Distributive DIY

How the coronavirus turned me into a Lawn Dad.

By Anne Helen Petersen

Ms. Petersen writes the newsletter Culture Study.

A version of this article appears in print on Sept. 13, 2020, Section SR, Page 9 of the New York edition with the headline: I Used to Go Out. Now I Go to The Home Depot..

  • Sept. 10, 2020

The pandemic has a way of constantly reminding us that our lives are deeply intertwined. But it also shrinks our daily existences into small, isolating little worlds. Every day presents a new way to feel helpless, a new wrinkle of loneliness. We can’t counter the current risks of the outside world on our own. But we can find agency, even comfort, in their smallness. We can mow our backyards, or even just tend the flowers in our windowsill, and ready them for a time when we can share them — and ourselves — again.

For all its pleasures, DIY obsession can also feel like a turn inward: a way of focusing on private space for private use. I’ve spent a lot of time wrestling with the privilege of being able to move, back in 2017, to a place where I could afford a place with a backyard — and, once here, with having the job security to spend money on things like tomato cages and electric sanders. When my vegetables wither on the vine, or succumb to bugs or moths or lack of drainage, I tell myself: It’s not about the end product. It’s about the process. I realize I’m desperate for a space where I can safely fail. But that, too, feels like a privilege.

One solution: figuring out how to make some of that DIY impulse benefit others, however imperfectly.

What does distributive DIY look like? Projects like Mx. Turon’s — but also maintaining public lands and parks, and paying the taxes and electing the politicians that work to keep them public. It looks like funding and participating in community gardens, and boxes of free zucchini on the stoop, and organizations that salvage and resell building materials at deep discounts. It’s understanding that the pleasure of watching something grow, or learning a skill, or just sitting outside shouldn’t be contingent upon one’s income level. It means understanding community as a whole collection of people “doing it yourself” — but for each other’s greater good.

For Nev Turon, who lives in Portland, Ore., with their two small children, DIY projects have been oriented around cultivating a space that’s luscious and inviting — to their own family, but, eventually, to others as well. Mx. Turon has made a practice of setting up water stations in the front yard, and maintaining a small “free box” of surplus items. They’re working on an idea for a little free pantry, but currently lack the carpentry skills.

The real goal, however, is an outdoor shower in the backyard, available to anyone who needs it. There’s already a makeshift one, but Mx. Turon wants to create a space, accessible from the outside, with a privacy curtain and enough space so a person can safely bring their possessions in with them. It’s going to take time, and skills and resources Mx. Turon doesn’t yet have. But it feels good to work in that direction.

“There’s a lot of ways to be house-less,” Mx. Turon said. “And there’s about to be a lot more house-less people. I want to be here in a way that acknowledges that the land wasn’t mine to buy in the first place — and in a way that is distributive, because I’ve been lucky.”

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