In the spring of 2020, the ambulance sirens never stopped wailing in the Bronx. Covid galloped through the borough, a sub-city of 1.4 million people, claiming 150 lives a day that April. Montefiore Hospital, the borough’s biggest hospital—and one of its major employers—turned every unused space over to Covid patients. North Central Bronx, the public hospital next door, lined them up in the hallways. City government made plans for a field hospital in Van Cortlandt Park, sandbags stacked at the edge of the famous cross-country course. After years of austerity budgets and efficiency consultants, both hospitals had far fewer beds than Covid demanded. An informal network of nurses maintained a text chain monitoring which area hospitals were accepting patients and which were turning them away. Montefiore brought in a trailer-sized supplemental oxygen tank to feed the many respirators pumping away inside—and refrigerator trucks for the bodies of those for whom the respirators were not enough. The morgue had far exceeded capacity.
The daily number of reported positive cases that spring peaked at 1,300, exacerbated by the cramped housing conditions in which tens of thousands of Bronxites live; by the fact that the borough, New York’s last refuge for the working class and poor, was filled with Black and Latino service-industry workers who didn’t have the option of working from home; and by the underlying chronic respiratory conditions that have long plagued the people of the Bronx, where highways run even through the parks. As workplaces shuttered and jobs in the informal economy disappeared, food pantries and soup kitchens were overwhelmed. By June, tens of thousands were receiving food assistance and lines at distribution sites—schools, churches, community centers—snaked around the block. In time, the pandemic would extract a heavy toll from communities all across the country and the world, but in those early months the Bronx was at its epicenter.
By summer 2020, as the country exploded in protest against racism after the murder of George Floyd, it appeared Americans were finally able to see the interlocking injustices Covid had exposed. “Now the world knows what we already knew for so many years,” Wanda Salaman said wearily. It was now the summer of 2021, and Salaman was sitting at a wooden picnic table in a community garden on East 181st Street, a few blocks west of the Bronx Zoo. This is the neighborhood in which she came of age and where she first got involved in community work nearly forty years ago. She began this work under the tutelage of Sr. Pat Dillon, RJM, and Astin Jacobo, a union organizer and former MLB scout who worked as a janitor at the local parish school. For years Jacobo—everybody called him Jacob—used the basketball teams he ran at St. Martin of Tours to collect intelligence on the landlord neglect that beset the borough in the seventies and eighties. He referred kids who reported they had no heat or water in their apartments to Dillon, the Bronx-native nun and community organizer. She would visit their parents and get them involved in the Crotona Community Association, part of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC). The groups took the landlords to court and in some cases helped tenants take over their buildings.
Those first months of the virus in 2020 sent a lot of people who survived the Bronx in the seventies and eighties reaching for the lessons of their past. The Bronx has seen bad times before. Its fixes came local. Salaman is now executive director of Mothers on the Move (MOM), an advocacy group that works for better public health and economic change. For years MOM battled the truck traffic that earned a line of South Bronx neighborhoods the nickname Asthma Alley. In the late 1990s MOM staged sit-down protests on the Sheridan Expressway, demanding that the highway be demolished. It advocated for tenants in overcrowded apartments where dilapidated conditions led to mold and roach infestations that further imperiled respiratory health. And it demanded proper staffing at the hospitals and health clinics that serve the South Bronx. MOM has also drawn attention to the precarious position of undocumented workers excluded from the formal economy, and decried the city’s failure to provide viable neighborhood services even as mayors opened the public purse with tax breaks for the New York Yankees and FreshDirect. Founded in the 1990s as an advocacy group for education, MOM argues that all the crises in the Bronx are connected, each building on and compounding the others. Salaman and her colleagues have always had a clear understanding of the systemic failures that make life—and health—more precarious here. “We’ve been saying this is the problem but nobody’s been listening. Now a lot of people have the same understanding.”