Won’t You be My Neighbor?
Mr. Rogers Quarantined Neighborhood
I haven’t left the house in about a week. I’m sick of staring at the peeling Hunger Games themed decor that covers my childhood bedroom– remnants from my 13–year–old self. There is a bitter irony in armageddon-centric posters in a time that feels like an actual armageddon. The Josh Hutcherson poster is taunting me.
I decide it’s finally time to go outside and go for a walk. My Dad joins me. We live in Houston, Texas so outside it’s a sweltering eighty-seven degrees already. I tell myself that the temperature is why I step out onto a car-less street and see no people in the park across the block. I’d decided to go for a walk for a sense of calm and normalcy. However, being outside is an unmistakably different experience. As we walk down the street, the few people in the neighborhood across the street skirt away from us. We are undoubtedly the only Guptas to be walking in the predominantly white area. “It’s refreshing to know that white people are crossing the street to get away from us for a reason beyond some outdated racism,” I cynically joke.
Everything feels different, even if it’s not actively visible. The white noise of the busy city street is gone. The typical waves and nods are gone. It’s hard to see if anyone is smiling because everyone is wearing a mask. The familiarity I grew up expecting from my surroundings is completely gone. Going outside feels dehumanizing, it feels like everyone is functioning for themselves. Instead of viewing my neighbors as people I see them as pandemic carrying threats, to be avoided at all costs.
Logically speaking, I’m eternally grateful for what I noticed on my walk. I’m so grateful my fellow Houstonians are not going to work, therefore I’m thankful for the quiet street. I’m glad people are consciously crossing the street to retain distance. I’m thankful for the masks and the gloves. But, when you are outside looking for a sense of normalcy it’s hard to remember the reasons behind it and not just simply feel isolated and dehumanized. Kindness feels gone.
After this walk, I came back inside and couldn’t stop thinking about the idea of a neighborhood. I grew up watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Fred Rogers’ television program ran for almost 32 years. Each episode introduced a different moral or lesson to the young audience. The show was fundamentally built on the concept of community, a neighborhood, to be specific. His core concept was that of kindness – to others and to yourself. He showed this through the neighborhood on the television; it served as a tangible example for each lesson.
When I came back from my walk, I couldn’t help but think “What would Mr. Roger’s neighborhood look like in quarantine? What if the neighborhood didn’t even have the freedom for short walks around the block? What if no characters could leave their homes unless absolutely necessary? Would the core value of a neighborhood disappear because of this? Would the show even exist in our current situation?”
Rogers, of course, passed away in 2003, so these are not questions he can answer. But, as an individual that has seen close to all of the 912 episodes he created, I feel like I can begin to paint a picture of how it would look. He spent his career showing the neighborhood idea to children, but his message was not one that demanded the viewers to exist in the same setting on screen. His teachings felt universally applicable to every situation. The classic form of kindness that builds a neighborhood, the kindness Rogers built his life around teaching, must not disappear.
Kindness is more important than ever. Quarantine demands self-awareness for others as well as ourselves. We cross the street away from our neighbors not to just save ourselves, but to protect them. Every decision right now, for the first time in my life, is built on a core value of the safety of others and not just my own protection. When life is stripped down to the bare minimum, Mr. Rogers’ signature kindness becomes more obvious.
I say all of this to implore others to remember a basic form of kindness right now. I ask others to pretend as if we all live in a quarantined version of Fred Rogers’ neighborhood, now more than ever. Consciousness of others is the basis for what we, as average citizens, can do to aid in recovery. Worrying about your neighbors can genuinely save their lives. In a time where neighborhoods and communities seem to be fading, they have never been more important.
The COVID-19 Virus, assumed to have originated from Wuhan, China, led to instant prejudice throughout the world but particularly in the United States. Racism towards East Asian individuals, an already deep-seeded issue in the nation has become a far more glaring and pressing issue as a result. I once again ask myself what Mr. Rogers would teach on the show about this. I instantly thought of a moment on Rogers’ show that feels ever applicable today. In 1969, Rogers created an episode where he took a footbath with Francois Clemons, a black police officer on the show. This was remarkable for a myriad of reasons. To see a black man in the 60s play a police officer and to see him sharing foot bath water with an upper-class white man was an entirely unprecedented television occurrence. This event is a key reflection of the quiet activism on the show. Rogers led social justice through acts of small and large kindnesses.
Kindness and humanity overcome racial prejudice. It feels too simple to just say we need to view each other as humans first, but Mr. Rogers proved that, in many ways, it is that simple. The racial tensions in countless neighborhoods are so prominent right now because of a new and horrific racist ideology derived from the COVID-19 panic. It’s important for the idea of the shared footbath to come back. Of course, I suggest no one share any form of a bath in a pandemic, but the idea remains. We are humans first; humans facing different prejudices naturally, but right now united in a global crisis. Humanity is the key to retaining cultural civility, just as humanity was the key to Rogers’ show. Racism can simply not exist in any variation of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, pandemic or not.
After my rambling inner monologue of Fred Rogers’ teachings, I decided to go on a walk again the next day. Except, on this walk, I choose to think of what I see in the light that it would be shown in Fred Rogers’ neighborhood. This time, as my next-door neighbor sees me coming and crosses the street, I remember this act is social distancing is an act of concern for a global community and not just himself. I remember the mask that is preventing me from grinning is so I do not run the risk of having my outdoor stroll be the cause of infection for older Houston residents. Each and every act of lockdown practice I observe around me, I choose to view as an act of community preservation.
The pandemic isn’t over but neither is the world. I encourage everyone right now to do their best to not feel dehumanized by others nor to feel unkind in doing what is necessary for safety. At its core, kindness is doing what is right. Currently what is “right” is what we need to do to save our world and community. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood no longer airs on television, but I like to think it lives on in each and every community in our country in some way. Choose to be kind and choose to act for others. That is all I can ask of my fellow citizens right now. And most importantly, if your situation and job allow you to, stay home. The idea of a “neighborhood community” is not going anywhere and neither should you.
Surina Belk-Gupta is a first year Film, Photo & Visual Arts major who will be binging Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood during quarantine. You can reach them at [email protected].
Art by Carolyn Langer.