The Bronx fends for itself as pandemic hits hard

Nancy Testa walked into the kitchen at Capri Cakes, her bakery in the south Bronx, and noticed her workers smiling. 

“I said: ‘what’s going on?’” Ms Testa recalled. The grins, it turned out, were spawned by the realisation that the bakery had managed to survive through three months of coronavirus-induced lockdown. “It was a big deal,” Ms Testa said.

New York City’s tentative reopening from lockdown began last Monday. It had a special resonance in the city’s poorest borough and the one hardest hit by coronavirus. In the past three months Bronx residents have suffered the highest death rates from a disease that disproportionately targets the poor. The neighbourhood, whose residents are more than 80 per cent black or Hispanic, has also become a flashpoint in the recent protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. 

“Bronxites have always known that we were behind the pack and under-resourced,” said Michael Brady, chief executive of the Third Avenue Business Improvement District. “However, I think it took Covid-19 and the immense pressure of the pandemic to have the rest of the city realise that the Bronx really is disenfranchised.”

On the first day of reopening there was a carnival-like atmosphere in the Melrose section of the south Bronx, a busy shopping district whose stores are mostly of the mom-and-pop variety since, with a few exceptions, the neighbourhood’s deprivation has kept the national chains at bay. 

Women were queued outside beauty suppliers and throngs of shoppers shuffled along the sidewalk under the hot sun. A local jeweller was advertising hand sanitisers — a hustle that had allowed his and other businesses to be classified as “essential” and so reopen early. A tax preparer’s storefront was covered with a plywood board scrawled with the words: “Black & Brown Business”.

Salsa wafted from the stereos in an electronics store and collided with rap thumping from car windows and the incessant bark of a man promising in Spanish cheap financing for furniture. There was an occasional siren — and a sense of foreboding.

“How many of these small businesses will be able to stay afloat?” asked Rafael Salamanca, the local councilman and a Bronx native. His fear is that many will go under, and then “we’re going to have a lot of vacant storefronts, which gives an opportunity for those big box chain stores to move in and basically clean house”.

Abel Brea, owner of 1-800Fix.com, an electronics repair shop that has been in the neighbourhood since 1991, was wondering the same thing. “They’re going to open. But can they survive?” asked Mr Brea, who was wearing a face mask emblazoned with the logo of the New York Yankees, whose stadium is in the Bronx.

Like other business owners, Mr Brea benefited from his landlord’s leniency in recent months. “The problem is, now it’s officially open,” he said. “They want the rent. No more 50 per cent!”

Bronx residents watch the police arrest protesters for breaking the citywide curfew on June 4 Bronx residents watch the police arrest protesters for breaking the citywide curfew on June 4 © Getty Images

The Bronx has long suffered from the sense that it is forgotten by the rest of the city — that the gusts of prosperity that blow through Manhattan reach it years later, if at all. In the 1970s and 1980s, buildings were torched for insurance money and its spiralling crime made it a byword for urban blight. At $38,000, the median income is less than half that of Manhattan. 

But in recent years, the borough has been attracting investment — particularly a southern fringe where Brookfield and other big developers have been building thousands of luxury condominiums just across the Harlem River from Manhattan. New businesses were also opening further north, in Mr Salamanca’s district, and unemployment was low.

“Coronavirus really put a damper on things,” said Mr Brady.

The Bronx’s death rate of 254 fatalities per 100,000 residents is the city’s highest. In some Bronx zip codes, the infection rate is more than double that of the city at large.

That now seems obvious since Bronx residents tend to work the frontline jobs — as delivery drivers, health aides, public transit workers — that have proved most vulnerable in the pandemic. They have high rates of asthma and diabetes. They are also packed into public housing towers.

“There’s only two elevators in a building that has 19 stories, and one of those elevators is always down. And so you have people literally waiting in these common areas,” Mr Salamanca said, explaining how the virus spread. “With so many people, there was really no social distancing.”

People wait in line to be tested for Covid-19 at a health centre in the Bronx People wait in line to be tested for Covid-19 at a health centre in the Bronx © JUSTIN LANE/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Amid all the gloom, Ed Garcia Conde, publisher of the Welcome2theBronx blog — and an avowed foe of gentrification — saw one possible silver lining: the coronavirus downturn might keep at bay the luxury condominiums.

“I hope it cancels it,” Mr Garcia Conde said cheerfully. “If rents decline are you going to choose to live here or Manhattan or Brooklyn, where everything has already been gentrified just the way you want it?”

He was strolling down Third Avenue, past a plaza where police had encircled a group of protesters in one of the more violent confrontations that followed Floyd’s death, and then along a stretch where, he noted, even the drug addicts — absent during the pandemic — were beginning to return.

“We already knew we were going to be left to fend for ourselves when this happened. We’ve been before,” Mr Garcia Conde remarked.

Volunteers participate in a community clean-up effort on June 2 after protests following the killing of George Floyd Volunteers participate in a community clean-up effort on June 2 after protests following the killing of George Floyd © AP

That sense of grit — born of poverty and abandonment — may be vital to the neighbourhood’s survival. It is abundant at places like La Morada, a Mexican restaurant on Willis Avenue that turned itself into a soup kitchen during the pandemic and now serves a thousand free meals a day.

“A lot of people have been laid off or furloughed, if they even had a stable job to begin with,” said Marcos Saavedra, as he packaged an order. Down the counter, his mother, Natalia — whom Black Lives Matter activists paid tribute to during a recent protest — was filling tamales.

She and her husband migrated from Oaxaca in southern Mexico in 1992 and worked, respectively, as a custodian at a Catholic girls’ school and a petrol station attendant. Mr Saavedra began selling supplies from the Bronx’s massive Hunts Point Market to Mexican restaurants in the region until the family eventually scraped together enough savings to open their own in 2009.

Because they are not citizens, La Morada did not qualify for federal aid after the pandemic struck. Bronx businesses received less than 1 per cent of a $10m New York City loan programme for small businesses. Still, the Saavedras are getting by — in part by delivering meals to local hospitals. 

“It’s always been difficult for us. It’s never been easy,” Mrs Saavedra said.

At Capri Cakes, Ms Testa is also trying to adjust. “My business is based on people getting together and celebrating and hosting some kind of event,” she explained. “And now you can’t gather.”

After closing for a few weeks, she has made do by reducing staff and trying to switch to graduation cakes. “I said to my husband last night: ‘I wish we would have been in the liquor store business,’” Ms Testa quipped. In April, they ended up paying rent out of their own pocket.

Floyd’s death is a regular topic of conversation among customers. One night, after businesses in Manhattan were hit by looting, there were sightings of young men with hammers in the south Bronx and rumours the neighbourhood would be next. “I didn’t sleep that night, looking at all the Twitter feeds,” Ms Testa said. The danger passed.

“I feel extremely blessed,” Ms Testa insisted. Still, reflecting on the last three months, she could not help but adopt a Bronx view of the world. “There’s an overwhelming feeling,” she said, “that we always get the short end of the straw.”