Jesús Delgado and three of his employees are making tortillas like they’ve been doing every day for the past month. One feeds a giant ball of fresh masa into the metal mouth of a tortilla machine, while two more stack the puffy, steaming rounds that roll out onto a conveyor belt. A fourth man weighs and packages the stacks for the customers, who will come from down the block, or as far away as Maryland or Pennsylvania, to buy them from Tortilleria La Malinche. The Sunset Park tortilleria is one of the only places in Brooklyn that actually makes them fresh.
Except for the masks worn by all the workers, this scene could take place in any spring, any year. But La Malinche, in a lot of ways, was a business born from the pandemic.
Last spring, Delgado and his wife and co-owner, Ilsel Garcia, fled New York to South Carolina, worried about sticking out the lockdown in their cramped apartment. But in August, they returned to visit Garcia’s uncle who owns a gift shop in Sunset Park. Across the street, they saw an empty storefront that once belonged to a Little Caesars. Delgado had talked about opening a tortilleria shop for years, and they thought they’d found the perfect space in just the right neighborhood. They signed the lease that weekend. It took many more months of permit fights with the city, callousing their hands installing new floors, worrying how they could afford to pay rent without customers. When they opened in February, lines went down the block.
Tortilleria La Malinche, with its bright blue and yellow awning, feels like a reprieve for Sunset Park. The South Brooklyn neighborhood, which is about 30 blocks long and eight avenues wide, has been hit hard both by Covid-19 and the economic crisis that came along with it. In one of Sunset Park’s two zip codes, one in every 387 people has died from Covid-19, compared to one in every 2,094 on Manhattan’s wealthy Upper West Side. Nearby hospitals and morgues became overwhelmed. Refrigerated trucks parked in the neighborhood to hold the dead; some stayed until November.
“It was a level of constant trauma that I’ve just never experienced,” resident Karina Albistegui Adler told Vox. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo “was giving us the stats every day,” she said, “but we were living it.”
The neighborhood is largely working-class and has a high proportion of undocumented immigrants who couldn’t access the economic programs that were supposed to help Americans weather the crisis, from unemployment insurance to Paycheck Protection Program loans. The neighborhood was the target of raids during the Trump administration, leaving residents fearful of seeking any kind of support, or even medical care.
Meanwhile, the pandemic, and xenophobic scapegoating of the virus, has also contributed to a spike in anti-Asian racism in the neighborhood, which is home to one of Brooklyn’s largest Chinatowns (as of 2018, the neighborhood was 29 percent Asian, 39 percent Hispanic, 26 percent white, and 2 percent Black). “When I speak with community members, what they tell me is, I am afraid of going out, I don’t feel comfortable being on the subway, I don’t feel comfortable being on the bus,” Mon Yuck Yu, executive vice president of the Academy of Medical & Public Health Services (AMPHS), a local nonprofit, told Vox about the surge in anti-Asian attacks. “Even something as simple as going to work is fearful for many people.”
It also deeply damaged many of these Asian-owned businesses, whose enterprises slowed even before the lockdown. “We were like six or eight weeks ahead of New York City as far as businesses being affected,” Paul Mak, head of the Brooklyn Chinese-American Association, said. Many are still struggling to pay rent or bring in enough customers to make staying open worthwhile.
But there are also signs of rebirth and healing — from new businesses like La Malinche to community efforts like an anti-hate-crime rally on March 14 that brought together representatives of Asian American, Latinx, and Muslim community groups. Jimmy Li, a member of the local Community Board 7 who organized the march, described divisions within Sunset Park, with little interaction among some of the groups that live there. The march sought to change that. “We try to share dialogue with other community leaders. But that will be a long process,” he said.
We spent time in Sunset Park over several weeks in February and March, talking to residents, community leaders, and business owners about the pandemic year. The project started as a way to counter the isolation of the pandemic, which has made it difficult for people across the city, the country, or the world to share experiences with one another, or to come together to remember what’s been lost. After the 9/11 attacks, New Yorkers gathered the very next day for candlelight vigils. Such public expressions of grief weren’t possible last spring when New York was the global epicenter of the virus — even a year later, many of the events for the city’s Covid-19 Day of Remembrance were virtual.
We focused specifically on a few blocks, between 42nd and 44th Streets and Fourth and Fifth Avenues, a neighborhood hub with the park across the street, and small businesses piled up against apartments and community institutions. This part of Sunset Park has a higher percentage of Latinx residents, with more Asian American residents living farther southeast near Eighth Avenue. But it’s also a place of community activism that crosses racial lines — the rally on March 14, for example, began here on the corner of 43rd Street and Fourth Avenue.
On one corner is La Malinche. On another is the former location of the Sunset Park Deli, whose owner of nearly 40 years, Kevin Lee, died of Covid-19 in May. The block also includes Fuerza Latina, a low-income co-op on Fifth Avenue, and Alejandro Convenience, a bodega where a clerk talked about business being down but always offered a free drink when we stopped by. Nearby is J&I Barber Shop, whose customers sit between plexiglass curtains. On another corner is the Sunset Park branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, which left the wifi running during lockdown so people could stand outside the shuttered building and use the signal. There are also two funeral homes, and the residents who live next to the refrigerated trucks once parked outside them.
It’s also a slice of the neighborhood that opens onto Sunset Park itself, which was a lifeline for many during the pandemic, with kids running on the playground and grown-ups taking dance classes or enjoying an outdoor lunch. The park is the highest point in Brooklyn, where the foreheads of buildings peek up above the hill, and lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty stretch out in the distance.
What follows is an oral history of this block. We spoke to business owners, residents, and park-goers, and those who witnessed the pandemic and its aftermath. Every block has its stories of Covid-19. But only this block has these specific stories.
Our conversations have been edited and condensed for clarity.
The beginning of lockdown: “It just kind of hit”
Sonia Castillo, resident and owner of Novedades “Sonih-Mex,” which sells handmade goods from Mexico: We were sick in March. We were some of the first, and we did not even know it.
It began with pains, difficulty breathing. Nothing was really known. Our ex-president didn’t tell us anything. We closed, we went home. I still remember very well that I told my husband, to stop anything from happening, we are going to clean wall to wall.
We began and my bones were hurting a lot. I remember that in one place where I had to get on my knees, I got up, almost crying. My husband said to me: “Now? Why? You never complain.” I told him, “I don’t know. Maybe it’s menopause.” I didn’t know that it was part of the symptoms. I cried.
Anonymous, physician at Sunset Park hospital: February was when we were hearing a lot more about it and considering it more. And then by the time it happened in March, we were full-fledged.
CeCe, physician at Sunset Park hospital: There wasn’t like a slow trend up. It just kind of hit.
Juana, co-owner of ACA Accessories gift shop: We lived in a panic; everyone was scared. We’d go down to the train station, and it was empty. We used to take the buses and trains, no more. Instead, we walk from the bedroom to the kitchen to the bathroom.
During the pandemic, they closed us for three months. We had to pay rent and there was nothing. It was a difficult situation. We do not depend on others. We depend on this store to support us, to pay rent on our apartment. My husband invested his life in this store, and we were worried because though there are other jobs, we are old and nobody wants to hire people of our age.
Fanny Valdez, Sunset Park resident: I have one child; he’s eight months. Born in 2020.
In March, I had to stop working. I was pregnant. When I saw the news that many people were dying, I was scared. I did not know if it would hurt the baby.
I said, “I’m going to leave everything to God.” I had to wait for my baby for almost four years because I couldn’t get pregnant. So I said, “If God gave me this, everything will be fine.” Thank God it was, and he’s good.
Parish secretary, St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church: I remember the outpour of calls from people saying, “I just lost my job, is there any food you could give me so I can put it on the table for my family? Do you know of anywhere where I can get rental assistance?” This was in the very beginning, before the moratorium was put in place.
I also remember hearing of people getting sick, left and right. Some of those people we had seen in the last two weeks. It was very surreal, the quick pace with which everything moved.
Much of it was a blur, but I remember the long list of sick people and deceased that kept being sent to me whether it was email, Facebook, Instagram DM, saying, “Can you please pray for my dad, can you please?” And then later on getting messages like, “Oh, my dad has passed away. Is there any way that anyone can bless his ashes when we receive them?” Or, “We still haven’t gotten the body back. Is there any way that we could do a Mass whenever we do because we don’t have the money right now?”
I give so much credit to other organizations who were reaching out to us saying, “Hey, listen, if anyone comes to you and says, ‘Where can I get this and that,’ give them my number, tell them that this has been confidential.” The rapidness with which the coronavirus spread and its toll — all of that added to this tension the undocumented population felt under the Trump administration. You instill fear and anxiety in people, and then when a pandemic attacks the community, so much of the weight of the world added on to that already-present anxiety and preoccupation.
Because here, people are like, “If I ask for help, isn’t it going to come and bite me in the butt? If I reach out and say, ‘I need something,’ will I be able to stay here with my family?”
Amy Zheng, longtime Sunset Park resident: It’s not safe. I’ve lived here a long time, probably 20 years. But now, I feel I cannot go outside. It probably started from Covid.
I feel that in my neighborhood. I have a security camera. I saw one person too close to my house. I just said, “Sir, what can I do for you?” He said, “Shut up, bitch. Get out of the country.” He came very close to me. I felt danger. I just said, “What’s wrong with you, sir?” And then I called the police.
The police said, “You just need to wait.” And then nothing.
Kenny Lu, lifelong Sunset Park resident: We’ve been experiencing a lot of troubles in our community. A lot more crimes have been happening.
You’d hear about anti-Asian racism on Asian news, WeChat, social media. You can see that a lot.
Julio Peña III, lifelong Sunset Park resident and district leader for Assembly District 51: The hardest part was not really seeing an end in sight. The isolation. I live by myself, just me and my cat. I think if it wasn’t for the company of my cat, it would have been a lot harder. Technology helps. But I think also not even being able to walk the 15 blocks to my mother’s house was hard.
I decided to run for district leader in early February 2020, about six weeks before the lockdown happened. It completely changed the nature of our campaign. Meeting people in person, handing out literature, that’s your bread and butter, right? To completely take that element out was hard. For a good while, I was like, “I don’t know if I can do this.”
Kimberly Saldivar, lifelong Sunset Park resident: I felt scared because most of my family became unemployed. Since I worked in a supermarket, I was employed and I didn’t know whether to see it as a good thing or a bad thing. Where I worked, they didn’t enforce masks. I was wearing mine, but the customers weren’t, and my managers really didn’t do anything about it because they didn’t believe in Covid-19.
Because of that, I just couldn’t take it anymore, so I quit.
Ninoschka Rosa, former dental assistant, student, and Sunset Park resident: Every day when we heard the clapping [for front-line medical personnel] at 7 pm, I would always go through the window. And I felt like, thank you. Sometimes I’d cry, right? Because oh, my god, people are seeing what we’re doing. But in other ways, when I was working, you walk in the streets, and they see me in scrubs, it’s like people get scared. I say, I’m not a virus. I’m just, you know, helping here.
Sometimes in those days, I don’t need people clapping. We need people to do what they have to do — like using masks, not going outside — because it was overwhelming the hospital.
A spring of grief and uncertainty: “This sinking feeling in my heart”
Eduardo Puebla, Sunset Park resident: After I had my barista hours cut during the lockdown, I found another job in Queens. Since it was a little crazy going on the train, I would bike one hour from here to there.
I’ve been biking my whole life. But I got tired. And they started to cut hours still, because the business in the pandemic, obviously, it was not going as planned.
I’m actually one of the immigrants — we’re not getting enough. I went through days when I had no food on my table. You know, it was a little frustrating. Empty stomach and all that. But I think it makes us strong. You know, soldiers — sometimes you feel like if they go into war, they don’t get the proper food. So we just need to hang on.
Rosie Velez, vice president of the Fuerza Latina co-op and Sunset Park resident: I was with the Muslim Community Patrol and Services, which is an organization here in Sunset Park. I had clients, and they didn’t have no food. I got them to apply for the food stamps, and they got emergency orders for the insurance. And I always advise my people, you know, even though we’re in a pandemic, if you cannot pay your rent, as long as you pay $1, they cannot get rid of you.
When someone is in need and you try and you try and you cannot help a person, you feel broken. And that’s why, you know, my heart has always been with the community. I always volunteer for everything. I remember this commercial about the Yellow Pages, they say, “Do the walking with your finger.” I learned to do the walking with my fingers. I’ll call 311. If they cannot help me, I’ll keep on looking. I call the politicians. If they cannot help me, it’s okay, give me a number. I do not give up.
Yoana Boleaga, recent college graduate and Sunset Park resident: My dad got sick in the beginning of April. He didn’t work for about two weeks. It was kind of difficult for us — we had to make cuts here and there.
He wasn’t getting paid. Unfortunately, as an immigrant, he doesn’t get benefits, so he couldn’t apply for stimulus checks. He works at a deli. He doesn’t have a union. He does work that a manager would be doing, but he doesn’t get paid for it. He wants to speak up about it, but it’s like, you know, they’re going to fire him if he complains.
Fortunately, he didn’t have to go to the hospital. He was just isolated from us in a single room. But the difficulty with that is, I know a lot of people around here, we’re all bunched up like five, six people, in one apartment. So it’s kind of hard isolating one person in one room. But we tried to make the best of it. We tried to isolate ourselves as best as we could.
Lucio Hernandez, Sunset Park resident: I have a lot of family. I have brothers, a sister. My mom passed away from the pandemic in April. She was sick, she had health problems, was on dialysis. So Covid-19 affected her very rapidly.
She had to go to the hospital, but she died at home. At dawn. She went to sleep, and by dawn she had passed. Nothing could be done.
Ninoschka Rosa: I’m a dental assistant, but we had to do different work, like helping the nurses, because they were short-staffed. And it wasn’t an option. If you don’t go to work, you’re going to lose your benefits. I’m here alone with my fiancé, all my family’s in Puerto Rico. So I said I’m going to do it because I need to work.
Later, I had the choice to move to another department and work different hours, like crazy hours, or I could take a layoff. So I took the work in another department, and things got a little bit worse in terms of PPE, hours, being short-staffed. There was no social distancing. We had to use the same masks, even working with Covid-19.
I’m a student, too. So I thought about it a lot and I spoke with my fiancé [Armando Cruz], and I said, “I think I have to make a choice, because I want to finish my college. I need a break from this.”
It was too devastating for me. It was hours of crying and seeing people dying. And I know I’m not the only one. Eventually, I had to resign.
Juana: In April, we opened, and the police shut us down. They came and told us that we had to close because we didn’t sell things that were essential, things like hygiene products. We did have them; we’d have to take a table outside and try to sell them there.
Once the police came, and they saw we had things to sell — hand sanitizer, gloves, masks. It was very sad because people are not coming to buy things like toys. There was very little to sell, and the city kept checking on us.
Parish secretary: I think the real toll — where you could just see the monstrosity of it — was when we were first allowed to go back into work, with your mask on, isolated from everyone else in the office.
I distinctly remember this sinking feeling in my heart when I saw those refrigerators lining the street next to Schaefer funeral home because I knew what that meant. I understood. Everyone understands what’s in there.
When we were able to gather — even just 10 people — we would have an average of, I’d say, five to 10 funerals every week for a good two, three months. As a matter of fact, even now, you still get the trickling in of people who say, “I just got back my grandmother’s body from the morgue, is there any way we could do a funeral there?” Sometimes it’s surreal to hear someone say, “Oh, they died in April 2020.” We’re basically approaching April 2021. You’re telling me you had to wait a year to bury your loved one?
Roxana Benavides, managing librarian at Sunset Park Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library: We had to continue to be there for the community. How can we provide something for everybody? Or be in touch with the different groups in the community? If you have to be at home, how can we support that? How can we do that?
We provide homework help. What else can we do? We need to move everything to the computers, the internet, but there are people who do not use the internet. Okay, what else can we do? Okay, the phone! We have dial-a-poem, library-on-call, you can listen to a bedtime story.
We keep track of the use of our wifi. People who came and used our computers — you see the need for that, and now with everyone in their apartments, that’s why we always keep the wifi on. We now expand the wifi reach to 300 meters around the library for internet access.
Karina Albistegui Adler, started a mutual aid Facebook group for Sunset Park: I got involved initially as mutual aid networks were popping up at the beginning of the pandemic. We already had a parents’ Facebook group called the Sunset Park Mamas and Papas, and I was like, why don’t we open it up and do this mutual aid thing? I’ll do my best to run it. I was working full-time but still wanting to do something.
For the first few weeks of it, I think we were all sort of hopeful. That whole narrative about flattening the curve — if we all stay in for two weeks, it’ll be okay. We were just going to need to meet some basic needs for people who maybe couldn’t leave the house.
As it dragged on, the needs became bigger. We started seeing the food insecurity really come to a head, and moms who were giving birth and didn’t have basic things that they needed to take care of their babies. Formula was a huge one. And as people lost their jobs, seasonal clothing for their children became a need.
Seeing the refrigerated trucks and just being a new mom and having a little baby, it was incredibly intense and scary and isolated. We had offers from family members to leave the city. My husband and I really thought about it, and we were like, we’re not the only people going through this, and if we have this ability to help during these terrible times, why don’t we?
Warmer weather, fragile relief: “All of a sudden I opened the door”
Julio Peña III: There was this feeling like, is this going to be like this forever? Are people going to be afraid to come outside?
There’s a deli that’s on 43rd Street and Fourth Avenue that I used to go to all the time when I worked across the street. Unfortunately, the owner passed away from Covid in May and the business closed. That place was a neighborhood institution. My sisters used to go down when they were young kids.
For me, it’s the absence. I think, if I want an iced coffee, that’s the place I go to, right? The memories that people have of meeting friends before going to the pool and stopping to get lunch beforehand. It’s the nostalgia of neighborhood institutions, about them always being there, even as you get older. But now it’s not.
Like, do you stop drinking iced coffee altogether? Do you boycott iced coffee? Do you make your iced coffee at home now because it’s just not the same? Do you find another iced coffee spot to support? What do you do? That’s such a hard question to answer. I don’t even know. I do know there’s another coffee spot a couple of blocks away that I support. That’s great. I’ll go there. But I just miss the nostalgia. I guess now it’s just the onus of building a new kind of nostalgia at another place.
Yoana Boleaga: I’m usually more into, like, hanging out with people, going out. So at first the pandemic was kind of hard for me, but then I started liking the alone time for myself, just trying to work on skills that I could work on during that time. I think the hardest was for my brother. He was still in high school. He got depressed. He couldn’t really learn remotely. He was already an introvert, but it got even worse during this time. We would try to help him out; we’d try to talk to him. He’s doing well now — he’s starting to get therapy.
Ilsel Garcia, co-owner of Tortilleria La Malinche: My husband and I decided to move to South Carolina because it was getting crazy in New York. My husband started working in the field cutting grass in South Carolina. They would cut grass in packs and stack them up in the hot sun. But he would do that and just save a little money. And eventually he said, “You know what, I think it’s time for me to open my business.” He started getting serious about opening a tortilleria.
It was something we were speaking about for two years. But this summer, every morning at 6 o’clock in the morning, we began looking for places in South Carolina. It was really hard over there. I don’t know why — if we had a deal, they would give it to someone else.
In August, we decided to come back to New York. My uncle owns the corner store, and we saw this location. It was like, on the spot: “Okay, something was meant to be.”
Jesús Delgado, co-owner of Tortilleria La Malinche: It was a coincidence of fate. “Oh, this has a hood” for ventilation, my wife said. I saw it and said, “Oh this is a good place, this is a good place.”
The pandemic made it a little more difficult to get the permits. Also, we didn’t know how it would work because of the pandemic, we did not know what the situation would be like, but I knew that there was a big Spanish population, we knew it would be a hit here, we knew it would be a good business. We come from this tortilla culture. What is better than hot tortillas, freshly made every day?
Steve Whipple, musician: In the middle of the summer, I was like, I should go back to busking. I did that when I first moved to town, and I kind of had the attitude like, I’m done with that phase. I realized, no, that’s exactly what we should be doing right now because people love it.
We’re all musicians that live in the neighborhood — I guess we’re the Sunset Park dads’ band.
Being able to play outside, seeing how people react to you when you play — when we do five to six bar gigs a week, it’s easy to get jaded about it, and be like oh, we’re just going to do the same thing every day. But no, people actually love to hear music.
Sonia Castillo: I create different dolls for whatever season, whatever the request, for kids’ parties, weddings. Any type of character, now we can make it. For me, that’s what attracts me the most: to create something new, to create something that I can say, “This is my creation and nobody has it.”
The truth is this is what has my attention the most lately, these doll creations here. They are called “popucha.” I put them here so when people come in they would be aware and remember to use a mask and all of the precautions. Already people are coming, “Make me a doctor. Make me this. Make me another.”
Not anyone can do this type of thing because it takes time, it takes dedication. My husband said to me, “You are doing this day and night, making your dolls.” This is what I like; it relaxes me, and that’s part of what I like about it.
Armando Cruz, physical education teacher, custodian, and Sunset Park resident: I work in the Department of Education, so I’ve been working this whole time. I continued working as a custodian. But as a teacher, I went back in person in late September.
I don’t find it to be scary. There’s an advantage to it. I like to see things in a positive light. As a phys-ed teacher, it’s usually in the gym with 60-plus students. However, during this pandemic, it’s been pushed into the classroom, and there are usually anywhere from four to 10 students in the class. So it’s more of an intimate vibe, where it allows me to build more relationships with the students and vice versa. You can sense it in the kids, the desire to be around each other and play.
Kamili Iman-Thomas, parent of a teenager doing remote learning and Sunset Park resident: I genuinely hope that the long-term repercussions of this won’t hurt my daughter. But in the moment, what am I going to do? School is not safe right now.
Jerry Thomas, parent: We don’t want her on the social all the time, but yet we’re her only actual entertainment, human-wise. We bounce off the walls sometimes, but no more than anybody else.
When I was her age, you’d go out and you didn’t come back till the streetlights went on. She’s with us 24/7. I don’t know if I could’ve handled that.
Rosie Velez: I got to see some of my grandkids for the first time in September. And I was here cleaning. I was not expecting them. All of a sudden I opened the door. My son-in-law is there. Behind him, my grandchildren. Oh, my god, did I cry. I couldn’t believe it.
Let me tell you, this has destroyed so many people mentally and emotionally. Not seeing your family. I have a grandchild, he lives right on the next block.
I was suffering so much, and my daughter used to bring him to the front of my building, oh, my god, I had to hide to cry. Not being able to kiss him, not being able to hug him. And he used to tell me, “But Grandma, open the door for me. I love you.” And I used to tell him, “Papi, I don’t want to get you sick.”
Anonymous physician: I remember in the beginning of September, I think we had four patients in the hospital total. And then mid-October, it came back up again and kind of hasn’t gone fully down.
From winter to today: “I just wanted to come out of it with a peaceful mind”
Kimberly Saldivar: I actually got sick a couple of days before New Year’s Eve. I didn’t think it was Covid because I didn’t have your normal Covid symptoms. My symptom was back pain, and that lasted me a little over a week. And then maybe my last couple of days of having Covid, that’s when I started experiencing symptoms. I couldn’t smell, I couldn’t taste my food. I had a migraine for a couple of days, and then after that, it was gone. I got tested and I came out positive.
I get anxiety pretty fast, so what I did was I did not read anything about it, I did not watch videos. I read books, I watched Netflix. My mom was the one worrying the most about me. She would always knock on my door to give me home tea. And I was like, please stop bothering me because you keep reminding me that I have it.
I just wanted to come out of it with a peaceful mind. I feel like once you start reading more about it, like the long-term effects, you can freak yourself out.
Rosie Velez: My son just caught Covid not so long ago, in January. He was staying with me at the time. He tells me, “Mom, I’m staying in a hotel. I don’t want to expose you, blah blah blah.” I’m crying and crying and crying. He stayed in the hotel for one week, he spent almost $1,000 or something.
After my son’s test came out negative, he came back home. Days later, it came out positive again. I put on the mask, I stay in my room most of the time, but of course, I cook. I’m nervous. I used to get up at 4 am and disinfect the house 10, 15 times a day. If you tell me there’s a fire in my building, you know what, don’t expect me to go outside. You’ll see me washing dishes, I will mop, I will clean. Because I get nervous.
Ilsel Garcia: The tortilleria was a big investment — we had to pay rent while we were still closed. We weren’t going to open without permits, that’s a risk. Everything had to be stripped. My husband put down the floors himself. You should see his hands. You should see my hands. Forget it. It’s like, I never had my hands like this.
Remember, we were drained. I thought we weren’t going to survive. I was losing it. My husband and I had a lot of arguments. But my husband, he envisioned it. Even if his wife said it’s not gonna work, he still went with it; even if his friends laughed at him, he still went with it. He was like, if I lose, I lose. We’re still young. We’ll start all over. We’re not 50, you know, so let’s go with it.
Before we opened, I was giving out free tortilla samples. People kept coming back. And then February 13, it was like a little bomb. We opened. I just threw it at them. We weren’t really even ready, the store wasn’t even stocked. But once we opened, forget it, clients were, like, all the way to the back of the block.
Jesús Delgado: People like it, we see they put comments on Facebook. They have many positive things to say, thank god. People come from other states. We do about 1,000 pounds of flour a day to make tortillas. Weekends it goes up a bit — 1,500, 2,000 pounds — because everyone’s off, families are getting together. It’s very rare that we have any tortillas left over.
Ali, clerk at Alejandro Convenience: The business is down. Not a lot of customers. Maybe you’re going to make $300, $200 a day. Before Covid, the business was good. Now, no. I think everybody’s scared to go out, and a lot of people moved from here. They go to Connecticut, they go to Boston.
Mon Yuck Yu, executive vice president of AMPHS, a local nonprofit: There are still a lot of people that are struggling with vaccine appointment systems. Take Mr. Wong, for example, who is one of the community members that we spoke with. He got to the front of the line and was told he wasn’t on a list, but he didn’t understand what they were saying, so he got told to stand in a separate line for another two hours.
This is someone who’s a senior, who is walking with a limp, has diabetes, and is unable to communicate in English, and he’s given a form in English to complete. There are no translators on site. He was so frazzled and frustrated that he left the site after standing there for five hours, not being able to get a vaccine.
He ended up calling us upset, understandably so, to tell us, “I don’t want to get a vaccine anymore, this is just too frightening.”
Anonymous physician: I know it’s mostly over for most people, but we still work in the hospital. It’s pretty hard for us to have a better perspective on it because it’s kind of still happening.
CeCe: Especially when we were in the peak of it and people were saying that it was a hoax — well, we’re seeing people die around us.
Christian Onofre, lifelong Sunset Park resident: Just this March, the owner of the pizzeria, Dominick’s, he passed away. It hit us hard because he was part of our childhood.
There’s a school down the block and I used to go there. I also met my girlfriend there; we’ve been together for 10 years. We used to go to the pizzeria after school. It was just a nice environment. It hits me so hard because that’s where we met. Our childhood is slowly getting cut off from us because everything is changing.
Li De Zhang, restaurant worker and Sunset Park resident: In our community and all throughout the United States, we’ve been seeing increases in attacks against Asian and Chinese members. It’s gotten a lot worse than before the pandemic, and it’s not just happening in New York City, but all over the US.
I felt that so especially as an elderly person, and even kids, when they go outside, they feel unsafe. I feel scared, too.
We should be united to stand against this. We want to see more cops in the neighborhood, more outreach, just more cop presence so we can feel more secure.
Mon Yuck Yu: The Asian community has historically been quiet around hate crime reporting. I think there’s a fear of authority, there’s lack of knowledge on how to report the crime, and there’s also the issue of the language barrier.
There needs to be resources that allow our communities to be more proactive around this, and there’s also a need for us to also be able to advocate for racial justice — for example, to advocate for more programming to be held in our schools. Because even beyond what’s happening on our streets, we’re seeing bullying happening in our schools. That’s not acceptable.
Yoana Boleaga: You see these TikToks like, “Come to Sunset Park!” The only place that they’re really showing is Industry City [a recent development in the neighborhood with upscale stores and restaurants] and they don’t really show the family-run stores around Fifth Avenue or even Eighth avenue. They don’t show what Sunset Park is really about. Even in recent times, I’ve seen news articles like, “Why Sunset Park is booming” or “Come to the park to see the skyline!” They’re putting Sunset Park in the eye of the people like, “There’s cheaper rent here.” So it starts bringing in people that might not appreciate how Sunset Park has gotten better. I’ve lived here for a long time; I grew up here. It feels different now.
A glimpse of the future: “We grow every day. The city, too.”
Sonia Castillo: It’s been difficult, but we are going, slowly but surely. We continue to exist, that’s the main thing — that we did not close and that we continue providing work, even though it has not been easy.
Kenny Lu: The crimes that happened, the deaths of people — we should memorialize those people.
Parish secretary: Things don’t just go away. The church is always going to be dealing with the remnants of anything — war, pandemics, mass hysteria. This is the calling of the church.
But I also think that we’re going to see such change. Even now, that things are, quote-unquote, going back to normal, we’re seeing all these people coming back to Mass. People receiving their vaccines. We’re going to have communions, confirmations. Easter. These are always moments of joy.
We also have a lot of baptisms, a lot of babies born during the pandemic that are now being brought to the church for the first time. Seeing new life when you’ve lost so much of it is something beautiful, unique.
Li De Zhang: I want people to have hope. I want to see more security in the community. And I hope for people to be able to find jobs and work safely and not be unemployed and to see the criminals penalized.
Armando Cruz: Ninoschka [Rosa] and I got engaged this past December. We think about doing the wedding back home in Puerto Rico. That’s where we were born and raised, and that’s where our family is. We’re aiming for February of next year, but we’re playing it by ear. We’re leaving some space for the uncertainty. If there’s anything we’ve learned from this year it’s, you know, we have to be able to make adjustments.
Jerry Thomas: I think we should all be pretty proud of ourselves. We did all right, considering. When you think back about it, at once, it’s like, “Wow, that’s crazy.” But when you’re in it, you just gotta do it. You get momentum to it. And you’re not the only one. I don’t want to say we did all right, but it could’ve been a lot worse.
Kamili Iman-Thomas: You always say that!
Jerry Thomas: I’m from New England. The hurricane will come by and it’s like, “Well, the roof’s still on!”
Roxana Benavides: I’ve been thinking how many people that were our regular patrons we will not see again. Then also, what comes with that. Besides people dying, there are the consequences, mentally and emotionally. We are already preparing for that, for the next normal.
Karina Albistegui Adler: It was so sunny yesterday, it felt like a new day. Like there could be a light at the end of this tunnel.
That’s one thing that has been really exciting — the network of mutual aid — and has made this feel so much like home for me. I love this community. I love the way my neighbors responded. I’m so grateful to have such an amazing place to raise a child. It does feel like a little village.
Steve Whipple: This forced me to become more local — like Sunset Park local. Playing with people in the neighborhood, just music and hanging out. Remembering that there’s community right here.
Julio Peña III: The pandemic, like in many neighborhoods across the city, really highlighted just how unequal this community is. But I think it also put into perspective how far we have to go to make our city work for community, for Sunset Park. After all, all great things in history — like after something really tragic, like after the plague, it was like the Renaissance, right? I really just think this moment is going to allow us to reprioritize. I’m an optimist. I live in New York City, I’m hopeful.
Eduardo Puebla: My friends, they had a place right here on 39th and Fifth. They lost it, they closed it, it was a pupusa place. There’s another friend of mine who’s closing his place actually, on 39th, around the corner of Fifth. His name is Miguel. He has a little bodega deli store. I just went to see him and he’s like, “This is the last month.”
There’s a lot of businesses that are going to close. And some others that will come in and open. I’m looking to maybe open up my own coffee shop. Like 500 square feet. I just need an espresso machine. Who doesn’t drink coffee? I’m going to call it Azteca Cafe. Something from Mexico representing my background. I feel like it will go good with our neighborhood.
In the pandemic, being in this situation, it feels like it brings you to awakening. I mean, it is depressing. But it’s part of life. We grow every day. The city, too.
New York, you know. The city that never sleeps. But the pandemic came, and we had to close our eyes for a second.
Gabriela Bhaskar is an independent photojournalist based in New York City whose work focuses on social justice, policy, and women’s issues in the United States and Southeast Asia.
Additional reporting by Emily Stewart.