Article and photos by Catherine Chojnowski
On the once bustling Manhattan Avenue, the main street running through Greenpoint, Brooklyn, someone scribed a message onto the sidewalk in colorful chalk: “We will get through this together.” While the rain washed the chalk away in a matter of days, the sentiment of community and resilience in response to the challenges the COVID-19 outbreak has posed remains prevalent.
Every evening, applause and song can be heard from windows all around the streets of Greenpoint. Neighbors join each other for evening concerts on their rooftops, locals continue to purchase goods from the few small businesses that remain open, and handmade banners thanking nurses and other essential workers for their dedication can be seen hanging from windows.
The situation is “sad,” said Brady Aarons, 25, a candidate for the 50th District New York State Assembly, which encompasses Greenpoint among other neighborhoods in north Brooklyn. “But it’s beautiful to see the collectivism that is going on right now to try to fight this.”
The widespread community support that Greenpoint residents have shown is exemplary of how various communities across New York City are responding the COVID-19 outbreak, which has seen 138,435 cases and nearly 10,000 deaths confirmed to be related to COVID-19 as of April 23, according to the New York City Department of Health. In addition to the loss of lives, the outbreak has caused widespread economic distress following Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s mandated closing of all non-essential businesses in an effort to combat the spread of the pandemic.
Leading the effort to assist individuals impacted by the “New York State on PAUSE” order, various food pantries such as the Greenpoint Hunger Program based in the Greenpoint Reformed Church and the North Brooklyn Angels are now busier than ever as they figure out how to extend their services to those in need while practicing social distancing and prioritizing their volunteers’ safety.
The Greenpoint Hunger Program downsized its volunteer team by half since the COVID-outbreak and has had to restructure the pantry program, which has begun using the adjacent church as a space to prepare pre-packed pantry bags and to-go meals in order for volunteers to be able to practice social distancing. Program director Joan Benefiel also has assembled a backup team of volunteers that is ready to step up in case any active volunteers were to be exposed to COVID-19.
While the Greenpoint Hunger Program has seen a surge in the number of people eager to volunteer, Pastor Ann Kansfield, 44, explains that monetary contributions are most helpful to the program while they are still operating under social distancing guidelines.
“I think in this situation there is so much good will and desire to help,” she said. “But in response to this disaster the greater help in most cases is to stay at home.”
In an effort to alleviate the pressure on pantries to provide food and other supplies to food-insecure members of the community, a number of local businesses that remain open are offering discounted or “pay what you can” meals to those struggling financially.
Baoburg, a neighborhood Asian fusion restaurant, has begun selling $5 “survivor meals” in place of its regular menu. Local pizzeria Best Pizza is offering free meals to those who can’t afford them, as well free delivered meals to hospitals to feed their clinicians. Local businesses that have been forced to close their doors have also donated food items to the pantry.
The community support goes beyond supplying food to those in need. Stuart Cinema and Cafe, a local movie theater and performance space, is offering the use of its laptops to those who need to file for unemployment and do not have computer or internet access at the moment. Local bar Ponyboy is offering bottled cocktails featuring hand-drawn labels by local artists, with a portion of their sales being given to the artists.
Although temporarily closed, neighborhood restaurant Anella is selling branded tote bags and T-shirts on their website with all profits going to former staff members.
Several other businesses have created fundraisers for the employees they were forced to lay off. Justin Bazdarich, owner of the OXOMOCO, has been promoting a staff relief GoFundMe on the restaurant’s social media accounts to provide some sort of financial support to his staff until they are able to re-open. Despite making the difficult decision to close permanently following the city-wide shutdown, local restaurant Cherry Point has also been urging former patrons to consider donating to their staff relief fund.
Despite a large number of companies being able to successfully transition to having their employees work from home following the governor’s “stay at home” order, many small businesses and their workers were abruptly laid off with uncertainty looming over them regarding how long it will be before they return to work.
An unprecedented number of nearly 16.8 million Americans have filed for unemployment since the COVID-19 shutdown, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Due to the surge in claims, the Labor Department’s website has continued to experience technical errors, and their call lines are down several times a day as anxious New Yorkers try to seek out answers.
At a virtual town hall meeting, tenants’ rights attorney Sam Himmelstein advised tenants to collectively attempt to negotiate with their landlords to work out payment plans until any further legislation is passed. The town hall was hosted by Emily Gallagher, a Greenpoint neighborhood organizer for housing, environmental and social justice and candidate for state Assembly 50th District.
Although New York State has suspended eviction proceedings indefinitely and Gov. Cuomo announced a 90-day suspension on mortgage payments and foreclosures, many tenants who rent their homes are left wondering how they will be able to afford paying rent, especially as the city-wide shutdown continues to be extended.
“The federal government is bailing out industry, Cuomo is providing relief for homeowners but for the 85% of Greenpoint/Williamsburg residents who rent their apartments, there’s still no action,” said Gallagher on her Instagram account. “The time for half measures is over.”
As tenants wait for answers to their concerns, Gallagher and other tenants’ rights activist groups have been advocating for the passage of Senate Bill S8125A, which “… relates to suspending rent payments for certain residential tenants and small business commercial tenants and certain mortgage payments for ninety days in response to the outbreak of COVID-19,” according to the New York State Senate website.
While the future remains uncertain as both local and federal governments attempt to take on more drastic measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, the community’s resilience prevails.
“This is a very difficult time and I think we are all struggling,” said Pastor Kansfield. “The real hope that I’m seeing is in the way that people are willing to step up and care for others, especially people that they don’t necessarily even know.”