On the edge of the epicenter

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Death is all around us, and everyone is jogging.

On every temperate day during this pandemic, Vernon Boulevard, the waterfront strip with its parks and protected bikeway, is a continuous stream of joggers and bicyclists, most of them now wearing masks, as ambulances frequently go blaring by. Here on the western edge of Western Queens, we are so close to the epicenter of the epicenter, but not quite of it.

Gothamist-WNYC put out a map yesterday showing how stark a difference there is between North-Central Queens and the LIC-Astoria area. The map, comparing zip codes by number of cases per capita, shows the biggest, darkest shaded area abutting right against one of the lightest shaded areas. A similar map from the New York Times on April 1, showed the hardest hit zip code with Coronavirus cases per capita was 11370 in Jackson Heights, followed by 11369 in… Corona.

“The biggest hot spots included communities in the South Bronx and western Queens,” that Times article read. From a distance, the specificity might not matter. In late March The City published a Department of Health and Mental Hygiene list ranking “West Queens” as one of the “Neighborhoods” with the most flu-related ER visits.

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Areas with flu-related ER visits in late March, top of a list provided by the Dep. of Health and Mental Hygiene, as hyperlinked to in The City.

One reasonable interpretation for the divide is that Elmhurst Hospital bares the weight of serving a vast region of neighborhoods, including Corona, Jackson Heights, Elmhurst and Woodside. Queens Courier explains the history of how hospital closures 11 years ago led to the overburdening of Elmhurst Hospital. Astoria and LIC, by contrast, has Mount Sinai Queens, which is not without its own frequent Covid-related intake, having built a triage tent. And Astoria’s city council member, Costa Constantinides, has been self-quarantining with the virus, and he tweeted this week that his wife has been hospitalized and “hasn’t been aware enough to speak.”

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But I’ll nod to other potential factors for the steep divide, such as racial disparities that leave the “Hispanic” community (category the state uses; I don’t know where this leaves the substantial Brazilian community here – in the black and white categories probably) making up the highest proportion of Covid-deaths, at 34% in the city, followed by the black community at 28%, white people at 27% and Asians at 7%. NPR suggests one explanation for this, citing an unrelated federal report, noting that “a significantly smaller percentage of Latino and black workers reported enjoying the flexibility to work remotely than their white and Asian counterparts.”

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The state tracks mortality rates, not cases altogether, by race and ethnicity, the Times notes, adding that, “health care workers and community leaders say it is indisputable that the pandemic has disproportionately affected the Hispanic day laborers, restaurant workers and cleaners who make up the largest share of the population in an area often celebrated as one of the most diverse places on earth.”

The “enemy” is density, the Times told us recently, to the chagrin of urbanist Vishaan Chakrabarti, who is profiting off planning a high-rise district in the area. Comparing North Central Queens to LIC-Astoria might be extremely helpful for everyone, I would think, because the density, as far as I can tell, is pretty much the same. Both areas have, a probably similar, mix of duplex-type row houses and mid-rise apartment buildings, along with some pedestrian-busy streets like Steinway Street and Roosevelt Avenue. There’s an idea that North Central Queens has more overcrowding within households, leading to more cases, but that seems like a theoretical explanation for now. The AP reports:

“The areas of New York that have a larger share of households with people over 65 had higher rates of confirmed cases per 1,000 people, the AP found. But other demographic variables – from high household incomes to large shares of foreign-born populations to areas with large numbers of overcrowded housing units – saw no significant link to COVID-19 case trends.”

Let’s compare the regions in some other ways. Of the population of Community Board 1, home to Astoria and upper LIC, 13% of the population is 65 or older, one percent higher than in both CB3, home of Jackson Heights, East Elmhurst and Corona and CB4, the area of south Corona and Elmhurst. In CB1, 34% of the population is rent burdened. In CB3, 53% of the population is rent burdened. The rent burdened population is at 55% in CB4. The poverty rate in CB1 is 18%; the rate is at 24% and 26% in CB3 and CB4 respectively.

CB1 committee OKs Boys & Girls Club expansion, 14-story residential building on 21st Street

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Neverending Astoria reports that Community Board 1’s land-use committee voted to express the board’s approval for the Variety Boys and Girl Club’s major facelift, rezoning and residential development proposal on 21st Street. The after school program and summer camp laid out its plans at a public hearing at the NYCHA Ravenswood Houses recently, without any secured developer for the 14 story residential building, which would fund the expansion of B&G’s space at at 21-12 30th Road. The organization says it needs to expand to serve an overwhelming waiting list of children. There were some expressed concerns at that hearing that the residential building would set a precedent for 14 story buildings on the car-busy strip through western Astoria. Some buildings on 21st Street are around or almost as tall but not many.

We’ll see how this goes at the full board. From what I saw at Ravenswood, Variety Boys and Girls Club in Astoria seems to have a lot of local membership or involvement. Even Walter Sanchez, who publishes the LIC/Astoria Journal, is the president of the board of directors for the organization. When he asked the crowd at the public hearing who’d been to the space in the last four years, it seemed almost everyone raised his or her hand. Tony Barsamian, who publishes the Queens Gazette is also on the board of directors for B&G. So we’ll see if there are any noted conflicts of interest at CB1.