“People see empty Times Square and they see the heart of New York. I get it. We’re not the heart,” she said through a disposable mask for which she had paid $10. “But we’re the legs.”
Amid this unfolding public health crisis, New York City has been distilled to its essential workforce. The Bronx, predominantly, is where they live, each day cramming into buses and subway trains that take them into Manhattan. As the city rallies around a mantra of “New York Tough,” the marginalized here — among them city transit staff, garbage collectors and health-care workers — know that New Yorkers are not truly all in this together. There are now more coronavirus infections here per capita than in any of the city’s other boroughs, according to health department data.
The Bronx is not just the poorest borough in the city. The 15th District, or NY-15, its chief congressional district, is the poorest in the nation. Of all the unsettling data points to have surfaced during the pandemic, one is front of mind among many of the 1.5 million people who live here: Of New York state’s 62 counties, the Bronx ranks dead last by most every measure.
NY-15 has a median income of $30,483, and the state’s worst rates for asthma, diabetes, hypertension and obesity, putting residents at a disproportionately high risk of death should they develop covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Even before the crisis, life expectancy here was 75 years old, 10 years lower than that of the most affluent pockets of Brooklyn and Manhattan.
“Poverty ages you,” said Ritchie Torres, 32, a member of the New York City Council who was raised in one of NY-15’s tens of thousands of public housing units and spent much of his youth hospitalized for asthma and has been chronically underweight. He recently recovered from a confirmed covid-19 infection.
“I was born into a leaky and moldy apartment,” said Torres. “That was not a decision. That was a circumstance imposed on me.” His mother still lives in public housing there.
As in other struggling communities throughout the country, the coronavirus crisis could hardly have come at a worse time for the Bronx, which had seen its high unemployment come way down and was nearing the outset of Yankees baseball season — the six-month window each year that drives a huge share of the local economy, especially for low-wage workers. Major League Baseball has delayed the start of its season and, even once sectors of the U.S. economy do begin to reopen, faces the prospect of playing in empty stadiums.
The crisis arrived, too, as the Bronx finds itself at a political crossroads. Rep. José E. Serrano, a Democrat who has represented the region in Congress since 1990, has Parkinson’s disease and is retiring, with a dozen aspirants (including Torres) scrambling to gather voter support ahead of a primary scheduled for late June. And, in January, Rubén Díaz Jr., the borough’s president since 2009, dropped his mayoral aspirations and announced he would leave office in 2021, throwing a cocktail party in February instead of the traditional State of the Borough address.
Díaz is quick to note that in January the unemployment rate here dipped below 5 percent for the first time in decades. Now, he added, “It’s our whole workforce that keeps getting hit hard because the essential workers are the bus drivers, the train conductors, the people working for minimum wage, the delivery industry, the food industry. That’s us. That’s blacks. That’s Latinos. Those are Bronxites.”
This congressional district is home to nine garbage-transfer sites, plus at least three medical-waste sites. CitiBike, the city’s bike-sharing program, debuted in the Bronx only last year, six years after launching in Manhattan. A briar patch of four highways, diesel truck traffic and manufacturing operations combine to form what’s known locally as the South Bronx’s “Asthma Alley.” A covid-19 testing site was announced for the neighborhood this month, but Manhattan — the city’s least affected borough with less than half the Bronx’s infection rate — has converted its Javits Center convention hall and a piece of Central Park into makeshift hospitals. What about the Bronx?
Serrano, the departing congressman, said he has been saddened by the federal government’s response to recent crises, including the natural disasters that have pummeled his native Puerto Rico. But, he said, he finds inspiration in the public’s response. “The daily applause isn’t noise. It’s music. It’s awareness,” he said of New Yorkers’ 7 p.m. ritual saluting the city’s essential workers.
Torres, the city council member, noted that before the crisis, this community went mostly unacknowledged. “Now,” he said, “it’s inescapable: The Bronx as the essential borough is staring everyone in the face. My hope is that a post-covid-19 world will do right by the Bronx.”
He added, “The Bubonic Plague ended feudalism.”
Cary Goodman, a schoolteacher who became executive director of the business-improvement district around Yankee Stadium, said he hasn’t seen transformative positive change here since 1974. The Yankees’ season, which typically stretches from April to October, accounts for 80 percent of annual local income here, he said. “Restaurants and Broadway are closed in Manhattan. Okay. But they’ve been collecting money. Our guys were only about to make money,” Goodman said. “It’s a new level of degradation. It was bad and tenuous. The worst. Now? Boom. Even worse.”
He continued: “It’s an insult to our dignity to see a tremendous resource like Yankee Stadium go empty in all this. How many suites could be shelters or hospital rooms? How many concession kitchens could serve meals to the needy?”
There was a national uproar after a tiger tested positive for the coronavirus at the storied Bronx Zoo, Goodman noted. “What about the Bronx people?” he said.
The Yankees, earlier this month, established a $1.4 million relief fund to help “ease the burden” faced by stadium staff.
When describing the Bronx and its residents, politicians tend to talk in euphemisms. They use terms like “socioeconomic status,” “access to resources,” “grit,” “heart” and “passion.” But grit is not a vaccine, people here say, and landlords don’t accept rent paid in passion. The platitudes can be as exhausting as standing 178th in line for groceries.
Hours after she first arrived outside the market, Ozuna, the out-of-work Uber driver, passed a sign detailing the mall’s code of conduct: 14 prohibitions, the fourth of which bans “gathering or loitering in groups of three or more while not actively engaged in consumer activity.” It was posted years before social distancing entered the nation’s lexicon.
When the mall was built, it replaced a popular wholesale fruit and vegetable market with big box stores. Then in February, Food Bazaar Supermarket opened to rousing community applause.
She brushed her hand at the whole sad tableau: the line, the Bronx, the city, the nation. “They take and take,” said Ozuna. “So we think we accomplish something when we get back what was ours all along. We never leave empty-handed, but we never leave fulfilled.”