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Gordon Douglas: Emerging Norms and Community Resilience Through Handmade Signage in the Age of Covid

"[T]hese instances of organizing, norm building, and community solidarity demonstrate what community-driven disaster response can look like during a global pandemic. This, to me, is the most exciting conclusion, and the most reassuring social norm to be observed: that even in the face of a terrifying and uncertain crisis where direct social interaction is itself part of the threat, community solidarity can form and even thrive."

Like most of us, this project began for me in March 2020, as we in California went into state-mandated shelter in place, and as I suddenly began going on more and longer walks in my neighborhood as I worked from home. One of the first things I noticed – in addition to all the other walkers – was a proliferation of homemade signage and informal placemaking inspired by the pandemic. Having spent much of the ten years prior studying informal streetscape improvements and other DIY urban design interventions, I set out to document what was happening as the pandemic began to reshape our urban landscape.

As my interests congealed into a more formal research project, I realized the moment presented a unique opportunity to examine how emerging norms around social conduct in public space were being negotiated in real time. This question of the formation of social norms has long intrigued sociology, and here we could watch new norms be formed and negotiated right before our eyes in people’s handmade additions to the built environment. In the context of widespread misinformation, inconsistent guidelines, and varying understandings, how are new rules and norms communicated and negotiated even as people are discouraged from spending time together in the same place?

I started by photographing literal signs, often in shop windows but also out on the streets and in the windows of private homes, and soon found myself photographing other interventions as well – food or clothing giveaways, artistic installations, and other expressions of kindness or solidarity springing up in front yards and public spaces. I was interested in the sorts of things being communicated, the level of sophistication in the signage and its content, and the tone and style of communication – for instance, whether humor was being used. Over time, however, I realized the data I was collecting could also help us to understand how people were acting to help during this crisis.

My research comprised ethnographic observation and photo-documentation of Covid-inflected urban landscapes across the United States throughout the pandemic. I live in Oakland, work in San José, and during this time also spent four months in Chicago with family, so I had the opportunity to collect data heavily in the Bay Area and Chicago, and I took the opportunity to take photos wherever else I went between Spring 2020 and Spring 2021. This included visits to distinctive places like Omaha, Laramie, and Albuquerque, as well as smaller towns throughout California. In addition to my own photos, I have included a smaller number of images published in the press or online if they are relevant and from the locations I’m already studying. After combing through nearly 300 photos to identify different pieces of communication, excluding things that didn’t fit (I decided not to include any large-scale city-approved interventions like parklets, open streets, etc.), and culling them for redundancies, I had 109 unique items that I began categorizing.

I immediately noticed how some really emphasized creativity, humor, and beautiful artwork, while others were simple and businesslike. Some were bold, making an argument about being a good and conscientious community member for the sake of everyone’s health, while others tread more delicately, referring to official guidance or emphasizing a recommended choice rather than a demand. And I also saw signs working to counter the emerging norms by promoting a different narrative.

Mask signs in Oakland, Chicago, and Laramie.

From the earliest days of the pandemic, however, it became clear that another trend in the proliferation of handmade signage was less about rules and public information and instead reflected a rather spontaneous outpouring of solidarity and community support. For instance, people – and especially families with young children – began putting rainbows, teddy bears, and signs of encouragement in their front windows and other visible places, so that families out on solitary walks could see them. There was a game of trying to see how many you could count. Some of this sort of community engagement grew to the scale of large scale placemaking, including interactive spaces encouraging neighbors to engage and build community.

The spirit of community engagement also quickly extended to active local organizing around pandemic related challenges and community resilience, something I found especially visible in Oakland (although signs about eviction defense could be found in Chicago and elsewhere in the Bay Area as well). I documented instances of active public assistance through things like community fridges, food giveaways, and free stores as well.

A “social distance café” created by Oakland residents outside their home in Spring 2020.

I felt the images I collected could be organized into two broad typologies of informal visual communication that help to negotiate new social norms during the pandemic. I describe these as Informational, signage that is informative, rule-setting, and authoritative or even admonishing in tone, and Community Building, signage and installations that are welcoming, playful, or organizational, and those that can be described as having an intentional placemaking component. I had a hard time placing some things I photographed, especially those that seemed more sardonic, counternormative, or anti-social but ultimately, while I did take note of them (I counted five), I included them in one or the other of these two typologies. I also saw some somewhat related signage that was more about making light of or otherwise riffing on the moment.

I found some interesting patterns across geographies. In Chicago, in addition to the signage created by businesses, it was quite common to s

ee signage and even some larger installations on streets and in parks. Whereas in Oakland, I found that most signage and even larger acts of placemaking were either created by businesses or in the front yards of private residences, with the main exception being larger murals on the sides of buildings, which proliferated around the Movement for Black lives but also often expressed community solidarity during the pandemic as well. Everywhere I saw signs marking the passage of time and how long some places – especially cinemas – had been closed.

I also noted that much of the informal communication seemed to occur in the proximity of more official streetscape interventions also driven by the pandemic, most notably the Oakland Slow Streets that limit vehicular traffic to create places for walking and cycling. Although these places are quite unevenly used by locals across different neighborhoods I was surprised to see that things like free stores and food giveaways were often to be found along the Slow Streets, as were community placemaking efforts.

Pondering the significance of all of these emerging and evolving pieces of visual communication across the pandemic streetscape, I began to recognize that we were seeing here not just the negotiation of new social norms, but in fact real-time grassroots disaster response. We know from hazards scholarship that the voluntary actions of independent citizens and community groups are often essential in disaster response, recovery, and long-term resilience at the neighborhood scale. This is especially visible in things like extreme weather events or earthquakes. But the Covid-19 Pandemic is a very different sort of disaster. It was initially unclear whether any analogous grassroots response was possible (not to mention advisable) in the context of creeping, deadly public health crisis where people are literally being told to stay away from others. Yet these instances of organizing, norm building, and community solidarity demonstrate what community-driven disaster response can look like during a global pandemic. This, to me, is the most exciting conclusion, and the most reassuring social norm to be observed: that even in the face of a terrifying and uncertain crisis where direct social interaction is itself part of the threat, community solidarity can form and even thrive.

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