Soon after the COVID-19 crisis began, New York City quickly became the global epicenter of the pandemic. A Dickensian horror story unfolded as the virus ravaged through the city’s most vulnerable communities, leaving in its wake 224,117 confirmed cases, 56,516 hospitalizations, 18,949 confirmed deaths, and 4,626 probable deaths as of August 8, according to official sources.
The bulk of the cases occurred between March 11 and May 2, triggering the return of white flight, as uber-wealthy and unrooted transplants abandoned the city en masse, decamping across the nation to their country homes or childhood homes and taking the virus into previously pristine communities, according to The New York Times.
Left behind were those who would not or could not leave. In a new millennium version of “A Tale of Two Cities” those at the lowest end of the socioeconomic pole suffered the most as the virus attacked Black and Latinx communities plagued by decades of systemic health, employment, income, housing, and education inequities.
To make matters worse, these communities were hardest hit by the economic downturn. As of June 1, half of all Black adults nationwide were unemployed according to The New York Times. Facing food and housing insecurity, the city was a tinderbox waiting to blow. The killing of George Floyd lit the flame, sparking the largest Civil Rights Movement in world history.
While New Yorkers took to the streets to protest police brutality, incidents of excessive force by the NYPD were captured on video for weeks on end furthering public rage. Donning masks, the protesters showed it was possible to assemble and take action without spreading the virus. Just as the protests heated up, the rate of infection finally began to level off. The first wave had subsided, but the loses are unfathomable.
New York Responds to the Crisis
Recognizing the importance of documenting history as it unfolded before our very eyes, a team of five curators at the Museum of the City of New York organized an online call for photographic submissions. With the museum’s doors shuttered since mid-March, social media became the primary and most powerful tool to build community during a period unprecedented social isolation.
Using the hashtags #COVIDStoriesNYC and #ActivistNY, photographers from all walks of life posted some 16,000 images, telling a wide array of stories about resistance and resilience in New York. From the archive, the curators selected 14 images to transform into massive prints for New York Responds, an outdoor installation on the museum’s terrace and balustrade featuring works by Clayton Benskin, Ximena Echague, Milo Hess, David ‘Dee’ Delgado, Nina Darpacz, and Valerie Caro, among others.
“The founding principle of the museum was to serve the people of the city of New York and tell the complex stories of life in the city,” says Sean Corcoran, Curator of Prints and Photographs. “We have a tradition of doing open calls for of the moment matters including Hurricane Sandy and Occupy Wall Street. Once we knew the gravity of what was happening, we put out a call for people to share their experiences throughout the five boroughs. We want to distill recognizable or informative moments to help people have empathy and a better understanding of each other.”
Corcoran, who has remained in New York since the crisis began, acknowledges the role the museum plays in multiple communities. Located in East Harlem, which had the most COVID-19 cases in Manhattan, the museum is at the upper end of Fifth Avenue’s famed Museum Mile. Two blocks South is Mt. Sinai Hospital, a major center of the COVID-19 medical response, which set up a field hospital was set up across the street in Central Park. “The neighborhood is a crossroads for the pandemic in New York,” Corocoran says. This exhibition is a way to reconnect the people who live and work in our community.”
A Native New Yorker Reflects
Born and raised in the Bronx, photojournalist David ‘Dee’ Delgado spent the peak of the pandemic covering every corner of his hometown. On assignment for Getty Images, Delgado saw it all. “Now everything seems like a blur to me. It got to the point where it was so much it was just go out and cover — you‘ll run into something,” he says.
Delgado traveled to Randall’s Island, where the refrigerated morgue trucks were being assembled to handle the overflow of the dead. “I did the math and figured out the trucks sitting there would hold 2500 people — the exact same number as 9/11,” Delgado says. “That really hit me. I worked in Tower 2 when 9/11 happened. That day God was with me, I was running late and didn’t make it to work on time.”
Though the city was largely empty, Delgado discovered a new rhythm and flow. “When things were really bleak, where there was nobody coming out, being a New Yorker was heartbreaking. At the same time, it was interesting to be one of the only people out there experiencing the city in a different way. You do get spoiled a little bit because when the city started getting lively a little bit I was like, ‘Oh damn here goes traffic,’” he says with a knowing laugh.
Delgado’s photograph in the show, which features a medical worker walking past a “Thank You” sign, was made at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx the day after a community tribute. “Photographers document real life. If there are no photos, it can be denied, they can say it never happened. Photos are the verification that things happened,” he says.
“When we were documenting bodies put into the refrigerated trucks, workers would get angry. We explained to them, ‘How do you think we let the world know what’s happening? You saying it and somebody seeing it has two completely different impacts.’ I would tell the workers, ‘If I can help one person realize this isn’t a hoax, I’m happy. Then I did my job.’”
By Miss Rosen
New York Responds
On view now, no closing date announced.
The Museum of the C8ity of New York, 1220 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10029 USA