This is what’s keeping cities alive

The coronavirus pandemic shook the pieces off the board and threw them in the air. Now, in places like New York City where the epidemic’s fury has receded, they are starting to land again, scrambled in new and interesting ways.

I moved back to New York less than a year before the lockdown. Suddenly, the city I was getting to know again disappeared from reach, replaced by the perimeter of my home and my Brooklyn neighborhood, which was hit hard and fast by the virus.

The comeback of my neighborhood in the dark, early days of the pandemic started with the emergence of a mutual aid society. These groups self-organized across the city when collective isolation was at its most acute; the entire medical system outside of emergency rooms had suddenly evaporated, along with all commerce — save for grocery stores — construction sites, and, somehow, the city’s recycling pickups.

Before there was widespread coronavirus testing, the government’s medical advice to the sick was to stay home and suffer on your own until near death’s door, or you got better. It was a miracle to find, in the middle of all this, more than 2,000 not-so-distant neighbors who would do anything they could for each other, like deliver food, find a thermometer, or pick up a prescription. Knowing your neighbors were doing it not because it was their job but because they were kind and because they wanted to stand against the tide of collapse — well, it was everything.

A door in Kew Gardens, Queens. Homemade rainbow signs supporting essential workers in Forest Hills. Photo: Lindsey Nicholson/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

New York City is still not fully open. It will be some time before buses and trains feel as safe as they once did — it’s in the interest of all who need them to make sure they don’t become as crowded as they were. People are walking, or biking, or, if they can afford it, buying cars.

But the neighborhoods, oh the neighborhoods! They are something new and delicious, fuller than they have ever been, now that we are out and about before the work-from-home brigades are called back to an office. Every day is a Saturday on the streets, thick with outdoor eateries, like a Paris in miniature with plants and bistro chairs where there were once SUVs. The doors of reopened shops have been flung open, heat be damned, to keep the air circulating, and to create a sense of welcome, an invitation to enter. The restaurants and cafés that transformed in desperation to sell provisions have settled into a new existence as small neighborhood grocery stores, specializing in the ethnic ingredients of their respective cuisines. Goodbye industrial supermarket chains. Hello Italian, Mexican and Asian mini-grocers that deliver.

This week in GEN, Patrick Sisson goes deep into the unexpected resilience of our biggest cities, which are rebuilding themselves, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood.

Meanwhile, a tropical storm is winding its way up the East Coast, an early start to hurricane season. Is New York City headed for calm after the viral storm? Or are we in the quiet eye of the hurricane, the dip before the next surge? Already the infection rate is inching up. But some parts of the city also were hit so hard and so fast they could be near herd immunity — should such a thing be possible with this virus.

For now, there is a sense of respite. And if this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s to take no day for granted.

The first responders who work for free

Volunteers have been critical in the response to the epidemic outside the cities, report Brian Edwards and Marion Renault in GEN. In Buck Creek Township, Indiana, “a volunteer is as likely to respond to a 911 call as a paid responder.”

Until the mid-20th century, there was no expectation 911 responders could or would treat patients before they reached the hospital — but there was a growing call for them to try. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration found the annual death toll from vehicle accidents outnumbered Korean War casualties. “Chances of survival would be better in the zone of combat than on the average city street,” remarked the federal government in a landmark report. The development of defibrillators, CPR, and a national certifying exam in 1971 helped change the paradigm. Emergency responders were no longer just ambulance drivers. They became, and continue to be, medical professionals who directly extended the health care pipeline to a patient’s doorstep.

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