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The upside of a Boston snowstorm: meeting your neighbors

After the storm hit, power outages and snowy streets put the regular urban hum on hold. During the pause, as hardy New England neighborhoods pulled out their shovels, communities were being built. People you didn’t know were suddenly your compatriots. And the ties endured.

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    People pause for a picture while digging out their cars in Boston, Feb. 10 after a howling storm across the Northeast left the New York-to-Boston corridor shrouded in 1 to 3 feet of snow and more than 650,000 homes and businesses without electricity. Commentary contributor Connie Frizzell writes of the experience: 'Snowstorms...provide the opportunity to strengthen community ties by slowing us down.'
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Last February, my adopted city of Boston experienced a snowstorm that even this upstate New York, lake-effect-snow-knowledgeable transplant would categorize as significant. What was most impressive, however, wasn’t the two feet of snow, but the impressive resilience of Bostonians in the aftermath. A few weeks later, amid the bustle of cars and people, the only change to the city seemed to be the leftover snowbanks.

Well, that and the fact that I had gotten to know my neighbors.

After the storm hit, power outages and snowy streets put the regular urban hum on hold. During the pause, while hardy New England neighborhoods strapped on their snowshoes and pulled out their shovels, communities were being built. People you didn’t know, and those you didn’t know you didn’t know, were suddenly compatriots.

It started Friday morning just before the storm hit.

A friend who volunteers at a local homeless shelter received a text. The shelters were concerned about the homeless with dogs. The shelters don’t allow pets so the homeless were choosing to weather the storm. Messages from other volunteers began arriving almost immediately. Some were checking with local animal shelters. Others organized to check on the homeless after the storm. Extra sandwiches and dog food were also made available.

A day later, I felt it again.

In a scene from something out of “The Day After Tomorrow,” my neighbors and I emerged from our homes. All of us took a moment to acclimate to what one neighbor described as “standing in a muffled cocoon.” As the digging out began, so, too, did the community building.

I met John, who lives next door, as I was shoveling my sidewalk in his direction and he was shoveling toward me. We introduced ourselves and shared a laugh about who could work more slowly so the other would have to shovel more. When we were done, we shook mittened hands and agreed we could call on each other if either needed help.

I watched the kids across the street make snow forts while I dug out my car. As their parents introduced themselves, a group of university students, blissfully unfettered by the snow, came up our unplowed street. Trailing behind them were plastic toboggans, flying saucers, and something that looked like a rolled-up yoga mat. The young children stopped their fort building, transfixed with the sight. After a short exchange between parents and college students, young children were sledding down six- and seven-foot piles of snow, the students acting as goalies in front of buried hazards, like our cars.

The university students told us scenes like these were playing out all over the neighborhood.

Two days later, an Australian friend confirmed having a similar experience. Shoveling snow for the first time, he spoke of walking around the block and sharing a newfound sense of brotherhood with his shovel-wielding neighbors. He was nodding and smiling at them as if he and the rest of his snow-shoveling, brethren-in-snowsuits shared a common secret.

I believe they did.

Victoria Plaut, a professor of law and social science at the University of California Berkeley Law School, published a paper last December describing Boston as having a “pattern of stronger associations … with education, finance, community and family.” She argues that Bostonians not only value these aspects of society, but that our happiness is directly related to them. 

In light of this report, our experiences last winter make sense. Like the outpouring of solidarity and support that bound the city together after the marathon bombing last spring, they are part of the culture.

Snowstorms simply provide the opportunity to strengthen community ties by slowing us down. The “secret” my Australian friend experienced was a sense of belonging to a community.

Were there some downsides to the storm? Did some otherwise wonderful people exhibit ugly behavior? Sure. The power outages were not just worrisome but a real danger for those without other resources, and one friend entered into a stubborn battle with a neighbor over a snowbank blocking a shared driveway.

Still, the ties we’d forged endured. A month after the storm, I noticed the university students chatting with the parents of the sledders. Then I bumped into John, who mentioned he would be out of town for a week or so. He asked if I would keep an eye on his house.

Of course, I said yes.

It’s all part of belonging to a community.

Connie Frizzell is a captain in the US Navy and is a joint military professor at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. She was also a 2012-2013 Harvard Kennedy School of Government National Security Fellow. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the position the US government.

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