Before 8 a.m. on a recent Thursday in The Bronx, two dozen people had already lined up outside of a Tremont senior citizens center run by the social service agency BronxWorks.
Until recently, the nonprofit had held two food pantries a month at the location — one for seniors and one for the broader community. But with food insecurity soaring, BronxWorks now does a weekly session for both groups.
The plan had been to provide a box of food and a bag of fresh vegetables to each person. But the boxes were late so Maria Rivera, who runs the center, handed out plastic bags of fresh vegetables, including a large butternut squash, and told people they could pick up the boxes later.
After the shipment finally arrived, BronxWorks distributed 275 boxes, each 40 pounds, that included milk, eggs, potatoes, apples, carrots, yellow onions, cheese, pulled chicken and yogurt.
“It’s made a big difference,” said Patricia Darko, 63, who lives nearby on Jerome Avenue. “Sometimes they even give us a chicken in a bag. Without it, I would be eating a lot more lentils.”
Noted 70-year-old Maritz Vanegas, who has been going to the senior center for eight years: “I don’t have to spend money on food and it helps since every time I go to the doctor I have to pay $45.”
Last week, she made visits to medical specialists on consecutive days.
Scenes like this are now occurring throughout the city, but the need may be most acute in The Bronx, where the official unemployment rate is 21% — the worst in the city and probably as high as it reached in the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The pandemic recession has already wiped out the significant gains The Bronx had made in recent years, significantly narrowed the economic gap between the borough and the rest of the city. And the consequences are mounting for residents, from growing food insecurity to the likelihood of a housing crisis when the moratorium on evictions of those not paying rent expires, currently scheduled for the end of the year.
“Where we saw the biggest impact after the pandemic was in the need for food,” said Eileen Torres, executive director of BronxWorks, which was founded in 1972 and serves about 60,000 people a year. “It’s going to take quite a lot to improve the situation.”
Losses on Multiple Levels
Nearly 5,000 Bronx residents have died from the coronavirus, with a death rate higher than any other borough.
The Bronx unemployment rate is either 21%, using the official not seasonally adjusted rate compiled by the state labor department — or 41%, according to economist James Parrott, who divided the number of people on unemployment insurance by the workforce figures in February, before the economy shut down.
By comparison, the jobless rate is 16% in Brooklyn and Queens according to the official number and around 33%, according to Parrott. He puts Staten Island at 26% and Manhattan at 22%.
With major industries still scaled back or shut down due to public health precautions, New York City remains one of the hardest hit areas of the country from the pandemic recession, with an official unemployment rate of 16.3% compared with 8.4% for the rest of the nation.
“The Bronx has been hit hard because it has very high share of residents working in face-to-face and essential industries where job losses are concentrated, and it has the lowest proportionate share of remote workers, who have been the least affected,” said Parrott, who has been tracking the economy for the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School.
One in five Bronx workers are employed in the devastated hospitality industry or in healthcare or social assistance, both of which have seen large layoffs.
The impact is obvious to Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who took office in April 2009 when the borough had the highest jobless rate in the state and made economic opportunity his mission. Late last year, the borough’s jobless rate hit a historic low of 4.4%.
“We had a real strategic plan to make sure people were doing business with The Bronx, not just in The Bronx,” he recalled recently, noting that the number of people employed in the borough in February was 117,000 more than the day he took office. “The economy we have been able to build has been decimated in four months.”
‘A Long Road Ahead’
Hard times are nothing new for The Bronx, but this time is different.
“We’ve had bad days in the past with the lack of housing or buildings being burned down in the 1970s,” Diaz said. “Crack and drugs in the 1980s. Bad days around violence in the 1990s. The difference is that with COVID there has been an uptick in drug use, uptick in crime, uptick in unemployment, uptick in food insecurity and an uptick in sickness.”
The business impact has been devastating especially in the area around Yankee Stadium, where 161st BID Executive Director Cary Goodman is monitoring 24 stores, four which have gone out of business permanently with another half-dozen likely to follow suit soon.
The de Blasio administration says it recognizes that The Bronx needs help. Officials are trying to get more work on city construction projects for Bronx residents.
A quarter of all people receiving the city’s help in finding a job or improving their skills have come from The Bronx. Almost $60 million has been given to Bronx nonprofits for emergency food help.
“From job-creating economic development projects, to grant programs that help businesses keep the employees they already have, the city is committed to getting creatively expanding opportunity in The Bronx,” Mitch Schwartz, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio, said in a statement to THE CITY. “There’s a long road ahead. But we wouldn’t be the greatest city in the world without The Bronx — and we’ll be there for Bronxites every step of the way as we rebuild a fairer, better city.”
Goodman would disagree. For months, he has been asking the Yankees to do something to help that neighborhood businesses that have been hurt, given that no fans attended games played this truncated season in a stadium built with substantial help from the city.
When he couldn’t get a response, he asked the de Blasio administration to help. He has walked the 161st Street corridor with city officials.
“They understand how horrific the crisis is in the South Bronx, but not a nickel has been given by the Yankees, the city or the state,” he said. The Yankees did not respond to a request for comment.
Like today, The Bronx during the Great Depression of the 1930s was a borough of working people, although rather than being primarily people of color working in service industries, the residents were heavily Eastern European Jews working in the city’s garment industries.
Unlike today, Bronx residents of that past period were also heavily unionized.
While severe, the Depression struck New York less hard than manufacturing centers in the Midwest like Akron because its economy was diversified, noted Mason Williams, who has written about the era in “City of Ambition,” his book about Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and President Franklin Roosevelt.
New York was one of the first places where government stepped in to take over relief efforts under then-Governor Roosevelt. And no mayor in the country took advantage of New Deal programs more effectively than La Guardia — a contrast to the start-and-stop federal assistance a divided Washington has sent New York during the pandemic.
But before those programs took hold during the Depression, The Bronx was the scene of a wave of rent strikes and confrontations between residents and police trying to evict people.
“I have seen pictures of people leaning out their windows throwing things at policemen dragging people out of their apartments,” said Steven Payne, librarian and archivist at the Bronx Historical Society.
Many people were evicted, but others were able to stop being thrown onto the streets and others won modest reductions in the rent, he said.
Evictions Crisis Feared
Looming for The Bronx is the question of how the housing crises will play out this time.
When the pandemic first hit, BronxWorks officials saw many people they had never helped before — people who had lost their jobs and needed help signing up for SNAP and other assistance programs.
That wave has ebbed but now the agency, which has a well-established eviction help program, is alarmed by the growing number of residents coming in with ever-increasing totals of unpaid rent.
“When the eviction moratorium is lifted we are going to have a huge influx of people coming in because there are going to be a lot of people who will need to come up with the money to pay the rent,” Torres said.
“We need to think quickly about what kind of assistance we will provide these families or we’re going to see large numbers of homeless families.”