It can be difficult visiting familiar locations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Well-trodden streets are empty — major avenues, such as Commonwealth Avenue here in Boston, have limited auto traffic to allow more pedestrian and bike access. Local shops and restaurants are running on curb pick-up only, and galleries are just beginning to work out appointment only viewings — all dependent on space and safety.
But all over, dotting businesses, apartment windows and sometimes stapled to telephone-poles are handmade hearts. Some are painted on wood. Others made of paper in a style most of us learned in kindergarten. It is a strange, albeit uplifting, sight.
The phenomenon is a show of support for essential workers — the nurses, doctors, grocery store staff, MBTA drivers, postal workers, paramedics and others — who have kept daily life running as close to normal as possible during the pandemic. An outward show of support for those putting their health, and their loved one’s health, on the line every day.
One shop, Flock Boutique in Boston’s South End neighborhood, has dressed their display windows with dozens of these homemade hearts. The store’s owner, Danielle McDonald, told me that she got the idea from scrolling through social media. “I first heard about the ‘Hearts for Healthcare Workers’ through Instagram and the hashtag associated with it.”
Like many small businesses during the stay-at-home advisory, Flock had to drastically cut back and close its doors to foot-traffic. The store had begun to run by McDonald herself fulfilling mail orders. The chance to show solidarity with the essential workers was also a way to help boost morale in the neighborhood. “The shop was feeling so different as I went in by myself each day and I felt like filling the windows with these homemade hearts would brighten up our neighborhood and the shop!”
The “Hearts for Essential Workers” project is just one of many ways in which non-essential workers have creatively been expressing their support. In cities across the country, around the globe, when an agreed upon time arrives in the evening, individuals clap, cheer, even beat pots and pans together in solidarity. (In an apartment complex around me in Brookline, a group of roommates assembled a make-shift rock band on their balcony, playing a few songs for their neighbors after the celebrations end.)
The urge to create in times of perceived futility is a long-standing impulse. It is a comfort that often forces one to bypass worries of whether the work is “good.” The purpose is just to create. Its therapeutic value lies in allowing a healthy, often communal expressions of the difficult and the hopeful. The hearts — whether painted on wood or cut from paper—are an attempt to show support when we feel ever more alienated and physically distant.
McDonald sent out the word to her family, friends, South End neighbors and customers to send in hearts to fill up the windows of Flock. At home, she made a few with her two daughters. “I think the creation of the hearts has been one of the best parts of this project,” McDonald told me, “I think it was a great way to talk to our kids about the pandemic and the importance of the essential workers who are helping right now…We also included hearts with the names of friends and family that are nurses and doctors who are working on the frontlines.”
The call for hearts worked. McDonald has received well-over 60 hearts from all over the country — from right down the street to the west coast. Each is unique, and they fit in an endearing mosaic.
Even with the hearts and the reposes, McDonald worries about the gradual reopening of the South End. “As it is for many, I’m so shaken by this pandemic and its impact, not just as a major health care crisis but the impact on small businesses and the communities they are a part of.” It is a worry shared by many in the neighborhood. With the pandemic still on going, the chances of “First Fridays” running, a street over from Flock, at SOWA seem slim. Which says nothing of the recent flooding in April, down on Harrison Avenue, that has left many galleries with only the basic infrastructure to rebuild from.
Even so, many in the neighborhood are cautiously excited about thing returning to a semblance of normal: “As we anticipate our reopening next week, I’m filled with so many emotions,” McDonald told me via email, “It’s almost like the days leading up to my original opening 10 years ago. I feel unsure about what to expect, but I am so happy that I’ll be able to have my customers, my neighbors, my friends walk through those doors again soon.”