Shootings had dropped sharply in South Jamaica, Queens, after local leaders engineered a cease-fire. But there is no negotiating with a virus.
Not long ago, the main public health threat facing people living in and around the Baisley Park Houses complex in South Jamaica, Queens, was one that had taken too many young lives: gangs armed with guns.
When a 14-year-old shooting baskets was killed accidentally in October by a bullet fired in a gang dispute, the death galvanised the neighbourhood to take action. Community leaders negotiated a cease-fire, and shootings had dropped significantly by earlier this year.
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Now the area faces an even greater crisis as the coronavirus spreads through the Baisley Park development's brick high-rises and down the nearby blocks of blue-collar homes, and this time those being taken to hospitals and graves are mostly older residents with little or no connection to gun violence, residents and officials said.
"We are losing the matriarchs and patriarchs in our neighbourhood," said Erica Ford, who founded LIFE Camp, a nonprofit group that tries to stem street violence. "We had just managed to bring shootings down. Then the virus made its way here."
It is a predominantly black area, and during the peak of the crisis, in early April, nearly 70 per cent of the residents of the ZIP code that covers it who were tested for the virus tested positive, according to city Health Department data. At least 144 people from the ZIP code have died.
Across New York City, the death rate for black and Hispanic residents has been much higher than it has for other racial groups, underscoring long-standing and persistent inequalities in the nation's largest city.
Before the outbreak reached its peak in the city, killing more than 800 people a day, it was already ravaging low-income neighbourhoods, many of them anchored by public housing developments and burdened by high rates of poverty and crime.
Sept Jones, a funeral director in the area, said he would typically retrieve two or three bodies a day from local homes before the pandemic. By mid-April, he said, the number was in the double digits.
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"I actually had to shut down my phone," Jones said. "There were too many bodies to pick up."
Not all the victims have been older. One night in March, Kalema McKethan, a 36-year-old civil servant, returned home to the Baisley Park Houses with exciting news for her mother and 13-year-old daughter: She had just been promoted to supervisor at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Days later, she developed an itch in her throat, followed by what seemed like common cold symptoms. Within a week, she began to have trouble breathing and went to a hospital.
"I spoke to her on the phone every day," an uncle, Ellis McKethan, said. "She tried to stay optimistic, but in her voice, she sounded scared."
On March 31, Kalema McKethan, who was otherwise healthy, died of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
"It just hurts, the way she left and how quickly," her mother, Lillian McKethan, said.
It took nearly two months and calls to a dozen funeral homes before Kalema McKethan's family was able to find one in Brooklyn that could arrange a small memorial service.
"They were all overwhelmed," her sister, Karinda Colon, said.
The funeral, with everyone maintaining 6 feet of distance, left family members feeling cheated.
"She was embraced by everyone," her uncle said. "And now we can't even say goodbye the right way."
Au Hogan, president of the Baisley Park Houses Tenants Association, said that the pandemic had hit the complex's residents project hard.
"This is a different kind of enemy," he said. "This is a real gangster. You won't even see it coming, and it will take all of your loved ones."
'We're just lost'
Days after McKethan's death, Mary Alice Miller, 69, who lived in an apartment building less than 2km away, died of Covid-19. One of her sons, Jermaine Miller, had succumbed to the virus two weeks earlier, three days shy of his 45th birthday.
Mary Alice Miller and Jermaine Miller had been inseparable, family members said. When he was diagnosed with the disease in March, she found it heart-wrenching not to be able to visit him at the hospital.
"My mom was just scared," said Junior Miller, 50, one of Miller's three children. "She was not eating. She was just worried about her baby."
Jermaine Miller's health deteriorated rapidly. He died March 19, leaving a wife and two children behind. About a week later, his mother developed symptoms eerily similar to her son's, including a severe backache and laboured breathing.
"She never had contact with my brother while he was sick," Junior Miller said.
He was to bring his mother to the hospital and leave her at the entrance. By April 1, she had been found to have Covid-19, he said. A day later, she called him with ominous news.
"She told me she felt like she was passing," he recalled. "She told me she loved us and to stay strong. I said, 'No, Mom, I will see you tomorrow and call you from the parking lot.'"
She died early the next day.
It was a shockingly fast demise for a woman who had been an active and healthy matriarch of her family, her son said. She had recently taken a part-time customer service job at Madison Square Garden after retiring with the Postal Service. Before he died, Jermaine Miller had dedicated his life to working with troubled youth in Southeast Queens, his brother said.
On April 27, more than 400 friends and relatives attended a virtual funeral service for mother and son. Ten other relatives also got sick with the virus but recovered, Miller said.
"We still can't come to grips that we lost them both," Miller said. "We are just lost."
"It's a very, very cruel virus"
Many of the people in Southeast Jamaica who were exposed to the virus were bus drivers, cleaners and blue-collar medical professionals who could not afford to stay home while the pandemic subsides, said Adrienne Adams, a City Council member who represents parts of the area.
Adams said she feared that many small local businesses, like the barber shops that double as neighbourhood gathering spots, will not have the financial resources to reopen when New York state's stay-at-home orders are lifted.
"This has been a horrible, horrible season for black and brown people," she said. "The number of people ill is extremely high."
Adams' father, who is 84, was found to have the virus after he was taken to Long Island Jewish Hospital with heart failure symptoms. Once a robust, fiercely independent man, he has appeared thinner and lethargic during FaceTime conversations from the hospital, she said.
"To see him now, devastated by this pandemic, breaks my heart," Adams said. "It's a very, very cruel virus."
Kevin Livingston, a neighbourhood activist, said that he and his friends had mobilised to deliver food to older neighbourhood residents who did not have enough to eat because they feared being infected if they ventured out to the store. More than half of those in New York who have died of the disease caused by the virus have been older than 60, state data shows.
"They are afraid to leave the house," Livingston said. "They are the ones contracting the virus and dying."
"This is happening to us in real time"
Hogan, the tenant association president, said that he was doing his part to reduce the number of casualties. On a recent day, he waited for a donation of face masks next to a withering memorial on the basketball court where the 14-year-old, Aamir Griffin, was killed by a stray bullet.
Nearby, a woman, Sheena Tucker, 48, stuck her head out of a second-story window and caught his attention.
"Hey!" she shouted. "You got any masks? I need one."
Hogan shook his head. Tucker had firsthand experience with gun violence's toll, he said. Nine years ago, her boyfriend fatally shot her teenage son, Keith Murrell, during an argument in her apartment. The boyfriend, Damel Burton, later shot two other men on a city bus.
The killer now was invisible and microscopic but no less dangerous, Hogan said. Tucker came outside and pressed him again about getting face coverings.
"We are expecting masks soon," Hogan told her.
Their conversation was interrupted by the wails of a woman passing in a wheelchair pushed by two paramedics.
"Oh my God!" Tucker said. "It's Michelle! Michelle! Michelle, are you OK?"
Tucker and Hogan watched as the ambulance took the woman away.
"See?" Hogan said. "This is happening to us in real time."
Several days later, Hogan and three other men returned to the complex with supplies. They knocked on random doors and announced, "Masks! We got masks!"
When they were back outside, another resident, Linda Lewis, 60, recognised Hogan's green eyes above his mask.
Lewis said that her son, Andre Lewis, 40, who has diabetes, had been placed in a medically induced coma at a hospital after he had gotten a severe case of Covid-19.
"He's my only child, and I have not been able to see him," Lewis said through tears.
All Hogan could do, he said, was offer words of encouragement from 6 feet away. A comforting hug, one of his trademarks, was out of the question.
"I'm praying," she whispered.
"That's all you can do," he said.
Written by: Edgar Sandoval
Photographs by: James Estrin
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES