In March 2020, New York City became one of the early epicenters of the coronavirus pandemic. As people sheltered at home, many were trying to navigate their new, more isolated realities.

On this week’s episode of the StoryCorps podcast, we hear how one family, the Vill’s, brought their Brooklyn, New York neighborhood together during the pandemic — safely and serendipitously — one song at a time.

Jo Vill first started DJing back in the 70s, eventually passing his passion for music on to his son, Chad. 

During lockdown, Jo and Chad, who occasionally performed together, were inspired to put a speaker in the street and play songs for their neighbors.

At StoryCorps, they remembered how people would start to request songs, and how one speaker in the street quickly grew into something more — a socially distant block party.

Jo Vill and Chad Vill in Brooklyn, NY, in June of 2021. By Nathan West.

Throughout the spring and summer, St. James Place became a respite for local residents; it was a place to dance and connect with others during a time of uncertainty. And none of it would have been possible without the one and only Mama Gail — Jo’s wife, Chad’s mother, and the official “doyenne” of the St. James Joy block party. In fact, it was her cheering and clapping for first responders that inspired Jo and Chad to play music for their neighbors in the first place.

Gail’s presence was a source of comfort for many block-party-goers, including Vicki Winters, who moved to the area just before the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in New York State.

At StoryCorps, Vicki told Gail how difficult those early months of COVID-19 had been for her, and just how grateful she was for Gail’s friendship.

Gail Bryan-Vill and Vicki Winters during a St. James Joy party in Brooklyn, NY, in June of 2021. By Niikai Wells.

During their conversation, Vicki and Gail revisited some of the other connections that were formed at St. James Joy, including a love connection between Arthur Fournier and Maggie Agnes Tully.

The couple first met online, and after a few rounds of texts and a couple of phone calls, they decided to meet IRL. Of course, Arthur knew the perfect place for their first date: St. James Joy.

Arthur Fournier and Maggie Agnes Tully during a pandemic picnic in New York City. (Courtesy of Maggie Agnes Tully).

More than a year after the first block party, the St. James Joy events are still going strong, and the Vill’s are still spreading joy all over St. James Place.

Top photo: Artwork by Rosalyn Yoon.

Released on August 10, 2021.