The Nicest Place in Nebraska: At the End of a Cul-de-Sac in Lincoln

NICEST PLACES IN AMERICA 2020 FINALIST
"A Neighborhood Becomes a Family"

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A tradition from a world away unites a tiny cul-de-sac.

In mid-March, a story about people in Spain stepping onto their balconies and applauding healthcare workers inspired Randy Bretz to do the same more than 5,000 miles away, at the end of his quiet cul-de-sac. Lincoln is Nebraska’s capital and has nearly 300,000 residents, but, like much of the state, it’s surrounded by cornfields, and life has a slower rhythm than urban Spain, with days marked by farm schedules and the years by the harvests.

So, at 8 pm one night, Bretz stood on his porch in Lincoln and clapped for healthcare workers and first responders. He continued his tribute for a few nights, then sent an email to his neighbors, encouraging them to join him.

At first, his neighbors gathered at the end of their driveways to honor and thank those on the front lines. Less than a week later, their celebrations morphed into nightly get-togethers in the middle of the cul-de-sac, at a safe social distance, of course. And that’s when real bonds started forming. Neighbors got to talking, and they learned about one another’s lives, their children, their fears of the pandemic, and hopes that it would soon end.

“We knew different people on the street, but didn’t know them,” says Bretz. “We’ve gotten to know each other.”

One time, a resident set up a fire pit out and the families made s’mores. On another evening, they ordered pizza.

nightly neighborhood gatheringCourtesy Randy Bretz
What started as giving thanks to front line workers became a nightly tradition that turned neighbors into friends.

“I never thought it would be something I’d look forward to each night,” neighbor Eddie Rodel told Reader’s Digest. “Since we’ve all gotten to know each other more, we’ve helped each other more.”

Soon, others in Lincoln noticed. First, Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird mentioned the group’s nightly gathering during one of her briefings. Other neighborhoods in Lincoln organized meet-ups, following social distancing guidelines.

Then, the meetings became a way for neighbors to interact with government officials. Lincoln Police Chief Jeff Bliemeister asked to be invited to join. “He thanked people for being cautious and asked everyone questions,” says Bretz. When a staff member for Kate Bolz, a candidate for Congress, asked Bretz to hold a virtual coffee, he suggested she come by the cul-de-sac instead. Bretz posted an announcement about her visit on Nextdoor and neighbors from a street over joined too.

The Nomination

It started when I was moved by what I saw they were doing in Spain, stepping out their door each evening at 8 and applauding the people in healthcare and others who were endangering themselves to serve their communities. I stepped onto my stoop and clapped my hands. That was back in March.

Since then, we have celebrated in our own way by gathering in the circle, just south of Rousseau School each evening at 8, except when the weather has been nasty. At first, it was fairly dark in the early evening and we chatted for a few minutes and headed back inside. It was mostly those of us who live on the circle.

Then, a few more folks on the street joined in and we stayed out a bit longer. Little by little we were getting to know one another better. The children on the street often participated, zooming around on their bikes, scooters and even hover boards.

And, on Sunday evening May 2nd, I just stood there amazed at what I was seeing and hearing. We teased Jim and Lindy about their yard they’d just landscaped. We checked to see how Natalie was doing with her “She Shed.” We laughed at what Sam, Reese and Addison were doing in their backyard. We’ve gotten closer, we’re much more aware of what’s happening in each others’ lives.

We’re not just people living near each other, we’ve become honest to goodness neighbors.

For example, the Larsons live at one end of our street and often make the trek to the circle. As Sheryl pointed out, “We’re thankful for our neighbors and we’ve been feeling so much more connected and involved. There can be good things that come out of challenging times!” Joy Armstrong lives on the circle with her family and noted, “We didn’t know many of our neighbors beyond a wave or hello. Happily, as we’ve taken time to get to know each other I feel I really know them now. It’s been an unexpected blessing. I feel like I’ve made a bunch of new friends.”

When I shared our story on the Nextdoor app and website, I learned from Judy Greenwald that some of the women in Woodshire noticed that the men were becoming couch potatoes, so they set a date and time and encouraged their husbands to take a chair and hang out on a neighborhood driveway, appropriately distanced of course. “They all showed up and returned home happy campers,” Greenwald said. “It’s time for the women next week and we’re hoping the men will organize something for themselves, too.” Rich Rodenburg in the Country Club area noted that they have similar gatherings in the circle where he lives. I also heard from folks in other neighborhoods about activities where they live. It’s encouraging to learn that even in our self-imposed home stays, we’re reaching out and establishing deeper connections with our neighbors.

Two comments from my own neighborhood underscore that point. Lindy Davis, right next door, said that she and Jim have gotten to know people much better and they’ve enjoyed watching some of the children play with their new toys. And, Eddie Rodell really hit home when he pointed out, “For the almost 10 years I have lived in the circle, I have always waved at or said hello to our neighbors. But with the nightly gatherings on the circle, I have gotten the opportunity to speak with and get to know my neighbors. They’ve changed from neighbors living nearby and become true friends.”

On May 24, 2020, our Superintendent of Schools and Mayor urged residents of Lincoln to step outside at 8:20 pm (that’s 20:20 military time) and cheer for those students graduating from high school. I contacted a friend who brought his drone over and recorded this scene.

A year ago we were nice to each other, but distant. We’d toss a wave from our car or have a quick conversation as we encountered one another on the street. Three months ago when we first started meeting in the street, we’d be there for five or 10 minutes. Now, it’s fairly common that we’re engaged in conversation for 45 minutes to an hour.

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