Lincoln residents may have driven past one of the nicest places in America this year without even noticing it.
South 32nd Place, an unassuming cul-de-sac behind Rousseau Elementary School, has been named the nicest place in Nebraska by Reader's Digest in its annual "Nicest Places in America" list, which will be printed in the magazine's November edition.
The story began when one of the cul-de-sac's residents, Randy Bretz, was struck by videos of people in Spain cheering for their health care workers from their balconies in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Bretz, a 75-year-old retiree, was so moved he decided to begin cheering for health care workers himself, eventually inviting his neighbors to join in. Over time, the cheering morphed into an impromptu, socially distant gathering of neighbors at the end of the cul-de-sac.
We've gotten closer. We're much more aware of what's happening in each other's lives. We're not just people living near each other. We've become honest-to-goodness neighbors.
What began as just a handful of neighbors has grown, Bretz said, and now much of the neighborhood gathers each night to talk about everything from lawn care and landscaping to fears about the coronavirus and aging parents.
The gatherings quickly gained local attention, he said, and Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird mentioned the cul-de-sac in one of her coronavirus briefings. Congressional candidate Kate Bolz, the state senator who represents the neighborhood in the Legislature, and Lincoln Police Chief Jeff Bliemeister both attended the gatherings, Bretz said, chatting with and answering questions from the neighbors.
"I didn't set out to do this," Bretz said. "I just went out to clap my hands for health care workers to say thanks in some little way."
Bretz said the group finds new ways to pass the time, including bringing a fire pit for roasting marshmallows. The neighbors plan to have a fish fry in the cul-de-sac for the Fourth of July.
While most of the residents were familiar with each other before these gatherings, Bretz said, they weren't particularly close. Now, he said, the group feels like a family.
"It's just the kind of thing that neighbors who know each other do," he said.
A member of the Rotary Club and a part-time writer and professor, Bretz said he's kept pretty busy during the pandemic.
"People tell me I flunk at retirement," he said.
Bretz was reading a copy of Reader's Digest when he found the previous year's "Nicest Places in America" list. He decided to nominate his circle, he said, then promptly forgot all about it. Later, he was surprised to receive a call from the publication asking to include his cul-de-sac in this year's list.
While Bretz said he's happy to see his neighborhood featured, he doesn't think what he did is too far out of the norm.
"I'm just a guy living on a street in Lincoln, Nebraska, getting to know his neighbors," he said.
Videos, photos: Creating community during the pandemic
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