ST. PAUL — Every evening, the residents of the 1100 block of Palace Avenue in St. Paul begin to gather outside their homes.
They stand in separate circles on the street — drawn in chalk exactly 10 feet apart — in front of Jim McGuinn and Christine Weeks’ house. There, in the front yard, next to a white Sonos speaker, stands Momo Hayakawa Koenigs.
Koenigs gives the signal, and a man’s voice can be heard speaking in Japanese, accompanied by a jaunty piano tune. Welcome to the Palace Avenue version of rajio taisō, or Japanese radio calisthenics, a rhythmical exercise routine set to music.
As Koenigs bends, stretches and jumps, her neighbors joyfully try to keep up. “Into the sky! Into the sky!” Koenigs calls as she stretches her arms up and to the side. “Bunny hop! Bunny hop! Jumping jack! Jumping jack!”
The three-minute routine is the perfect way to end the work day, said McGuinn, program director at The Current radio station, who lives across the street from Koenigs and provides the speaker used to broadcast the radio calisthenics program. “It’s a sign that the day is over. We know we need to shut our laptops and go outside.”
The block started doing Japanese radio calisthenics together on Friday night in the wake of social distancing caused by the coronavirus outbreak.
“It’s been a nice, weird thing through this,” McGuinn said. “You feel everyone being together in this moment when it’s so hard to be together. I look forward to it now already every day — just the opportunity to connect with my neighbors, to check in and make sure everyone is OK and do a toilet-paper roll check and feel this sense of social unity. I feel like it’s brought us even closer together.”
After the calisthenics routine ended Tuesday night, neighbors sang “Happy Birthday” to Elizabeth O’Leary; arranged for a wrench to fix Eddie Farwell’s scooter; and celebrated the fact that Clark Koenigs, Momo Hayakawa Koenigs’ husband, had found time to shower that day.
Participants range in age from 4 to 70-plus; no special exercise outfits are required. Dressed in black sweats, Lindsey Farwell, the unofficial “mayor” of the block, joked on Tuesday night that she was wearing exactly what she wore to Monday night’s gathering.
Tom Johnson, 68, brought his dogs, Reilly, a mini Labrador, and Theodora, a Schnauzer poodle, to the communal workout. The exercises “aren’t that difficult,” he said. “It’s as easy as breathing.”
Johnson, a bartender at W.A. Frost, said he looks forward to the nightly gathering. “You get to see everybody,” he said. “It’s a chance to get away from all the hullabaloo. We have such good neighbors.”
The block, which has its own Whats App group chat, is known for its National Night Out gatherings, summer happy hours and progressive dinners. They once applied for and got a grant to stage a neighborhood play based on the children’s book “The Big Orange Splot.”
“It’s pretty Wes Anderson, this block,” said McGuinn, referring to the quirky American filmmaker.
After just a few days of doing the routine, residents on Tuesday night appeared to be picking up on Koenigs’ cues and anticipating the next exercise. “I’m looking forward to us getting gradually more and more unified in it,” Weeks said. “Eventually, it will be like a dance or something that we all perform together.”
Weeks said the nightly gathering serves as an “anchor” to her day.
“In this time, we do need to be together and tend to each other in a practical way, but also, as much as we can, emotionally,” she said. “We can’t hug each other, but we can see each other and do things together in a safe way and have fun. It’s really cool to have something forward to. We work long hours, so it’s nice to be done with your work and then able to do this sort of cleansing thing and then go in and hunker down with your family for the night.”
Koenigs, who grew up in California, attended Japanese school until ninth grade. She regularly did Japanese radio calisthenics growing up and plans to teach the routine to her children, Kai, 4, and Mei, 1.
“Every Japanese citizen knows it,” she said. “They play it on the radio every morning, and I think it’s also on TV every day. It’s been going on for decades. My grandparents know it. My parents know it. Any Japanese person knows it.”
Koenigs said her husband, Clark, initially suggested that the block, which was meeting nightly at 6:30 p.m., do the communal calisthenics.
Rajio taisō “is perfect because anyone can do it, young or old,” Koenigs said. “They’re not complicated moves. They’re just simple stretches, but it feels great. It just gets your blood pumping. It’s really stress-free, and it’s nice to just move your body.”
So far, the neighborhood has gathered rain or shine.
“On Saturday, we did it while there was snow falling,” Koenigs said. “I didn’t think many people would come out, but, nope, the whole street came out.”
Ten-year-old Eddie Farwell said he wouldn’t think of missing it. “I get to see my neighborhood,” he said. “During the day, I’m inside playing video games, reading, doing schoolwork. You want to see your friends, and you want to do all this stuff with your friends, but you realize you can’t do it because of the coronavirus.”
For at least a few minutes each night, concerns over COVID-19 seem to dissipate, Koenigs said.
“More than the physical aspect, psychologically, everybody walks out of their house at 6:30 with a smile on their face,” she said. “We’re just so happy to see each other and be outside of the house.”
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