U.S. Navy Ship Comfort passes the Statue of Liberty as it enters New York harbor. It has 1,000 beds to relieve pressure on hospitals overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients. (Photo by Mike Segar/Reuters)
I’m a Queens girl.
I grew up drinking milk from Elmhurst Dairy delivered in glass bottles outside my family’s apartment in Astoria, one of the many “villages” of Queens. My mother and I walked frequently to Steinway and peeked into the large shop window of the eponymous piano factory. I bought my first records, including a red vinyl of bandleader Xavier Cugat, for pennies at nearby John’s Bargain Stores.
“A Queens girl” was once a description of a girl cosseted from the difficulties of life in the cotton wool of economic safety of one of the middle-class aspirational sections of Queens, places like St. Albans with its tidy Tudor-style houses. I am from the Astoria low-income housing projects and never described myself as such until now when I feel an allegiance to the county I once called home.
The epicenter of the Covid-19 virus pandemic has shifted from Asia to Europe and, now, the United States. In the U.S., the epicenter is New York City. And in New York, the center is one of its five boroughs: Queens.
I never imagined that I would see Queens featured on world news in this crisis, and Elmhurst Hospital featured as one of the busiest hospitals dealing with the onslaught of patients with the new coronavirus.
Yet, I should have not been surprised by the headliner.
If each of New York’s boroughs were an independent city, Queens would be the fourth most populous, after Los Angeles, Chicago and Brooklyn. It has approximately 2,253,858 residents, about 47.5 percent of them foreign-born, according to Wikipedia quoting 2019 U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Queens is one of the most ethnically diverse counties in the United States and the most linguistically diverse places in the world, according to Wikipedia quoting Business Insider. We’re talking 800 languages!
These figures reflect the international flavor of the place I grew up in 65 years ago. All of my neighbors, friends and schoolmates came from somewhere else. When we were at home, we observed our culture in language, dress and food. Smells in my building’s hallway were of dishes from Europe, the South and the Caribbean. Outside of our homes, we talked, dressed and acted like the larger culture. Families traveled to their home countries as often as they could do so. They sponsored relatives to the U.S. and shared their homes with them. One of my mother’s brothers and the son of close friends from Belize slept on the floor of my family’s two-bedroom living room, while they went to school for engineering.
Therefore, Queens’ residents were, and are, people who leave the United States to visit friends and relatives elsewhere, and whose friends and relatives visit them. The time just on planes and at airports would increase the risk of contracting the Covid-19 virus.
Francisco Moya, the New York City Council member who represents Elmhurst, and a fellow council member wrote a letter to U.S. President Donald Trump on March 26th calling for more resources:
“Elmhurst and Queens hospitals is (sic) besieged by this disease. If you speak with any of the staff there, the desperation in their voices is unmistakable.
“Doctors describe scenes in apocalyptic terms. Patients are reportedly dying in the emergency room still waiting for a bed. Residents line the block, standing inside barricades and in the rain waiting to get tested.”
“People are going to die,” Moya was quoted as saying in the Guardian. “The rate in the next few days (will) continue to go up, and people are going to get scared and get shocked.”
I am grateful to have grown up in such a culturally rich Queens. I am saddened that its richness has placed it on the frontlines of this pandemic, which began in China four months ago in December 2019.