The New Yorkers who kept the city going during some of its darkest days got their moment in the sun on Wednesday.
Amid scorching summer heat, health care workers, first responders, transit workers, teachers and food delivery workers were among those making their way up the aptly named “Canyon of Heroes” to mark the city’s ongoing emergence from the pandemic.
The “Hometown Heroes” parade from the Battery to City Hall represented the 207th time that a ticker-tape celebration has been held in Lower Manhattan — and the first since a 2019 salute to the U.S. women’s national soccer team that won the World Cup.
Wednesday’s event followed a 16-month stretch in which the city became the epicenter of a global health crisis that killed more than 33,000 New Yorkers shuttered businesses or left them struggling to survive, testing those who stuck it out.
“We’re New York strong,” said Chelsea Pruett, 30, a nurse who returned from Minneapolis early in the pandemic to work at a nursing home. “We just make it.”
On Wednesday, Pruett found herself near Trinity Church, back in the city for a moving 14-float salute to 260 types of essential workers.
THE CITY fanned out along the parade route to talk with those who’ve been waiting for a reason to celebrate after nearly a year and a half of hard times.
‘This Was For Them’
Damien Lois spent the peak of the pandemic shuttling between Downtown Brooklyn and Ridgewood, Queens, on the B38 bus.
But on Wednesday, the nine-year veteran MTA bus operator savored an emotional route change, as he walked up lower Broadway alongside other transit workers.
The MTA lost more than 160 employees to COVID-19. But transit workers kept the city on the go, even as subway and bus ridership all but vanished in the spring of 2020.
“It goes from one emotion to another to another and another,” Lois told THE CITY. “All in all, it was about not wanting to get your family sick but I still had to go to work.”
Lois, 43, said New York “felt like the proverbial ghost town” during those days and joked that he half expected to see tumbleweeds rolling past his bus.
“I was driving those long, articulated buses and to have one or two people in a single bus, that was surreal,” he said. “To see New York as a ghost town, that’s unheard of, it’s something you will never forget.”
Walking in the parade, Lois said, gave him time to reflect on being apart from his fiancé and young son for months in the early days of the pandemic.
“Here I was watching my son grow up via the telephone,” he said. “Just because the last thing I wanted to do was get my son sick.”
The parade also allowed him to think about friends he lost during the pandemic, including a mentor, a classmate and several coworkers.
“It’s hard for me to not forget the coworkers we lost,” said Lois. “This was for them.”
Rising to the Challenge
On April 5, 2020, Erik Frampton was offered a job moving corpses from a Bronx hospital onto trailers that served as makeshift morgues.
He started the next day.
“All of the hospitals had bodies in the hallway, bodies on the loading docks, piles in the trailer,” Frampton said. “It was really an eye-opening experience — probably just a few people in the world have ever seen a pile of American bodies.”
Frampton, who lost work as a custom art framer due to the pandemic, said he wasn’t prepared for what he encountered.
“But it was something that every person who showed up that day rose to the challenge of,” he said. “I made quick colleagues and lifetime friends through that experience.”
Frampton said he was let go after 12 days for going public about conditions on the refrigeration truck — but added that he has no regrets.
On Wednesday, he marched in the parade.
“Millions of people were able to learn what the crisis really meant, which was the possibility of death, the possibility of losing loved ones as the virus spread,” Frampton told THE CITY. “So, I’m proud of that and it may have cost me that role to share the story, but it’s certainly the one aspect of the whole experience that I’m incredibly proud of.”
Back and Better
Pruett, the nurse who now lives in Minneapolis, returned to the city for several weeks last year to assist at a Manhattan home for seniors.
For a month and a half, she worked at The New Jewish Home on West 106th Street, before moving to Minnesota.
“I came home to New York when I needed to,” said Pruett, who’d lived in Crown Heights.
She was back again on Wednesday, happily watching the parade among other essential workers.
“I saw what it was like when we were just losing so many patients,” Pruett said. “Now to see the city, it’s just really closure to see New York come back to what it was.”
Steve Swieciki, a social studies teacher at Lehman High School in The Bronx, said trying to connect with students during the pandemic proved difficult.
“There’s a narrative out there that people think working remotely is easy,” he said. “It’s not, especially when you’re trying to keep young people motivated and engaged with the material. It can be a real challenge.”
Swieciki, 34, said his personal struggles over the last 16 months also included catching COVID and his sister also getting sick. But he said he’s proud of fellow teachers and other city workers who stayed on the job.
“People really rose to the occasion and made the best of a bad situation to help the public,” he said. “I respect that, I appreciate that.”
‘We’re All Heroes Today’
Laura Marceca, the director of a Manhattan senior center, called the parade “wonderful, emotional and beautiful.”
“Everybody should be recognized for their hard work,” she said.
For Marceca, that included supervising the creation of virtual programming at Greenwich House Senior Centers.
“They worked very very hard to make sure everybody had meals and social services and socialization and some type of virtual programming,” she said.
That entailed teaching 1,000 seniors to use Zoom.
“We all learned overnight,” she said with a laugh, adding, “We’re all heroes today, we’re proud of everybody.”