The 10029, COVID-19 and Me


/ NYC Health Department

I had been watching the 10029 zip code in New York City for COVID-19 cases and didn’t see anything out of the ordinary … in the beginning. That is no longer the case.

According to a story published in El Diario-La Prensa and translated into English here, the 10029 zip code is the hotspot for coronavirus in all of Manhattan by number of cases. The zip code has between 1,400 and nearly 4,000 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, according to New York City Health Department data.

In the 10029, between 41 percent and 45 percent of people who have been tested resulted positive for COVID-19.

New York, of course, is the nation’s Grand Central for COVID-19 cases and fatalities – over 26,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Every zip code in New York City has COVID-19 cases.

El Barrio

The 10029 zip code has special meaning to Puerto Ricans for it represents all of El Barrio or Spanish Harlem, the upper Manhattan neighborhood that was home to boricuas who migrated from Puerto Rico in the mid 20th century, and even earlier.

Many stateside Puerto Ricans can trace their migrant DNA to El Barrio. I certainly can, as can most of my cousins and many friends. I bet others here in Florida can, too.

“It’s where my mom lived when she came from Puerto Rico when she was nine,” writes former journalist Iván Román of Maryland about the 10029 on Facebook.

Obviously, there are many neighborhoods in New York City with far higher incidences of COVID-19, including parts of The Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn, where up to 60 percent of people who have tested are positive for COVID-19, the city reports. But the deep purple of El Barrio jumps out in the color-coded sea of blue in most of Manhattan.

Public Housing

The 10029 zip code is vulnerable because it is chock-a-block with public housing projects, like the one I grew up in, James Weldon Johnson Houses, built between 1945 and 1948 and part of a slew of post World War II construction of affordable housing. Yes, there was such a thing then. (And there is an even greater need for it now.)

According to El Diario-La Prensa, “New York City manages more than 15,000 units in 24 residential complexes in East Harlem, the highest number of public housing apartments in the city’s 59 community districts.” 

In fact, New York City has the nation’s largest concentration of public housing, providing a roof for about 500,000 people, many of them black, Hispanic and poor.

If you know nothing about public housing, know this: the apartments are small, occupancy is high. According to the book Affordable Housing in New York: The People, Places, and Policies That Transformed a City, a typical two bedroom in Johnson Houses is 700 square feet. There were seven of us in a three bedroom that couldn’t have been larger than 950 sq. ft.

The apartments often are occupied by multi-generations. Affordable Housing in New York states that half of Johnson Houses tenants are under age 21 and many live with grandparents and other relatives. That’s a lot of people packed in close quarters.

Neglected People and Place

Worse still, NYC public housing has been neglected over decades with budget cuts and law suits, resulting in deteriorating financial and physical conditions – great locations for the coronavirus to breed and spread. (Even with its huge problems, New York public housing has a waiting list, testament to a lack of affordable housing for the millions of people whom we now call “essential workers.”)

It’s no accident that African Americans and Latinos in NYC have about double the number of confirmed, probable and total deaths than non-Hispanic whites in the city. Public housing projects have a lot to do with it.

I grieve for the 10029, which was rapidly gentrifying before coronavirus. I wonder what impact the high incidence of COVID-19 will have on gentrification. Will it slow it down or speed it up?

The 10029 provided home and hearth to my family for many, often difficult, years. Johnson Houses was newer then, cleaner then, although still working class and poor. It was definitely a tight-knit community with many people I grew up with family to this day. Many residents, my family included, fled to safer places as crime and drugs became more prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s.

Had a pandemic swept the nation back then, it might have been widespread in Johnson Houses and other New York public housing, too. And for the same reasons. But the big difference between then and now is that there was more investment in public housing and a greater sense of hope among my neighbors that we would go on to lead our best lives.

˜˜María T. Padilla, Editor

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