About an hour before she was to marry her fiance in the middle of the street Saturday, Amanda Mason walked out of her house on Walter Street SE in a white lace jumpsuit and peach tulle skirt to find big, bubbly hearts drawn in chalk all down the sidewalk.
Just across the street, Scott Davis acted as a one-man street sweeper, raking leaves from the gutter into a large paper bag and bringing plants from his home to help Mason, 33, and her fiance, Aaron Meyers, 34, create a wedding altar. A few doors down, teenager Isabel Rebora got a friend to hoist her on his shoulders so she could wrap paper flowers around a tree. Rebora, her mother and her sister Eve made more than 100 of them out of coffee filters and papier-mache.
When Mason and Meyers clasped hands to say their vows in the street that evening, Mason carried a small bouquet of pink dogwood flowers and lavender that neighborhood kids constructed for her.
A few days earlier, Colette Marchesini, Walter Street’s unofficial “mayor,” distributed poster board so neighbors could make signs to place in front of their houses: “Happy Wedding Day!” proclaimed one, marked with toddler handprints, hanging above rose petals strewn on the front steps. “It’s a DC I Do!” shouted another. Marchesini strapped her signs to a neighbor’s blue Honda Fit parked at one end of the one-block, one-way street, declaring it closed from 6:30 to 7 p.m.
As much of the country is confined to their homes to try to contain the spread of the coronavirus, neighbors everywhere are relying on one another more than usual — offering to pick up groceries, socializing from a stoop’s distance — and in many cases meeting each other for the first time. But for Walter Street, a narrow, close-knit street in the Eastern Market neighborhood on Capitol Hill, asking a neighbor for help or bonding over a front porch happy hour is not pandemic behavior. It’s what they do all the time.
The block of about 50 homes is known for its annual Halloween celebration, which Marchesini says draws more than 1,000 trick-or-treaters, and its July Fourth block party, during which the north and south sides of the street compete in games such as a water balloon toss and a pop-culture-themed relay race. In December, one neighbor coordinates a Christmas tree lighting, and on the third Thursday of every month, a different neighbor hosts a happy hour on their front porch. String lights hang year-round, threading through the tree canopy and connected to a resident’s solar panels.
Walter Street was built as an enclave for working-class African Americans in the early 20th century. Like many parts of Washington, the block has been gentrified and the demographics have shifted, but it remains a relatively affordable corner of Capitol Hill. The homes are small — about 1,000 square feet or less — with the front porches acting as an extra room.
Christine Campbell’s house, next door to Mason and Meyers’s, has been in her family for three generations. She said her grandmother bought the place for $11,000 in 1928, and Campbell later jumped at the chance to move down from New York and buy it from her father in 2008. Campbell’s father celebrated his 90th birthday with a big Walter Street gathering, and several of her aunts and uncles have lived on the street as well.
As far as Campbell can recall, Saturday was the block’s first wedding. “It’s a different culture,” Campbell says of the block’s friendliness, noting that “sometimes it’s too much for people.”
It’s the kind of street, resident Noah Bopp says, where you can park your car on one end at 5 p.m. and it will take you till 6 p.m. to get home, because neighbors are always out, saying hello and stopping to chat. Dogs wander off-leash and toddlers take after them. Several neighbors describe the block as Washington’s version of Sesame Street; “Gilmore Girls” fans say it feels like Stars Hollow. “It’s the friendliest place I’ve ever lived,” said one newcomer who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to offend his mother.
When newcomers move in, Marchesini tells them not to buy tools, such as ladders or drills, because someone is always willing to share. Erin Taylor and Dan Pechkis, who joined Walter Street in November, emailed asking if anyone had a rake, and within five minutes, three people responded.
So when Mason and Meyers told Marchesini they’d had to reschedule their April 25 wedding for Nov. 7, Marchesini was quick to suggest the couple keep the ceremony on the day they had planned — and do it on Walter Street. Over Zoom, they would patch in their 50-some guests, including Meyers’s father, who would officiate from his home in Northwest Washington, and neighbors would don masks and gather, at a safe distance, to celebrate in person.
Just before the ceremony, roommates Delia Antemie and Lynn Sommerville, both 31, placed Trader Joe’s flowers on their front stoop before going inside to do their makeup and change into dresses and jumpsuits. Younger guests showed up in their Halloween finest: a brother and sister in a Spider-Man suit and Princess Elsa dress.
Meyers and Mason stood in the street in front of a laptop. Meyers reminded everyone to maintain at least six feet from those around them. In just a few weeks, the couple had revised their wedding and honeymoon plans several times — perhaps the best form of improvisation training for marriage. As a nod to life’s uncertainty, Meyers said in his vows: “I love what I know about you and trust what I do not know yet.”
Mason told Meyers that “not only have we managed to survive” quarantine, co-working and all the wedding changes, “I think we have thrived together during this time. It is certainly a challenging yet affirming way to begin our marriage.”
Their vows complete, Meyers’s father proclaimed: “You may kiss the bridddeee,” the choppy Internet connection adding extra syllables. Neighbors cheered, then Zoom guests whooped and hollered, almost like a call-and-response.
A neighbor hit play on an outdoor speaker and the couple began their first dance to Louis Armstrong’s “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” but the song cut off abruptly because of technical difficulties. As they began again, Mason’s long tulle skirt got in the way. By now, this bride was skilled in improv — so she tossed her skirt and belt to the curb, leaving just her jumpsuit. Again, the neighbors erupted in cheers.
“It was phenomenal,” Mason said of how everyone pitched in to make their ceremony full of joy. “It reminds me of Capitol Hill in general. Whenever you walk around the neighborhood, you’re always noticing something new.”
Marchesini reports that the Walter Street residents had so much fun feting Mason and Meyers that they’re considering putting on another event next month: a socially distant prom.
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