Loud sex, thunderous dancing: how coronavirus strains neighborly ties

Lucia Graves
Photograph: PeopleImages/Getty Images

One day a month into quarantine, Christie was leading a Zoom board meeting of the local political club where she’s president when the floor in the unit directly above started creaking. It was just as she feared: her upstairs neighbor had decided to engage in loud intimate activities.

“I just sat there waiting to see if anyone said anything,” she said from her San Diego apartment. “They couldn’t hear it. But it was so distracting and made me so anxious.”

Now she’s looking fearfully ahead to the next Zoom meeting she’s slated to lead with the full club, which will feature 30 to 60 people, including elected officials. “The thought of that happening again during it scares me a lot,” she said. “I need to ask how thick the walls are next time I move.”

Americans are spending more time than ever at home and that means redefining relationships with neighbors – for better and, sometimes, for worse.

In cities, parties in apartment buildings that were once merely a nuisance may seem suddenly nefarious, imbued with the potential to unleash contagion. And disturbances like a baby crying or a particularly thunderous living-room dance-off can quickly drive the best-intentioned neighbors to despair.

One 47-year-old mom of two in Minneapolis said a neighbor’s birthday party recently prompted her to call the police. “Seeing them all gathering, not caring about social distancing, I actually started to cry,” she said. “Each one person that doesn’t care causes a ripple effect. It’s going to be a tsunami sooner or later.”

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Even slovenly dress has become a point of contention in certain communities.

A Maryland police department recently entreated local residents to put on pants before retrieving mail. And on NextDoor, the social media network that connects neighbors and is known as a place for petty complaints, one user asked neighbors not to leave the house in pajamas.

“You don’t have to dress to the nines but please consider clean, neat casual clothes … women maybe do a bit of makeup,” a Richmond, Virginia, resident named Jerry recently wrote in a post. “Just because we are experiencing a crisis we don’t have to be slobs.”

One Bay Area resident posted on Nextdoor that, after witnessing a neighbor purchasing large bags of Clorox wipes, they rooted through the trash to ensure the neighbor was throwing them away rather than flushing them down the toilet. (Evidently they were concerned for the building’s plumbing.)

And coronavirus has also brought neighborly connections to new heights. Italy’s balcony singalongs have been repeated around the globe and across the country, from Boston to Indianapolis to Wichita, Kansas and San Jose, California. Residents of Marin county, California, have organized a nightly howling.

Harriet Riley, a writing instructor in New Orleans, was at first distraught about the prospect of having to cancel her annual crawfish boil, a beloved Louisiana tradition. That is, until she realized there was still a way to connect.

“We set up a long table at the end of our driveway with the four ice chests of crawfish,” she said, and each family had just one designated person approach. “Everyone took their crawfish to their front porches and we laughed and yelled around to each other. We also saw some neighbors that we don’t see as often. The crawfish really brought everyone out.”

Such interactions mark a surprising shift. A pre-Covid report found that only about a fifth of Americans regularly spent time with their neighbors, while a third said they had never interacted with those living next door to them. It’s a steep drop from several decades ago, when a third of Americans spent time with their neighbors twice a week or more.

Now even the barter economy is enjoying a boost. Sandra Choute, a special education department chair within the Maryland public school system, found herself making a deal with a neighbor in her complex who works as a nursing assistant and lacked supplies to mend a mask.

“She needed needles and thread,” Choute said. “I made her a small sewing kit and she gave me gloves and masks.”

Choute’s relationships with neighbors have gotten deeper, she added. Casual chit-chat from her balcony can easily turn emotional, as it did recently when a neighbor in the grass below explained how an aunt in New York was battling both cancer and Covid at once. “She’s in tears and I’m just trying to talk to her, trying to lift her spirits,” Choute recalled.

It can be easy, while complaining about or praising one’s neighbors, to forget that you are also a neighbor yourself, as Hillary, a communications specialist from Cincinnati, discovered recently.

“My downstairs neighbor is definitely still having hookups,” she said a few weeks ago. “Should I call the police, or … ?”

But when the Guardian circled back a week later, Hillary was in higher spirits. She and a different neighbor from down the hall had started dating.

“The tables have turned,” she said.