In a Pandemic, Creative and Mostly Virtual Socializing


Indira Mahabir was scrolling on Facebook late one March night when an ad popped up. It was for Society Las Olas, a new apartment community in downtown Fort Lauderdale, Fla. with low rents and an emphasis on community and social events.

Ms. Mahabir, 47, is single, with two adult children, ages 27 and 22. She had been empty-nesting in her four-bedroom home for over a year, and was ready for a change. Society Las Olas, which was still being built, ticked all the boxes: rents started at $1,100; the 34-story tower would have a pool, gym, and a packed calendar of mixers, lectures and classes, all designed to help neighbors meet and mingle.

Covid-19 has been a wrench for many residential communities and their social calendars, canceling everything that couldn’t move outdoors or online. But for some, it has been an opportunity, inspiring innovative programming that has served as a lifeline through the lockdown for residents, and even helped attract new tenants in the process.

By the time Ms. Mahabir signed a lease, Society Las Olas’s social calendar had been scrapped, a casualty of Covid-19. But she still chose to move in, and calls riding out the pandemic there one of the best decisions she has ever made. The reason? The property reworked much of its pandemic programming from scratch, focusing on enhancing community, even from six feet apart.

“We have been significantly challenged when interacting is the one thing you can’t do,” said Ryan Shear, managing partner of PMG, a developer with several “social communities,” including Society Las Olas, in its portfolio. “We really had to pivot.”

That pivot includes Taco Tuesdays, where residents receive packages from a local taqueria; they build their tacos in their apartments and eat them “together” via Instagram livestream. There are sound bowl healing classes, socially distanced by the pool; and virtual panels on current events like the future of Florida’s hospitality sector. All are free for residents. Planned events this winter include a pop-up art gallery, with artists painting live in the lobby; and an “Around the World” food expo spread across several floors of the building.

For Ms. Mahabir, the shared experiences have been essential.

“If I had still been in my house, I think it would have been very depressing to be in such an environment, alone, going through the pandemic,” she said.

Many event programmers said they felt a sense of responsibility to their residents to create an outlet and safe space during a time of heightened anxiety.

“The outside world doesn’t work very well right now, so we really have to create our own inside world,” said Michael Fazio, chief creative officer at LIVunLtd, which runs events for a number of apartment towers in New York City, including Gotham West, the Nicole, the Atlas and the Ashland, all owned by the Gotham Organization. Mr. Fazio knew when he canceled in-person programming that his residents still wanted engagement. The challenge was offering something unique in a virtual world swimming with free content.

So rather than a standard zoom happy hour, he created a series of weekly wine-tasting zoom happy hours, each with a themed wine list curated by a sommelier from Sotheby’s Wine. The themes were simple: One week focused on California reds, another on wines under $50, and attendees swirled and sampled the wines, which were delivered to each participant beforehand, online together.

Mr. Fazio hosted a story program that families could enjoy together, utilizing performers from Drag Queen Story Hour, who offered virtual readings of stories like “Go Away Big Green Monster” and “The Kindness Book.” And he planned a trivia night, and bumped it up by bringing in quizmaster Noah Tarnow, of The Big Quiz Thing, to oversee the action.

The events have been popular with the company’s young, technology-driven New York renters. And because the virtual events are open to Gotham’s entire portfolio of buildings, attendance has been higher than typical in-person events, which are limited to the renters in the property where it takes place.

But what if residents don’t know how to log onto the computer, or don’t have access to one? That was the question at RiseBoro, a New York City nonprofit, whose portfolio includes senior centers and 3,000 units of affordable housing. With all in-person programming paused at their senior centers in March, they decided to try something they had never done before — put content online.

Designing the programming, said Sandy Christian, vice president of RiseBoro’s senior division, wasn’t the challenge. They started with yoga, Zumba, theology lectures and nutrition classes, via Zoom or YouTube. But many seniors in their network don’t have tablets or laptops, and those who did had trouble working them. Early in the lockdown, in-person IT visits were impossible.

So they went analog, calling seniors on the phone. Those who did have tablets were given free coaching sessions with computer instructors; those who didn’t were able to dial in to events via conference lines. Today, some classes, including a popular Friday virtual dance party with music like salsa, merengue and rhythm & blues, get as many as 200 participants.

In other communities, the widespread social justice protests that marked much of this summer also served as an inspiration for keeping residents connected.

ImageSallie Ann Robinson, a cookbook author and celebrity chef, headlined a virtual fund-raiser this fall at Haig Point on Daufuskie Island in South Carolina. She cooked recipes from her childhood on the island from an outdoor deck at Haig Point, and residents followed along in their own kitchens.

Sallie Ann Robinson, a cookbook author and celebrity chef, grew up on Daufuskie Island in South Carolina, part of the dwindling Gullah Geechee community that descended from Africans once enslaved there. Today, the majority of Daufuskie’s residents live in Haig Point, a private community with many million-dollar homes.

Ms. Robinson, whose nickname is “The Gullah Diva,” headlined a virtual fund-raiser and concert on Oct. 26, the concept was dreamed up only after the pandemic hit. From her perch on a waterfront kitchen at the Haig Point deck, she cooked recipes from her childhood like sweet potato cornbread and chicken and vegetable stew; attendees followed along in their own kitchens.

The event raised $90,000. The majority is earmarked for food outreach for South Carolina families facing Covid-19 hardship; a portion will also go directly to the Gullah community.

The event wouldn’t have happened outside of a pandemic, she says, and presented a unique opportunity for connection.

“Food opens the door to the heart, body and soul,” she said. “That’s life — everything bad ain’t bad. Sometimes it’s for good reasons and we don’t see it until it happens.”

And Maggie Lang, vice president of marketing and experience for Daydream Apartments in the western United States, designed “Crisis Pickles and Immunity Cocktails,” which combined a mixology class with a discussion on racial justice. She also hosted a town hall with senior representatives from the Equal Justice Initiative, which works to end mass incarceration; next up is a presentation with a James Beard-winning chef on the origins of soul food.

“While they could have had surface level events, they chose to go deeper,” said Patti Bryant, 30, a resident of Union Denver by Daydream. She attended a number of the social justice-themed events. Each of them, she said,” provided a thought-provoking time to reflect on who is at our table and how we can create meaningful connections with every person, whether they are like us or not.”

And that was precisely the point.

“We have to have these conversations,” said Ms. Lang, who estimates between 100 and 135 residents dial in to each event from across Daydream’s seven properties, in Austin, Seattle, Los Angeles and Denver. “People are lonely. Mental health is an issue. We all feel how important it is to connect like this.”

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The New York Times

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