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Essential Business

Keeping the Bronx fed in the midst of a pandemic

All photographs courtesy of the author

The Andrew Jackson housing project in the South Bronx is an 868-unit complex of seven towering redbrick buildings. On an early April morning, torn plastic bags hung from the bare branches of the trees dotting the development, and several Puerto Rican flags waved from its windows. Across the street, an ambulance was idling near the entrance of another apartment building. In Jackson’s parking lot, a resident named Danny Barber was supervising a few friends as they loaded meals into his yellow Penske truck, to be distributed around the neighborhood. The meals, prepared at local restaurants, came from World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit run by the celebrity chef José Andrés, which has been providing food to the South Bronx since the novel coronavirus pandemic hit New York City in March.

Danny’s day begins as early as four in the morning, when he is awoken by his thirty-one-year-old adopted brother, Ken, who was born with Bell’s palsy and is blind, partially deaf, and nonverbal. “You have to learn his different cries,” Danny explained. He helps bathe Ken and dresses him for the day, and by eight, Danny’s at his truck, waiting for the World Central Kitchen to arrive with the meals. Often he is joined by his friend Dude, an “everything man” who, like Danny, lives in Jackson. If the New York City Housing Authority—which manages Jackson—wanted to get anything done in the South Bronx, Danny told me, they’d need to employ Dude. Most days, Dude works cleaning a NYCHA-run community center in the neighborhood, even as it sits empty during the lockdown. (“I stare at the walls,” he said.) With less work to be done, he can often accompany Danny for a few hours before rushing back to the community center.

In my own car, I followed Danny as he steered his truck through the eerily quiet neighborhood streets, past dull gray high-rises, mauve row houses, clusters of mud-colored projects, and the ramshackle entrance to the Metro-North Railroad, whose tracks flee to the suburbs. At each stop—usually a NYCHA development—Danny produced meals of spaghetti and meatballs, cold chicken sandwiches, apples, and juice boxes (“I ain’t never seen apples like that before!” exclaimed one woman). At the Patterson houses, a few residents were setting up long tables and a line was forming. Patterson is a collection of fifteen buildings, and nearly five hundred people stop by for meals each day. Gloria Anderson, a longtime Patterson resident, greeted Danny and began arranging the sandwiches. Over the previous two weeks, Gloria had lost six friends to the virus. Two of them, in their thirties, were asthmatics. One was a retired cop who fell ill after attending a party. Another was a close friend from Gloria’s childhood who passed away just a week after her son had succumbed to the illness. But she spoke little of these losses, instead intently stacking sandwiches for the quickly growing crowd. She handed one to a rail-thin, unshaven man. “God bless you, God bless you,” he said.

Danny and I made our way north, to the smaller Morrisania development. Music was blaring when we pulled up; a woman danced her way out of an open storage area. A few men lounging in chairs near the building entrance, where a table had been set up for food, hurried to make room for Danny’s boxes. Gwendolyn Primus, the tenants’ association president, was sitting nearby, on a wooden bench. Over the noise, Mrs. Primus, as Danny likes to call the president, updated him on the latest news from the neighborhood: “the sister went to the hospital yesterday, she was dead this morning.… Her brother went to claim the body today.”

Later that evening, Danny told me that soon after we left Mrs. Primus, an ambulance had come to her building and carried away a resident in a black body bag. As we chatted, he put me on hold to take another call. It was his uncle, whose best friend’s son had just passed away.

Like all diseases, COVID-19 feeds on penury, and in the Bronx—which has been hit twice as hard as Manhattan—nearly one in three people lives below the poverty line. The South Bronx in particular forms part of the poorest congressional district in America. The average life expectancy here is ten years shorter than it is in Greenwich Village. Diabetes and hypertension rates soar above the city average. A curtain of smog rings the neighborhood—a product of three nearby highways, a massive garbage facility, a Wall Street Journal printing plant, a Fresh Direct warehouse, and the trucks that stream in and out of Hunts Point, the supply center for much of the city’s restaurants. The pollution has given the South Bronx a nickname: Asthma Alley. According to New York City’s health data, among the Bronx residents killed by COVID, around 90 percent had underlying conditions.

“The chronic toll of redlining, environmental racism, wealth gap, etc. are underlying health conditions,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents part of the Bronx, tweeted in April. “Inequality is a comorbidity.” In the South Bronx, everyone I met offered a similar assessment. “The system that is broken today was broken way before this pandemic,” said Joe Conzo, a retired Bronx paramedic. Marty Rogers, a sixty-five-year-old who has lived in the neighborhood all his life, put it more bluntly: “When shit hits the fan, we feel it first.”

Across the city, mutual-aid groups—community members helping each other by exchanging time, money, food, and other resources—have stepped in to fill the gaps where government services are lacking. But while a few mutual-aid groups have formed in the Bronx, they are not as numerous or widespread as in Queens or Brooklyn. The necessary resources are in short supply. Absent robust mutual-aid networks, residents are forced to scrap together help wherever they can find it. With a population so willfully abandoned, the Bronx is surviving the pandemic largely through a mix of charity, neighborly goodwill, and enterprising individuals like Danny.

Just as the crisis landed in the South Bronx, Danny received a call from the office of Assemblyman Michael Blake. The staff were coordinating with the World Central Kitchen and wanted to know: Could Danny help deliver meals around the neighborhood? He got to work almost immediately; within two days, he was weaving from one NYCHA building to the next, handing out 1,700 daily meals to anyone who needed them. And with so much of the neighborhood unable to work, he knew plenty in need.

When he moved into the Andrew Jackson houses in August 1973, Danny was four years old. Only three years later, he had started volunteering at the local branch of the Salvation Army, where his mom and aunt also donated their time feeding the homeless. At fourteen, Danny received his first paycheck from the Salvation Army, as a maintenance worker. But the Salvation Army wasn’t just a job, it was a community. Parents dropped off kids at day care or after-school programs. On Sunday afternoons, the Salvation Army set up speakers at NYCHA buildings and played music while neighbors mingled. Volunteers counseled residents about bills and body aches and other worries keeping them up at night. “Those were the great days,” Danny said with a laugh, suddenly singing a Salvation Army jingle: “Put a nickel on the drum, save another drunken bum!”

Danny aspired to become the “first black general of the Salvation Army, worldwide,” but stress and a minor heart attack had him in and out of the hospital. He left the Salvation Army in 1998 to recover. His father, who had worked for NYCHA as a tenant patrol supervisor, encouraged Danny to run for president of the tenants’ association. In the early 2000s, he became head of the TA at the Jackson houses, and two years ago led a lawsuit against NYCHA for failing to provide heat and hot water to residents, resulting in a settlement that mandated a federal monitor. Developments in the borough remain plagued by lead paint, rats, and a lack of running water, but the settlement was nevertheless a crucial victory. “Being classic Danny Barber,” is how Danny described his work. “Making sure everything’s okay.”

Accompanying Danny on his distribution run, I noticed that his route didn’t seem particularly efficient—he dropped off food at the Patterson houses an hour after delivery at Lincoln Hospital, which was right across the street. But the timing of each drop was carefully coordinated with tenants’ association presidents, who had to arrange volunteers to set up tables and food. Because the food was offered not only to residents, but to anyone who needed it, Danny would be keeping an entire street waiting for their lunch or dinner if he ran late.

Around midmorning, we headed for the Melrose Houses. Along our route, several ambulances were stationed in front of residences. At the edge of the parking lot, someone had spray-painted a message on a white cloth pinned to a chain-link fence: “Smile You in Camera.” The playground was deserted. An elderly woman wearing a face mask, the tenants’ association president, emerged from the building nearest us and helped load Danny’s meals into her collapsible shopping cart. At each stop, I could see him rearrange, reassess, and do mental math before unloading. He didn’t keep a list or consult his phone. He seemed to instinctively know how many meals each development required and whether they needed more or less than the day prior. Just as he was about to close the truck, he turned back and put one more case of juice boxes in the woman’s trolley. “You know the Abrams, they got sixteen kids,” he said.

Several decades ago, mutual-aid initiatives thrived in the Bronx. In the early 1970s, for example, as the borough felt the pressures of a nascent economic recession, the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican activist organization, along with the Back Panthers, offered free breakfasts, child-care services, and community health clinics to residents in need. But such efforts required friends and neighbors to contribute money and time, both of which became increasingly scarce as city policies further immiserated the borough. In 1975, the federal government refused to bail out a cash-strapped New York (prompting the infamous New York Daily News headline, ford to city: drop dead), and the city resorted to partnering with banks and businesses, which demanded tax breaks and the slashing of public services. In the Bronx, several hospitals were closed, community day care centers and libraries disappeared, and the quality of public housing plummeted. Some of the city’s cuts, like closing fire stations and reducing fire inspections, had immediate ramifications. Throughout the seventies, fires ravaged Bronx neighborhoods, burning buildings to a cinder, killing scores, and leaving many homeless. The rest of the city slowly shook off the recession, but the Bronx never did. Its poverty rate rose from 19.5 percent in 1970 to 27.6 percent a decade later.

Under lockdown today, the definition of an “essential business” is much different in the South Bronx than it is in Manhattan. On a cool day in early May, the sidewalk of 149th street were lined with people in face masks, waiting patiently to enter a CVS store. Across the street was another line, for a pawn shop. Men sold masks, gloves, and perfumes from street-side tabletops. Nearby, the door of a check cashing and payday loan store sat wide open. A few blocks away, the BOOM! harm reduction clinic was open, too. For about two decades, the clinic has served active drug users by offering needle exchange, providing HIV and hepatitis-C screening, and holding support groups for people with alcohol addiction or mental illness. Outside the building is a black metal disposal container that reads, “Needles and syringes only please, no garbage.”

When the lockdown began, other needle-exchange sites suspended services, but BOOM! persisted, running its program out of a van parked outside. The van receives visitors from morning to evening, five days a week. “We’ve been out here the whole time,” a BOOM! staff member told me. “Our peers are frontline workers,” added another. Worried about how a second COVID wave might affect supply chains, the clinic decided to ration the number of clean syringes it distributes, and is careful to keep a generous stock on-hand. Staffers know how quickly infection can spread. One told me that in April, he saw what looked to be a hundred body bags stored in freezer trucks parked outside Lincoln Hospital.

BOOM! runs a food pantry too—around 11:30, a line began to form outside its offices that soon wound around the corner and down a side street. At noon, staffers set up a table at the entrance and began handing out bags of fresh fruit and canned food to needle-exchange participants and anyone else who wandered by. In early March, the clinic was serving about sixty people a day. A month later, that number had doubled.

Even before COVID, the Bronx was the “hungriest borough” in the city—a quarter of residents lacked food security. Now, during the pandemic, there were queues of people patiently waiting for food just about everywhere. On 161st Street, a pantry line extended five hundred feet and snaked around the Yankee Stadium parking lot. One woman, shivering in the cold spring air and standing about two dozen spots from the front, had been waiting for two hours. Before the pandemic, almost a hundred food pantries and soup kitchens were operating in the borough, and they struggled to meet demand even then. Now more than a third across the city have closed.

The churches that generously populate the South Bronx operate several of the remaining food pantries. In a small square of community garden only a few blocks from BOOM! I met Marty Rogers, a retired group-home manager who volunteers for the Immaculate Conception Church. After the church closed, Marty and a few fellow parishioners took it upon themselves to purchase sandwiches and water bottles to distribute among the homeless, or to anyone who wanted a meal. He also started weekly meetings with a fellow church member who had been struggling. For many, the church, with its 500-person weekly mass, Alcoholics Anonymous programs, and Spanish-English classes, is the only community they have. So each Sunday, Marty and the congregant stand twelve feet apart in the garden and read scripture. The man says thank you and then leaves.

Marty, a tall man with white hair he keeps in a ponytail, grew up with the Immaculate Conception Church and attended its school, as his mother had and his children did. Marty’s father worked as a porter and valet in Manhattan, and as a security guard in the Bronx, to put his sons through college. His mother, a transplant from the Upper East Side, was the super of the apartment building he grew up in. “In her day, Manhattan was full and crowded,” Marty told me. “Coming to the Bronx was like coming to the country.” Marty’s family never left the South Bronx, even during the fires, riots, and white flight of the Seventies. “I think the glue for my family was the church and the school,” he said.

When I joined Marty and a nun for one of their food runs, he was wearing cargo shorts and a light jacket. His barrier against infection was a white T-shirt tied over his nose and mouth. Part of Marty’s route took him near BOOM!, where he pointed out with disgust the discarded syringes littering the street. (In Marty’s view, BOOM!’s work encourages drug use.) He led me behind Lincoln Hospital, where a man in a dirty, dark sweatshirt rested against a fence, struggling to speak and squinting at us. He was with a friend, who seemed to be conferring with him about next steps. Neither were wearing masks. The man, Thomas, had pain in his right leg, and Lincoln refused to see him. He’d been living on the streets since 1982, and like many residents in the South Bronx, he had come to rely on the emergency room for primary care visits. Now he was left outside, apparently unable to move. “Want to go to Montefiore?” his friend asked, referring to another of the borough’s hospitals. “I’ve been up there,” Thomas said. “They won’t help.” Marty offered him what he could: a sandwich and some water.

A few blocks away from Lincoln, at the corner of Morris Avenue and 150th Street, we passed a bodega Marty frequented. Today it stood padlocked. It had been run by a Yemeni man, who only a week ago could still be found behind the counter. He had just died of the virus, leaving behind two sons in middle school.

After leaving Marty, I stopped by the Hub, the heart of the South Bronx. The Hub is named for the four thoroughfares and the subway station that meet here, and is normally the area’s bustling center of commerce, though most of its shops were closed that day. A sign on a small pharmacy that remained open informed customers that it no longer had Lysol, hand sanitizer, or thermometers. Not far away was the Salvation Army store that Danny credits with giving him a purpose, though it had long since stopped conducting its weekly visits to NYCHA buildings and operating its mobile food truck. The Checkers was shuttered, and someone had freshly spray-painted we will survive and spirit. The graffiti on the adjacent door was older: fuck 12.

Though the crowds had thinned under the lockdown, it was still clear that the Hub was the heart of the neighborhood. On one bench, a pair of old men debated whether the coronavirus was hatched in a Wuhan laboratory. On a second, a wedding was being planned. At the corner, in front of an electronics store, four Black Hebrew Israelites were working a microphone. “This is the beginning! There are countries where people are eating cats, dogs, even their own children,” bellowed one, wearing a black-and-white-checked keffiyeh. “What side of the fence do you want to be on?” A few passersby stood and listened.

In the original Greek, the word “apocalypse” does not mean destruction. It means revelation. The coronavirus apocalypse in the Bronx has laid bare the long-term conditions of a community in crisis: squalid housing, people forced to sleep on the streets, collapsing lungs, no medical services, hunger. But what happens after revelation?

When the pandemic hit, people in the South Bronx were among the city’s most exposed, and among the most accustomed to getting by without outside help. Community members like Danny Barber sprang into action, working the phones and calling in favors to keep people fed. But they knew these were stopgap measures, not a solution. Most residents I spoke with believed that though the pandemic revealed the rugged truth of their lives, there would be no deliverance. No politicians rushing to save them, no investment in public services, and no end to the Bronx’s more enduring pandemic.

In April, Mayor De Blasio announced that the city will slash more than $2 billion in municipal services, even as corporate tax breaks eat up much of its budget. (A recent report found that tax exemptions and government assistance for Hudson Yards, a collection of high-end retail shops and luxury apartments on the west side of Manhattan, totaled $5.6 billion.) Meanwhile, Governor Andrew Cuomo warned that public hospitals and schools across the state might face 20 percent budget reductions. While the city has agreed to a moratorium on evictions and to provide cash assistance to the undocumented, most of the aid distribution still reflects underlying inequities. As of late April, 53 percent of employee retention grants had gone to Manhattan; 3 percent had gone to the Bronx. The city’s Department of Small Business Services gave 66 percent of relief loans to businesses in Manhattan; the Bronx received 1 percent.

After the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in late May, residents in the South Bronx joined the protests. Neighborhoods like the South Bronx had felt the hand of law enforcement acutely since the pandemic began—over two months of lockdown, 90 percent of those arrested for violating social distancing in New York City were black or brown. Facing demands that the police be stripped of resources, NYPD Chief Terence Monahan defended sparing the department’s $5.6 billion budget from the cuts affecting other municipal services. “I was out there in the 1970s,” he told reporters. “You need the police out there to tamp it down otherwise you could really have this city going in the wrong direction.”

One of the stops on Danny’s food run is the local police precinct, and I recently called him to see what he thought of the protests. “Covid-19 is the new stop and frisk,” Danny told me. There is no community policing, he said. Police officers come into the neighborhood, and harass and humiliate the same people they are paid to serve. “We’re not punching bags.”

Shortly before the protests began, I returned to the Patterson projects to see Gloria. We chatted at the kitchen table of her apartment, which she had inherited from her mother. The two moved into the unit in 1971. As we spoke, I noticed for the first time that Gloria’s right foot was partially amputated. She told me that after the surgery, many years ago, she was forced to leave her job in child care. Since then she has stuck close to home, relying on help from friends and relatives. She ventures out three times a week for dialysis, usually leaving at dawn to avoid people. But nearly every day, despite the fact that her immune system is severely compromised, she goes out at lunchtime to help feed a swelling crowd of residents and passersby that Danny attracts with his truck. “I have to do my part,” Gloria told me.

Almost all the food-distribution organizers are seniors, and many of them have illnesses that would likely translate into a death sentence if they were infected with the coronavirus. Maria Forbes, the president of the tenants’ association at Clay Avenue, is an asthmatic and diabetic, but she has doesn’t miss a day handing out meals to her neighbors. While authorities urge the elderly to stay indoors, she was still braving the frontlines in a city that has forgotten its own. “I’m a first responder,” Maria told me.

Dana Elden, president of the tenants’ association at the Saint Mary’s Park projects, felt similarly. Despite being confined to a wheelchair due to osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis—conditions that were exacerbated when she was struck by flying debris during the 9/11 attacks—she forced herself each day to go downstairs, to show her face, to say hello. She didn’t want people to feel alone.

The mailboxes in Dana’s building had been broken for months. A few days before I spoke with her, when the stimulus check of a young Hispanic couple that had recently moved in finally arrived, Dana went to hand-deliver the mail. The husband and wife, who had said only a brief hello to her in the past, were thrilled when she came by. They brought her sneakers as a thank-you. Now, when the wife sees Dana downstairs, she asks if she, too, can help.

“I don’t think we’re anywhere close to the end,” Dana said of the virus. “I read the Bible, and I think this is the beginning of Revelations. But I’ll say this: what we’re doing is showing people how much we care about their well-being.” It’s a long-term plan, for after the sirens have faded. “People feel like nobody cares anymore. And that’s not true.”

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