In a New York Neighborhood Reeling From the Virus, 1 in 4 Is Out of Work

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More than one in four workers in the West Farms neighborhood is out of work.

They were store clerks, hotel housekeepers, waitresses, cooks, for-hire drivers, security officers and maintenance workers before the coronavirus snatched away their livelihoods. Even before the outbreak, most were barely getting by on meager paychecks and scant savings.

Now their hopes for better lives are slipping away as they fall behind on rent, ration food and rack up credit card debt. Unemployment in this poor and largely Latino enclave of 19,000 in the Bronx was in double digits before the outbreak.

It has gotten far worse.

With an unemployment rate of 26 percent in September, West Farms has become an epicenter of New York’s economic crisis, one of the hardest hit urban communities in the country and emblematic of the pandemic’s uneven toll.

Though no corner of the city has escaped the fallout, the mass job losses have been concentrated in mostly Black and Latino pockets outside Manhattan that have long lagged economically behind the rest of the city. Communities like West Farms have also suffered disproportionately from the coronavirus itself, with higher rates of people becoming ill.

Meliza Mercedes, 26, was scouring apartment listings before the outbreak, hoping to finally give her 3-year-old daughter, Aubrey, a home of her own. A couple of times, she spotted a nice two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx for under $2,000 a month.

Ms. Mercedes, who stays with her mother in West Farms, had saved about $3,000 by living frugally. She rarely went out and almost never bought herself new clothes. But then came the pandemic, which closed nonessential businesses in March. She lost her job as a store detective at Macy’s in Herald Square and her $550 weekly paycheck. Her savings were soon gone, too.

“I cry about it because I’ve been trying to get my own place,” she said.

Similar stories of hardship and loss are repeated countless times across West Farms. At the corner bodega where neighbors talk about how there is no work and no way to pay the bills. At the local elementary school, Public School 67, which now doubles as a food pantry, giving out 400 grab-and-go meals with sandwiches and fruit every day.

Amanda Adedokun, a single mother, lost her babysitting jobs and can no longer support her own children. Eddie Suárez is a commercial landlord who built a storefront nearly three decades ago, but with a tenant missing rent payments, he struggles to pay his own bills. And Yalikhan Traore, a West African immigrant who worked in a beauty supply store, had to reinvent herself as a delivery driver to adapt to the new pandemic reality.

New York City’s economic crisis is among the worst in the nation, with unemployment at 13.2 percent in October, nearly double the national rate. But within the city, the pain varies vastly. Manhattan’s unemployment rate is 10.3 percent, but in the Bronx, the city’s poorest borough, it is 17.5 percent — the highest in the state.

In West Farms, the unemployment rate soared from 11 percent in February to 38 percent in June, before dropping to 26 percent in September, according to a statistical model developed by two analysts, Yair Ghitza and Mark Steitz.

Across the neighborhood, stores have fewer customers and sales. One dry cleaner took out a $75,000 loan to stay in business. A Catholic school that educated children for more than a century closed after many families could no longer afford tuition.

In contrast, some of the city’s most affluent and largely white neighborhoods in Manhattan have fared far better. The unemployment rate on the Upper East Side was 5 percent in September, up from 1 percent in February, according to the latest data from the statistical model. On the Upper West Side, it was 6 percent, up from 2 percent.

Poor workers, including many Black and Latino people, have been hurt much worse during the pandemic than by past recessions, including the 2008 financial crisis, said James Parrott, an economist with the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School.

He said the pandemic had triggered many more layoffs among lower-paid workers, while far fewer higher-paid workers — including those in finance, technology and professional services, who tend to be mostly white — have lost jobs or benefits.

“It’s another dimension of the extreme differences in economic well-being in New York,” Mr. Parrott said.

West Farms gets its name from the English farmers who settled this area along the Bronx River in the mid-1600s, said Lloyd Ultan, the Bronx borough historian. It later grew into a village with teachers, dressmakers, and grocers, many of whom wanted to escape Manhattan crowding. Factories followed as the river became a bustling industrial waterway.

Apartment houses spread across West Farms in the 1900s after a subway station — the West Farms Square-East Tremont Avenue stop on the 2 and 5 lines — was built. The area was the backdrop for one of the city’s worst tragedies in 1990, when 87 people died in a fire set at the Happy Land Social Club.

West Farms lies just south of the Bronx Zoo — zebras can be spotted from some apartment windows. Today, its long history is reflected in the jumble of tidy single-family homes and rowhouses, squat brick buildings and affordable housing towers.

Ms. Mercedes moved to West Farms with her family from a homeless shelter in the Bronx in 2008. The youngest of six children of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, she later dropped out of high school when she was 17. Her first job was store cashier, followed by stints at a storefront tax service and two pharmacies.

Ms. Mercedes said she always wanted to work in law enforcement and was thrilled to be hired as a Macy’s security guard in July 2019. She was promoted four months later to store detective. She once spotted four shoplifters in a single day, she recalled, and was bitten or bruised trying to stop some of them. For her efforts, she was recognized as detective of the month.

“Everything was going well until the pandemic hit,” she said.

So well that Ms. Mercedes allowed herself a few splurges. She got her nails done twice a month, and treated Aubrey to outings at Chuck E. Cheese. They took mother-daughter trips to Target and Dollar Tree, where Aubrey picked out sticker books or a toy from “Trolls,” her favorite movie.

The pandemic ended all that. For an older sister’s birthday dinner, Ms. Mercedes could only afford to get the cheapest thing on the menu, fried chicken with rice and beans.

“It was driving me crazy not to go back to work,” said Ms. Mercedes, who did not look for another job because she believed she would return to work at Macy’s.

When the store reopened in June, she received an email — it was addressed “Dear colleague” — that said, “Regretfully, we are unable to continue your employment at this time.” She received a severance check of $1,500.

Julie Strider, a Macy’s spokeswoman, declined to comment on Ms. Mercedes, but cited necessary reductions as a result of the pandemic.

“These are always hard decisions to make as they impact many of our valued colleagues,” she said.

Ms. Mercedes said she had applied for more than two dozen jobs. “It’s a very scary situation,” she said.

Few in West Farms have a financial safety net. The median annual household income is $23,329, compared with $38,000 in the Bronx, according to an analysis of census data by Social Explorer, a research company. Citywide, the median income is $61,000, nearly three times higher.

Jose Allende starts pounding the sidewalks in West Farms at 7 a.m., hoping to find someone who needs a hand with construction. Mr. Allende wears paint-splattered jeans and boots to show that he is ready to work, though he has gotten few takers.

Mr. Allende said he was laid off from his job as a handyman for a nearby residential building just before the pandemic. He also used to supplement his income with handyman gigs in Queens and Brooklyn. But he said he no longer feels safe riding the subway or bus since he has no health insurance or savings and cannot afford to get sick.

“I lost sleep trying to think of how to pay the bills,” said Mr. Allende, 50, who moved to West Farms a decade ago from Puerto Rico.

In recent years, a construction boom has brought an influx of affordable housing and newcomers to West Farms. About 74 percent of West Farms residents are Latino, and 23 percent Black, according to the census analysis.

Mr. Suárez, 72, a former elementary schoolteacher from Harlem, has far deeper roots in the neighborhood. He took a chance on West Farms in 1992, when the area was far less safe, and decided to buidt a no-frills storefront on a vacant lot. Last year, in a sign of the neighborhood’s upswing, he was offered $1 million for the property by an investor, he said, but turned it down.

He leased space to a laundromat and a botanica, and in the back, created a youth center. “We went through a period of rebuilding in the Bronx,” Mr. Suárez said.

“Things aren’t looking too good right now,” he added.

West Farms is part of the 10460 ZIP code, which had a higher rate of confirmed coronavirus cases than the city’s overall rate of 3,276 cases per 100,000 residents in mid-November, according to city data.

The Bronx has the highest rates of total coronavirus hospitalizations and deaths of any borough.

Mr. Suárez said that both businesses in his building are open, but the botanica is struggling and behind on the rent. “All the businesses in the neighborhood have suffered,” said Mr. Suárez, who is himself having a hard time paying bills without the rent money.

Another small commercial landlord, Eduardo Rodríguez, said his tenant, a business service center, left without paying six months of rent, more than $16,000. “Even if the tenants don’t pay, I still have to pay the bank,” said Mr. Rodríguez. “So I drew from my savings and was left with nothing.”

Many West Farms landlords and business owners said they are simply trying to hold on.

Raymond Cabrera, who owns a dry cleaning store, said he has only a couple of customers a day. “I think they don’t come because they don’t go to work, weddings, church, parties,” he said.

Mr. Cabrera, 60, said he used a $75,000 emergency federal loan for small businesses to cover the $2,000 monthly rent for his storefront. Repaying the loan would take 30 years.

At El Nuevo Valle 2 Restaurant, the lunch crowd has largely disappeared. “It’s not even a shred of what it used to be like,” said María Tejada, 55, a waitress in a mask at the counter.

A few minutes later, Ms. Tejada wagged her finger at a customer. “You owe me one dollar, OK? Next time.”

“People want you to give them food, they say they don’t have the money,” she said.

One neighborhood institution did not make it. St. Thomas Aquinas, the local parochial school, closed in July. Parents who lost jobs could no longer afford tuition. And with churches shut down for months because of the pandemic, there were fewer donations, which are used in part to support schools.

“It’s really sad to see that a school that made me who I am is closed down now,” said Stephanie Quiñones, 34, who attended St. Thomas Aquinas. “To think that it stayed open over a 100 years, and to close it just like that.”

When Ms. Traore was laid off from a beauty supply shop in March, she didn’t even have money to spare for the laundromat. So she started washing her clothes in the bathtub.

She pooled her food money with a roommate, and stocked up on rice, beans and eggs from a West African grocery. She could no longer pay her $600 share of the rent.

“Everything has a cost in New York,” said Ms. Traore, 35, who immigrated from Guinea three years ago. “If you have no income, it’s hard, it’s really hard, especially if you have no savings.”

Ms. Traore learned about unemployment benefits from a friend. She applied right away, but heard nothing for weeks. “I kept checking every day, two or three times,” she said. “I found that was a full-time job calling the unemployment office.”

Unemployment benefits have been a lifeline for many West Farms workers. Some earned as much, if not more, than they did at their jobs with the federal pandemic supplement, which added $600 a week to state benefits, and were able to pay bills.

But the layoffs overwhelmed New York’s unemployment system. And when the federal supplement ended in July, the remaining state benefit — capped at $504 a week — was not enough for most people.

Ms. Traore started to panic after weeks of waiting for benefits. She joined a Facebook group where workers had enlisted elected officials for help. She emailed State Senator Luis R. Sepúlveda, whose district includes West Farms, for assistance.

With Mr. Sepúlveda’s office pushing her case, Ms. Traore’s benefits — $700 a week after taxes, including the federal supplement — were approved.

Mr. Sepúlveda has received more than 500 requests for help with unemployment benefits — so many that his office set up a database to track cases.

“It makes me angry because in the wealthiest city in the world, it’s inexcusable to have such a high rate of unemployment in one area,” Mr. Sepúlveda said.

As the public health crisis eased, New York restarted its economy. Stores and businesses reopened and started calling some of their workers back.

Ms. Traore was one of the lucky ones in West Farms. She started in June as a driver delivering packages, benefiting from the surge in online shopping during the pandemic. She earns $17 an hour, or $2 more than her minimum-wage job at the beauty store.

Ms. Traore said she liked bringing essential supplies and medications to people who cannot go out. “I’m doing what I can right now to help people,” she said.

Ms. Mercedes also has reason to hope. After The New York Times asked Macy’s about her job status, she said the company recently offered her a position at one of its Brooklyn stores.

Even as some people in West Farms are finding their footing, many others are not.

Ms. Adedokun, 45, used to earn $400 a week babysitting for two families in West Farms before the pandemic. Then one parent began working remotely for a law firm, and another was laid off by a hotel. With no babysitting money, Ms. Adedokun has run up $7,000 in credit card debt.

Ms. Adedokun, who lives in a subsidized apartment with her son, 17, and daughter, 8, said they liked to celebrate her daughter’s birthday at a water park. This year, all they could afford was pizza.

To make herself feel better, she said, she gets dressed in a blouse and jeans and dabs on makeup just to go sit on a bench outside her apartment.

“It’s helping me mentally,” she said. “If I stay in and look a mess, I feel like a mess.”

Susan Beachy, Jack Begg and Quoctrung Bui contributed research.

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