‘It’s a shame what they did:’ south Brooklyn left in the dust as COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on NYC

“These neighborhoods are the forgotten bunch,” said Dyker Heights resident Angela Pizzino. “We are like redheaded step children. It’s horrible that Dyker Heights does not get the services and access that other areas in Brooklyn get.”

Just like many others in south Brooklyn, Pizzino is desperate to get her COVID-19 vaccine for herself, but more importantly for her elderly, wheelchair bound mother. 

Days after Easter Sunday on a cool spring morning, a line of over five dozen people forms around a sparingly used parking garage on 86th Street and 5th Avenue in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. While the rest of Brooklyn experiences a lull in a new coronavirus cases, residents in southwest Brooklyn are living through an uptick in their numbers. Eight percent of those who were in line this morning will receive a positive result. The rest will wait albeit impatiently for a shot to get the shot as even 15 months into this global pandemic, city resources have still not made their way to the communities of Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, and Bensonhurst. 

The Harshness of the Pandemic

With nearly 17,000 cases to date along with 631 deaths according to data from the New York City Department of Health (DOH), the trifecta of neighborhoods in this suburban part of Brooklyn was by no means spared by the wrath of the coronavirus. The over 270,000 residents of these communities were forced to make do with the pathetic response from the city government that left this area for dead for the entire duration of the pandemic both in terms of amount of people, businesses, and uneducated vaccine-denying people.

Though testing was limited at the time, the DOH opened a testing site in Bensonhurst marking the first city-run site to operate in southwest Brooklyn. The location was not easily accessible for many without a car due to poor transportation options in the area, but given the circumstances it was better than nothing.

“I don’t know about other areas, but Dyker Heights was definitely underserved,” said Jackie Meham. “I had COVID in March of 2020 and when you called the number to get tested, it wasn’t working. I had to drive to Staten Island to get my test. The testing site was empty but if you didn’t have an appointment, you didn’t get tested. I called [former] Congressman Max Rose and Councilman Justin Brannan and there was a recording with a number that didn’t work. It was impossible.

Numbers sadly continued to rise rapidly and bodies were quite literally piling up outside funeral homes in surrounding neighborhoods. In this part of Brooklyn, the elderly population is significantly higher than in other parts of the borough. Time was running out to get the appropriate facilities opened but they never did and those vulnerable elderly people died as a result of the lack of inaction from City Hall.

Local pharmacies with no support or ability to receive tests as well as the lone CityMD clinic in the area was unintentionally forced to bear the burden of testing every resident who wanted a test—at least everyone who could afford one.

“It wasn’t that I didn’t want to get tested then,” said Dyker Heights resident Matthew Sypa. “It was more that I had to go to CityMD and pay a 50 dollar co-pay every time I went in. That is not fun for your wallet especially back then. If I went to some mom and pop pharmacy they upcharged you too. They were practically swindling me for a test it was so ridiculous.”

In December as the holiday surge was making its presence felt in New York City and around the country, the DOH finally opened a second testing site in Bay Ridge. For many residents, it was too little, too late. 

Many of those who died were elderly and died alone in Maimonides Medical Center, the closest and most overcrowded hospital in the city.

“You have to sometimes wonder how it would be if we had everything we needed,” said Kevin Adams, a new Bay Ridge resident. “If there was more options for testing and treatment, I’d find it hard to believe we would be having this conversation now.”

As vaccines continue to roll out, numbers across south Brooklyn continue to trend higher than other parts of the city because of the inability to get shots. In Dyker Heights, less than half of the people who want a vaccine have the first dose and just 37% are fully vaccinated. Bay Ridge is seeing similar numbers but in Bensonhurst, less than half of its population has just one dose and only a fraction is fully vaccinated according to official New York City data.

The Forgotten History 

Southwest Brooklyn has a long history of being forgotten by the local and state governments. To someone visiting the area, it’s quite obvious solely based on the nature of itself. For the most part, the streets consist of a wide-array of houses with unique styles that give the feel of a sunburn neighborhood.

The trifecta of neighborhoods was settled in the late 19th century by Fredrick Henry Johnson and his son Walter. The area was previously known only as nothing short of mediocre farmland filled with hills and good views of Lower New York Bay. 

As an influx of European immigrants made their way to the United States at that time, expansion for the then City of Brooklyn was necessary leading to the creation of the Town of New Utrecht, an area encompassing most of southwestern Brooklyn. 

Eventually, the area was built up to be an affluent section of Brooklyn where high class houses were being erected at a fast pace. Even the Wall Street Journal could not resist the draw of the area saying in a 1899 article, “[Dyker Heights] is without a rival as to location, situated as it is at an elevation of [110] feet above the sea level, and is directly opposite the new Dyker Meadow Park... which will be the only seaside park in Greater New York.”

Unlike in the modern era, the area was filled with options for transportation by train and ferry and even an LIRR station at one point. 

These communities were also developed alone by entrepreneurs. At the time, Brooklyn had not yet joined the rest of New York City and the distant location of southwest Brooklyn made it more challenging to develop as they could not rely on the surrounding Manhattan area.

Today, the neighborhoods have been reduced to mainly middle class neighborhood with some affluent sections scattered amongst the thousands of semi-connected homes that replaced the Neo-classical ones. After Robert Moses retired from his job as City-Planner, the neighborhood all but ceased to develop with the exception of the demolition of many homes for the contraction of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. 

The lack of attractions makes the area more residential than anything else. It continues to attract immigrants as it did back during its inception but not the younger generations that drive up the cost of living like in neighborhoods such as Park Slope, Williamsburg, or even Greenpoint. It is all but supported by small businesses and strong wills and determination to survive at this point. 

Today’s Pandemic World

Fast forward to the present day, in other parts of Brooklyn, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo were flaunting their initiatives to help get more resources into communities facing as much if not more dire situations with regards to the rapid community spread taking place there. This diversion of resources greatly frustrated the local residents in southwest Brooklyn who already feel as if they are ignored by local officials including their elected leaders

“We are so underserved in terms of getting any help whatsoever,” said Tom Hilton, a lifelong resident of southwest Brooklyn. “de Blasio essentially redlined Brooklyn so only these Black and Hispanic communities got help while we got nothing. How is that not racism?”

Beyond the lack of medical response from the city government was the even poorer economic one. Just yards away from the testing site in Bay Ridge lies the ruins of what used to be the retail heart of southwest Brooklyn. Today, 17 stores in just a few block span were forced to shut their doors due to extremely heavy restrictions put into place by the mayor and governor. 

“It is a big loss,” said Josephine Beckman, district manager for Community Board 10. “When you walk up 86th Street now you feel the loss.”

“I’ve lived here my whole life,” added 22-year-old David Carrington. “The GameStop I always used to get my games at is gone, the Modell’s I got my baseball equipment at is gone, and even the stores my mom used to drag me into when I was a kid are now gone. I just feel like my childhood is just dying right before my eyes.”

Among the businesses that closed was Century 21, a popular chain department store whose first store location was located on 86th Street. 

“Century 21 is just one of the businesses to fall victim to the arbitrary COVID-19 guidelines that have caused unimaginable suffering for so many families and small businesses in our city,” Beckman said.

The decaying life in this area has angered much of the area population. Most of the residents in south Brooklyn have nothing but harsh words for de Blasio and other local leaders. 

“Mayor de Blasio has once again dropped the ball,” said Bay Ridge resident Jackson Madison. “He’s spent months placating far left demonstrators, fighting with Albany and Washington and letting our city descend into an era of gun violence and street crime instead of reopening New York City and fighting for its businesses and their employees. Whether it’s a major retailer like Century 21 or your neighborhood restaurant, the story is the same; Bill de Blasio’s policies helped put them out of business.”

No Place To Go

Now that it seems that the nation is approaching the other side of the pandemic, vaccine distribution has trumped testing as a main focus for local officials to ensure that herd immunity is established. 

For those in southwest Brooklyn, finding a vaccination site nearby is posing a problem that is even more difficult than it was to find a testing site. No city or state sponsored vaccine distribution sites exist in all three south Brooklyn neighborhoods, leaving local pharmacies to operate outside their capacity to administer vaccines. 

New York State Senator Andrew Gounardes, who represents all three neighborhoods in addition to several other Brooklyn neighborhoods expressed his frustration with the lack of a coordinated response towards assisting those in his district. However, he holds some hope for better days ahead with the Johnson and Johnson vaccine which requires only one dose as opposed to Pfizer and Moderna’s two.

“Our neighborhoods are already overwhelmed because there aren't enough vaccines or vaccination sites for its residents.” Gounardes said. “I think adding on the Johnson and Johnson vaccine will be extremely helpful because it is a single dose, which will cut down on the number of appointments needed across the city to have our residents become fully vaccinated. NYC and NYS need more vaccines for its people, so I am hopeful that the addition of the J & J vaccine will bring our state closer to becoming fully vaccinated sooner.”

Gounardes’ office claims that the second term state senator has been working with his colleagues in Albany to get some traction on a potential plan to open a vaccination site in his district. So far, those plans have been unsuccessful.

“Unfortunately, the entity that determines the addition of sites is the Governor, but I will continue to push and call for the increase of vaccination sites across the district so that they are more accessible for those of us living in southern Brooklyn,” Gounardes said. 

As Governor Cuomo fails to act on adding more vaccination sites, residents continue to grow frustrated with their inability to receive a dose of any of the vaccines.

“Most local pharmacies aren’t offering anything honestly,” said Christina Tairi. “Getting an appointment requires traveling outside of our neighborhood. There has to be something better.”

Currently 14 chain pharmacies in southwest Brooklyn are open for appointments to vaccinate those 12 and older who want to get the shot. However, with a limited capacity and high demand, appointments are extremely hard to come by. 

“I have an elderly mother who can’t walk anymore and it’s been impossible to find a drive-thru testing site and now a vaccination site,” explained Angela Pizzino. “It seems our area did not have any availability to make an appointment as well as vaccines to offer. My brother lives in Westchester so he suggested making an appointment for the vaccine by him for my mom. He said it is run like a well oiled machine. Figures, anything out of the city is always run well and more accommodating.”

Pizzino was forced—like many others in her situation—to put her mother’s name on a vaccine waiting list at Maimonides Medical Center early on in vaccine distribution with hopes of breathing a sigh of relief knowing that her vulnerable and wheelchair-ridden mother would be protected from a virus that has already taken so many elderly lives. 

Fortunately, the elder Pizzino was able to secure an appointment and get the vaccine her daughter desperately wanted her to get. However, Pizzino who is the primary caretaker for her mom has still yet to get an appointment for her own vaccination. She attributes the difficulty of getting an appointment to the broader issue her neighbors also suggest, blatant ignorance of the area by the government.

“We pay enough in taxes for the city to step up and make these services accessible to people that can’t walk, don’t want to drive, want an actual appointment that is honored and, don’t want to stand on line for hours,” Pizzino added.

Meanwhile in the comparable neighborhoods of Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights, and Windsor Terrace, their numbers are in some cases doubled the amount of fully vaccinated people. To no one’s surprise, their positivity rate is a fraction of what it is in south Brooklyn. 

In Downtown Brooklyn, for example, there are three city-run vaccination sites within a three block radius. There still remain none in south Brooklyn. 

It is worth mentioning however, that some of the reason why the vaccine rollout in south Brooklyn has been poor is also because of the partisanship of its residents. In New York City, south Brooklyn is the black sheep throughout the five boroughs mainly because of its Republican stronghold that lives in Dyker Heights and Bay Ridge. Many of those living in this area also happened to support former President Donald Trump in the previous election and believe in conspiracy theories about the three vaccines being rolled out across the United States. 

“There’s a reason only 50% of the fire department has taken it,” wrote Richie Ro, responding to a community post asking about if anyone had side effects after getting their vaccine. “Something very fishy about why J&J is not around NYC,” added Tom Hilton much to the chagrin of young people in the Facebook group. 

With mask restrictions and strict guidelines still in place around many parts of the country including New York City, many residents in the area of south Brooklyn are choosing not to get the vaccine because they see no point in it as federal and local restrictions remain the same. 

“It doesn’t make you immune, it doesn’t keep you from spreading it, it doesn’t mean you can do anything you did before you got it…but it could make you very sick or die…so why get it?” Jill Herman Cannon wrote on the “Dyker Heights, Bay Ridge & Bensonhurst” Facebook page. 

Like with many hot-button issues that are brought up in this group, a comment argument broke out in the comments as many tried to persuade Cannon to get the vaccine. She did not budge. 

“I said there is zero proof that the vaccine will lessen your chances of being hospitalized,” she responded to one comment. “If your immune system is weak enough that the virus will cause you to be one of the very small percentage that will wind up hospitalized, that is likely going to happen whether vaccinated or not. In fact, adding outside chemicals to an already challenged immune system could prove fatal.”

Though she is not a doctor, she remained firm in her belief despite heaps of scientific evidence. 

Bay Ridge resident Ken Karlsson was not all to pleased with the misinformation being thrown around the comments section and let his feelings be known.

“Majority of people are ignorant,” he wrote. 

An End in Sight?

Across New York City, cases of COVID-19 have dropped to dramatic lows that haven’t been seen since the lull in cases last summer. 

Though many New York City neighborhoods are experiencing a slow re-birth as the city returns to some semblance of normalcy, in south Brooklyn, it feels almost as if it’s March 2020. 

“For Rent” signs still grace the windows of dozens of businesses, the main avenues are quiet by 8 p.m., and tensions remain hot. With less than half of each neighborhood vaccinated, there’s no telling when life will begin to return to normal in the forgotten part of Brooklyn.

If there’s one thing for certain though, the people of south Brooklyn never quit and believe that they too will rise from the ashes of the pandemic and come back better. 

“I know there’s hope that this will all end soon,” Sypa said. “I don’t know when but I’m excited to see what lies ahead.”