The urban landscape of a pandemic; the privileged and the ignored

By Zoey Horowitz

Groundcover contributor

I made a good friend. He is a prophet. His name is rather beautiful. I won’t share it though, because I asked him once. I asked him if I could help him to set up a sermon, find a place to preach — maybe West Park with the outside benches and the little stage. But he told me he prefers it casual, nothing formal, nothing too large. He speaks to the people one person at a time, two people make a church. So I will not tell you his name. 

I will tell you to walk the streets of Ann Arbor, and to be friendly and open while you do it. Say hello to every person you see, or at least smile with your eyes. Maybe you will meet him and he can tell you about it himself. Tell you about where the streets go and where they have been. He knows everyone, every single person as they are now, or as they were in a past life. 

The first time we met I was going to get my bike fixed. I had a flat tire. He was sitting against a wall at the corner of State and Liberty, smiling, at every single person that walked by. His smile reaches his eyes and the tips of his ears. And then suddenly we were talking about cedar trees and pine, which ones God had condemned. We bought coffee and he walked me home. The people who saw us together were kind to me, they had never noticed me before. He introduced me to the street, the people on the streets and the people of the streets. 

For a while, we met every Saturday at 2:00 p.m. We met on the Diag and walked, or sometimes we had lunch. He always wanted to go places. I thought he just wanted to spend those Saturday afternoons with me because of my money. I wasn’t mad about that. I have money, from my family and myself. Sometimes he has 10 dollars. 

But then I realized it wasn’t at all about the money I had. It was about the way I was. The way people in stores asked me where I wanted to sit and pointed out the bathroom to me when I asked. And he liked me for my M-Card and the way we could sit in the warm university buildings and people would sit next to us. I think he likes me because I allowed him to be places. He also loves me. I love him too just for the way we listen to each other.

The summer of 2020 arrived, the summer of the coronavirus. With him in mind, I started seeing the streets as a home: a home to business, to pedestrians, to the houseless, to the street performers. I noticed the boundaries that exist between people and how the design of  the streets reflect those boundaries. COVID-19 changed my life, but how did it change his? How did it change the landscape of the city? What barriers between people, like me and like him and all the people like us, were being broken as we found ourselves living in a city together during COVID-19?

In April of 2020, Oakland, California shut down 21 miles of its city streets to through traffic in an effort to provide more open and public space for socially distanced physical activity. In June, New York City opened its sidewalks and closed its streets, so that restaurants could have outdoor dining. The fields of parks are now tattooed with spray-painted circles, 6-feet apart. Pre-vaccine, there was no cure for COVID-19, but creative land use and design had the potential to give us back some freedom that the virus took from us. 

This is not the first time public health has turned to urban design for solutions; our modern cities are memories of past pandemics, disasters, and diseases. In the 1830s and 40s, cities in the United States experienced devastating bouts of cholera. Cholera motivated a sanitation revolution that built modern sewage and water infrastructure in American urban spaces. Mosquito-borne diseases like malaria and yellow fever prompted the draining of swamp and marshlands all over the world and permanently altered natural landscapes. Health has always informed our planning of the built environment. 

COVID-19 has required us to think about the redesign of our cities. Because coronavirus is an airborne disease, space is a valuable environmental feature. Urban landscapes must find ways to accommodate for lower densities in order to reduce transmission. The current American landscape provides homeowners and most middle-class families indoor space where life can occur safely. Cities boasting high tax bases can invest in their parks services to give people safe space for leisure and exercise. Wealthy school districts can provide their students with iPads for remote learning. 

But then, what about poor people struggling in cities? Lower income individuals tend to live in higher density, crowded corridors that are a huge risk for transmission. Further, these populations have no physical room for schools, jobs, or exercise to occur within the home. It is clear that the existing disparities in urban infrastructure will not serve low income individuals during this pandemic. Cities have been given an opportunity to intervene using urban planning. But who will urban planning champion during this pandemic?

Ann Arbor’s city landscape changed drastically during the pandemic. Following the suit of larger cities, Ann Arbor’s municipal government initiated a street closure policy from June to November 2020 and has reinstated it for summer 2021. The initiative allows for the weekend closures of downtown business district streets. The open streets make room for restaurants and retail stores to expand their business into the street and provide outdoor dining and shopping options to patrons. 

Last summer on Saturday nights, I spent time in downtown Ann Arbor to conduct casual interviews with individuals on the streets to see what they thought of the street closure initiative. I did not talk to a single person who didn’t support the outdoor dining initiative. Mike and Amber, a couple who moved to Ann Arbor last year, got the sense that, “people [were] happy to be outside, and to sort of be in a community environment but still feel safe and socially distant.” Brooke and Claire, university students, were thrilled to, “have something to get dressed up for.” And old timie townies waiting in line at the beer garden thought the community was “engaged, and thriving.”  

From my interviews it seemed clear that Ann Arbor’s decision to repurpose downtown streets positively affected patrons’ perceptions of community during the pandemic. But, I wondered what other folks thought; those on the streets but not dining? It seemed to me that restaurants and their patrons had claimed the streets for themselves and left those living and working on the streets with no other place to go. The street, a previously public good, was now something to buy into.

Derek, a self-proclaimed ‘hustler’ sitting on a planter box, told me he supports the street closures, “it’s a better living for me.” He thinks that with the pandemic, people have“softer hearts” and “they’re compassionate in a way they weren’t before.” And Joe, a regular downtown character, “loves the energy in the air, you can taste it.” 

‘Hustling’ might be a more lucrative living than it was pre-pandemic. But COVID-19 has eliminated a lot of the services available to the houseless and hustlers. With the onset of COVID-19,  the City of Ann Arbor has made it a point to install handwashing stations in popular outdoor venues like the farmer market. They have not however been so explicit about efforts to provide handwashing stations or restrooms in other more accessible locations.

Joe told me that he used to hang out and use the bathroom at the Starbucks on Main Street but they stopped letting people inside because of COVID-19. With the majority of private businesses closing their restrooms to the public, and the absence of city provided toilets, there is a real shortage of public restrooms. 

“One of the biggest moments of urgency in the downtown bathroom situation was when two places closed: Blake Transit center and the Library…They closed because of the [COVID-19] executive order. Typically those are places that provide amenities to people well beyond their patrons – and they see that as a critical part of their mission. That is why there are sharps boxes in the library bathrooms, because they know what goes on in there and they’re like if you are going to engage in risky behavior we are going to do everything to make it safe,” said Jess Letaw, the former head of the Downtown Development Authority. “Right before it shut down all of the library staff got NARCAN trained so that if anyone overdosed, every single staff member could address it. These places are warming and cooling centers all throughout the year, they are bathrooms and they are safe places. And that got very suddenly taken away.”

In the winter of 2020 and 2021 we saw the rapid construction of temporary structures by restaurants so their patrons could stay warm while dining out in the winter. These little huts were padlocked and disassembled at night. Could these enclosures have been used as warming centers at night, could padlocks be removed during winter blizzards? Where were the mini greenhouses with the space heaters for folks freezing in the winter cold? 

The sight of Liberty Plaza glowing in some of the 100,000 twinkle lights, and space heaters warming diners as they drink their 12-dollar cocktails really captures the irony that lurks around liberal Ann Arbor. The creativity and resources that businesses and the City of Ann Arbor put forth to ensure the comfort of its well-to-do residents was extraordinary — left behind were those trying simply to stay alive. It makes me wonder if those in power are unable or simply unwilling to find COVID-19 appropriate solutions to support the underserved residents of Ann Arbor during a moment where resources are more scarce than ever. 

Every year the DDA puts up over 100,000 twinkle lights in the downtown trees. Liberty Plaza gets the DDA’s holiday lights. In the photograph there is a porta-potty (which according to Letaw had just been removed due to ‘risky behavior’ that was occurring in and around the bathroom). Community members had to organize to have it re-installed by Parks and Recreation in October 2020.

Support Groundcover

By making a contribution, you will help support vendors in sharing stories that matter and you enjoy.


Would you like to contribute as an editor or a writer to our blog? Send us a message to let us know all the details about your experiences & interests.