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Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Coronavirus in Kansas: A Week of Triage

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

This has been a week of triage for our city.

With the Sedgwick County Commission at first resisting and then finally submitting to medical opinion (and political pressure) regarding the need to order many businesses and places of public gathering to close for the sake of minimizing the potential spread of the coronavirus on Monday, the other shoe--which every small business-owner and all of their thousands of supporters throughout the city have known was just waiting to be dropped--came down on Tuesday, and the scramble find a new normal began in earnest. We'd seen libraries, movie theaters, restaurants and shops of various kinds, and so much else start to limit their hours or close down entirely last week; this week it finally became official. The question becomes the classic one which arises in every emergency, every instance of limited resources: what can be sustained, what can be changed, and what can't be saved?

Like many Wichitans, towards the end of last week I made the time to check in on places of business I was most worried about surviving the loss of commerce which this order--and, let's be honest, the even stricter ones likely to follow it--is going to entail. We stopped by Manna Wok and Grace Asian Market to get some bulkogi and kimchee (and commiserated with the owners who said they were praying their business would survive), and Little Lion Cafe for some ice cream (and commiserated with the one worker on staff who was slammed with orders from worried folks like me). We checked in at Bagel Haus, Pollo Express, TJ's Burger House, and Prost. Everyone has their favorite little spots, of course, and fortunately there are a couple of websites providing regularly updated lists of what places have online ordering, which ones have curbside pick-up, and which have simply closed for the duration. How well online patronage will help the local dining scene over the weeks (and perhaps months) to come remains to be seen.

What I worry about the most, though, isn't the loss of the wonderful and diverse food these local restaurants provided, but rather the spaces they created. You don't have to be an devotee of urban sociology or civic republican theory to recognize the immense value of "third places"--those locations where one is not at work, nor at home, but rather in an open-ended (while still closely defined) arena of connection and interaction. We're talking about the YMCA, or the public library, or community centers--all of which, of course, have needed to close down to prevent people congregating and spreading the virus further.

Places of commerce do this too--not all of them, and not all equally well, but some specialize in it. Indeed, for some the fact that they can provide a space for young and old, rich and poor, regulars and newbies, like-minded folk and trouble-makers, all to occupy a particular place and observe, listen to, laugh with, and learn from other actual flesh-and-blood human beings is exactly their business model. There are many establishments which may advertise this--but none embody it as well as Wichita's bookstores.

Watermark Books & Cafe (full disclosure: my wife worked there for over eight years) has had to cancel all its book clubs, reading groups, and story times. Sarah Bagby and her management staff have had to let their booksellers go, and close their doors, which has been a terrible loss for the College Hill community--to say nothing of the innumerable elementary and middle schools which Watermark regularly brought authors out to--which the store has become so entwined with over the years. Eighth Day Books, the tiny linchpin of a sprawling spiritual community (the Eighth Day Institute, of which I am a member) that connects together churches and faith groups throughout the whole region, is focusing on online and phone orders, as EDI's regular gatherings have had to be suspended, and access to the store limited, with the small, devoted staff of Eighth Day hunkering down to weather the storm. And Prairie Dog Comics, home of some of the best RPG game nights anywhere in the state (and where I buy my daughters copies of  Ms. Marvel), has had to pack up its tables and end its evenings of gaming, restricting itself to fulfilling phone and online orders, and only allowing browsers into the store on a strict reservation basis. All of this, and more, doesn't just threaten businesses--it threatens a by-product of commerce which is far more important that the commercial transactions themselves: namely, people getting together and sharing their literary passions, their spiritual insights, their geeky delights, with those in the same space.

In the larger sense, of course, cities have always been about the civic and commercial creation of such spaces. The reigning ideal of urban life, after all, is to live in a place where complex social connections could co-exist with what an old professor of mine once called "the heterogeneity of anonymity"--that is, a place where we are sufficiently strangers to each other to allow all sorts of original communal associations to emerge, without the burden of the past traditions, prejudices, or authority. That ideal is rarely achieved, obviously--and considering the importance of traditions to who we are, making that urban ideal into an idol is plainly wrong-headed. But it's appeal is undeniable all the same.

Recently Michelle Goldberg, a New York Times columnist, mourned seeing the people of NYC forced to isolate themselves. "Historically, cities have made it easier for people to live alone without experiencing constant loneliness," she wrote, noting that choosing to live in a city is "to depend on interdependence." To be isolated from one another, in particular from those third places where the rich possibilities of community are most regularly realized--as they were and, God willing, still will be, at Watermark, Eighth Day, and Prairie Dog--strains urban interdependence as nothing else.

In some ways, our city might be considered better able to handle such a strain than many other, larger cities--which, not incidentally, is where coronavirus outbreaks have been most severe. Because Wichita dominates, but does not encapsulate, its rural surroundings, there is still plenty of space for mandated isolation to take fulfilling--or at least less cramped--forms. Goldberg quoted a psychologist who observed how the impact of quarantine and the closure of beloved spaces depends much upon where you live; the loss of socially enriching spaces will be felt differently "if you’re able to stroll around your farm and pick the produce you’ve been growing,” in contrast to those who are “living in a one-bedroom apartment with three roommates" whom they have to nonetheless keep separated from. While not every Wichitan can easily get out to Andover or Yoder to pick up farm-fresh food from local butchers and producers, the obstacles to doing so--or to even having immediate access to such oneself--are far smaller than they are to even the residents of Kansas City or Oklahoma City, much less Dallas or Chicago or Denver.

At the same time, a city like ours, perhaps exactly because common places of complex interaction and community feeling are spread far apart and are relatively few in number (not to mention too easily bought out and torn down by local financial players), when a crisis comes it is that much easier to retreat to our private locales, set aside public concerns, and forget about the ways in which a city could be made more resilient in the face of threats to its urban existence--and particularly, threats to those spaces which ground the emergent communities and associations central to city's character. You saw some of this, perhaps, in the Sedgwick County Commission's initial reluctance to face the questions of triage which this pandemic is making unavoidable. Wichita's political culture isn't one which has been historically characterized by a great deal of openness to affordable alternative transportation, sustainable food networks, and other strategies for keeping cities' cultural and commercial connections functioning even as the threat of disease mandates a distancing for a time. Perhaps, though, surviving this pandemic will bring about a change.

First we have to survive it, though, and that means helping our essential places survive, even if--maybe especially if--they aren't considered "essential" in the eyes of the government. Talking with Warren Farha, the owner of Eighth Day Books, this week, he expressed his determination to find a way through this challenge, and get to the other side. People--maybe not all the people, all the time, but enough of them, often enough--want and need to come into a place they know, among people they know, looking for the books and art and insight they know they will love, if they can only find it. "You can't replace all that with online shopping,” Warren said to me; “the door has got to be open so that people can come in and be part of something larger than themselves." Maybe they're not going to come in for a time, he admits--but that just means the desire will be all the greater afterwards. I think our job, as we sort out our next steps in this unprecedented week we've experienced, is therefore to find ways to triage our limited time and dollars, and to deliver them in whatever ways we can to help keep these wonderful places alive, until the community connections they enable are able to fully bless our city once again. I've no simple solution as to how any particular Wichitan can or should do that--but I'm pretty we should all think about how.

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