents revile moved from one stuck vehicle to another, setting them free with only his shovel and his tank-like strength.
  • My otherwise environmentally conscious neighbor helped snow blow my corner property, even as he apologized for the noise and gasoline smell. I repaid him with homemade banana muffins.
  • A neighbor with a truck that could climb the side of Mount Everest helped an anxious Amazon deliveryman who was spinning his wheels and appeared to be enduring his first Minnesota winter.

Social media are overflowing with uncharacteristic positivity: “To the unsung hero who snow plowed our sidewalk in the Selby and Howell area, you are wonderful,” says a post in the Merriam Park Neighbors Facebook group.

Adds a woman on NextDoor.com under the heading “Building Community”: “I saw people all up and down the street helping each other. What a great community! Thanks for all the helpers out there this morning.”

Pay it forward

Winter can bring out the best in people. So, what are the lasting lessons of this 24-hour blast of goodwill and good cheer?

  • Get outside more. You can’t help your neighbor from the safety of your car, Americans’ favorite isolation chamber. Monday’s snowstorm brought people into contact — into community — because they had no choice but to leave the comfort of their vehicles.
  • Shovel a sidewalk, anyone’s. I used to shovel my elderly neighbor’s sidewalk in the hope that someone was similarly helping my own mother. I do the same for student neighbors when they’re away on Christmas break. It’s good exercise for me and good role modeling for them about the give-and-take of being a good neighbor.
  • See winter as an adventure. I watched a mother let her children pretend to help shovel and then cheerfully clean up after them when the kids decided instead to face-plant in the snow. Given the right gear — snow boots, Yaktrax, a warm coat, hat and gloves — anyone can experience winter with gusto. That could mean riding the bus on a stormy day when you normally would drive. Or taking your dogs for a walk regardless of the weather.

I will keep shoveling rather than snow blowing because it lets me talk to neighbors, keep walking instead of driving because then I control the speed at which I move and keep sporting flattened hat hair because I refuse to let winter get the best of me.

On foot, on a bus, laughing at our common peril: That is how we build community in the winter of our discontent. We remind ourselves that we are all in this together.

Amy Gage

About Amy Gage

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Amy Gage is managing editor of Streets.mn. A former journalist, she writes a blog about women and aging (themiddlestages.com) and contributes to the Minnesota Women's Press.