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 is executive director of Friends of the Parks and Trails of St. Paul and Ramsey County.

20 thoughts on “Want to Build Community Spirit? Let it Snow!

  1. Jeff

    I love this post, Amy. It was really fun to see all the goodwill that developed over the last 48 hours.

  2. Bob Roscoe

    First of all, I regard the name ‘snow blower’ as an errant sexual term.

    But at my advanced age, shoveling snow and pushing a hand operated lawn mower is great exercise that my body and mind need. The fun of backyard summer gatherings finds a winter replacement in helping our neighbors push a snow-bound car into walkable and drivable surfaces. The happened to me yesterday as both a pusher and grateful recipient Most of all. it is an act of comunitarianism that is one of our highest roles as people.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      Environmental issues of snowblowers notwithstanding, there is good cause to believe that snowblowers are much safer for many individuals than shoveling. Shoveling (especially large quantities) is dangerous for many people. It is associated with obvious orthopedic issues, but also heart attacks. The cold weather constricts the veins, combined with extremely vigorous activity, often by otherwise-sedentary adults.

      If you want to shovel, go for it, but I definitely think snowblowers are a net good for society.

      1. Bob Roscoe

        Your remarks make sense in general. Probably it’s potentially troublesome for people who have limited exercise. My daily life has a few mini-exercise low- impact times. My doctor monitors me very well, and she suggests how to maintain my well being.

      2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        That sounds a bit like arguing that people should drive everywhere lest they have a heart attack walking up a hill.

        Seems like the better solution is for most people to be far less sedentary so that they don’t need a dirty, polluting tool to compensate for it.

        Or buy an electric snowblower.

        1. Monte Castleman

          If people are only going to walk up the hill 5 or 6 times a year, and only when carrying weights and when it’s cold out, it’s probably best for society they drive instead.

          The problem with electric snowblowers (leaving besides the nuisance of a cord) is most people don’t have 240 volt outlets, and the power available to them from a standard 15 amp outlet limits their performance to well below gasoline models. Maybe OK for a small driveway and sidewalk in the city (assuming you have an outlet by your front door) but it’s an issue with longer and wider suburban driveways. Even my 8 hp gasoline model you can clog it up and have to just move it forward inch by inch when you get to compacted area where it’s been piled on by the city plow.

          1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

            Oops, that was meant to respond to the comment below.1

            I haven’t actually tried an electric snowblower – or any snowblower actually – but the folks who make my mower, leaf blower and trimmer have one that I’d assume works well enough (but yeah, it’s expensive). It takes two lithium ion batteries. No cord.

            1. Monte Castleman

              I guess I wasn’t aware of the new lithium ion snowblowers. It would seem to be ideal for the purpose based on the incredible amount of torque electric motors can generate- no more gumming up when you hit the packed stuff that the snowplow pushed. That and no trying to get it started for the first time after being unused all summer.

              The main problem is it’s going to be hard to justify the extra expense for something that gets used maybe 6 times a year, especially if you already have a serviceable gas snowblower.

      3. Ugh.

        Thank you! We all have different amounts of time, energy, and patience to spend removing snow, and we all have different physical capabilities as well. Also, some of us have corner lots with four times as much frontage as our neighbors. If snowblowers are what enable us to be responsible neighbors and make our sidewalks passable and accommodating for all, then let us have our snowblowers. Don’t make this a purity contest.

        For the record: I’m active and lucky enough to be able-bodied. I do most of my transporting by bike or on foot – which is to say, I’m not sedentary. I am also very busy. I have a corner lot and depending on when it snows, I literally may not have time to clear it thoroughly by hand, because it can take a good couple of hours. My snowblower allows me to not be that jerk that makes transportation on foot a less viable option for my neighborhood. So back off with the moralizing, other commenters.

        1. Monte Castleman

          Snowblowers are used like what, 6 times a year. Leaf blowers once or twice a year, Lawn mowers maybe 15. people are going to moralize it seems like there’s a lot better places to start.

          If we’re going to hate on modern, labor saving conveniences that make our lives more comfortable because we want people to have to do more work why not call out laundry machines, store bought butter instead of churning it yourselves, vacuum cleaners instead of beating your rugs?

  3. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

    I always thought it was a requirement that property owners shovel out their portion of the sidewalk. Of course, growing up, my parents had no qualms with sending me and my brothers out with shovels in hand. Only time I got to use the snowblower (which we didn’t have until ~1990) was during the ’91 Halloween Blizzard.

    1. Monte Castleman

      Growing up I guess I never thought of sidewalks as something a homeowner had to be concerned about. The city came and plowed them in the winter, just like they plowed the street, fixed potholes, and relamped streetlights without expecting homeowners to do those things.

      My parents didn’t have to make me go out and clear the driveway because I thought it was fun. Of course I don’t have kids of my own to send out and now society would need to pay for another artificial cervical disc for me if I did it even if I still thought it was fun, which I don’t.

  4. Eric

    Nice stories, but my sense of community spirit was somewhat dampened when I went out to shovel Tuesday morning only to find that both of my snow shovels had been stolen.

  5. Dave Carlson

    I love shoveling snow because that means we got… snow! I, too, got my driveway cleared by a neighbor’s snowblower who wouldn’t take even token gas money. And driving down Penn Avenue in North Minneapolis on late Monday afternoon (to avoid the freeway mess) I saw an incredible amount of folks out helping push stuck cars off side streets and parking lots, and then these cars getting let in the backed-up traffic lanes by courteous drivers. That can at least temporarily restore some faith in the human condition…

  6. Monica Millsap RasmussenMonica Rasmussen

    Nice summary of how neighbors can interact positively. I hope the neighbors that noticed these positive interactions or were involved in the positive interactions remember it going forward. There are so many ways to have meaningful relationships with the neighbors year round.

  7. Betsey BuckheitBetsey Buckheit

    Lovely post! Although I agree that shoveling allows more immediate social interaction (and I remain a bit terrified of snowblowers), I am so grateful for my spouse and several other neighbors with the big snowblowers who take the time to clear the whole block and make special trips to help clear the heavy, horrible, snow plow deposits at corners and driveways. I think there’s room for multiple snow removal methods for building community!

  8. Katherine Werner

    Once again, my wondrous neighbors (and you know who they are, Amy!) cleared the 168 feet of city sidewalk on my property as well as my driveway. Best neighbors ever!

  9. David MarkleDavid Markle

    I agree with the author, and would like to point out that shoveling can be good exercise for many of us, if done sensibly.

    On a similar note, I wish more people would mow their lawns with old fashioned push mowers rather than fill the air with noise and exhaust. And it’s disgusting to see someone who appears able-bodied mowing a rather small lawn with a gasoline-fueled machine.

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