Escaping pandemic Brooklyn? You’re probably white, even if you don’t have more money than your black neighbors

The dynamics of gentrification among the middle class are complicated, but Covid-19 has brought some painful clarity.

Credit: Matteo Catanese

On January 24, the day I went into labor, only two people in the U.S. had been diagnosed with the coronavirus that still had no name. That afternoon, I stumbled out of our Brooklyn apartment building under the watchful eyes of whichever neighbors happened to be in the courtyard or peering out their windows at that moment. In recent months, as I started growing more and more rotund, neighbors who had generally offered no more than a passing nod in the elevator or by the front gate began holding doors for me, inquiring about my pregnancy, and telling me tales of their own. I started to enjoy shifting my distinguishing characteristic in the building from my whiteness, which marked me as a gentrifier in a borough of gentrification, to my belly, which marked me as a beleaguered woman in a world of beleaguered women.

The demographics inside my 120-unit apartment building on the border of two Brooklyn neighborhoods—one already thoroughly gentrified, another well on its way—reflect the demographics on the street. In the building, longtime black residents get replaced, vacancy by vacancy, with mostly white, highly educated newcomers like myself, whose rent-stabilized apartments are still a bargain at twice the price many of the older families are paying.

The dynamics of gentrification among the middle class are complicated, particularly in a city like New York, where racial differences persistently track onto income levels and health outcomes, and whole communities get displaced by predatory developers. My also-white partner is an artist and I’m a graduate student. As far as annual income is concerned, many of the longtime residents are probably in better shape than we are. But as is playing out so blatantly during this crisis, social class isn’t just about income. This lesson has never been clearer than from where I write this, perched under a skylight at a friend’s childhood home in Connecticut, where we have been hiding out for the last six weeks.

We spent the first four weeks of my son’s life in the normal self-isolation of new parenthood. The news about the spread of the virus was ominous, but felt distant. Family visited, friends brought food. The only visitors we restricted were my aunt and uncle, who had returned in mid-February from a cruise in the Far East. All others were welcome, as was the friendly up-close cooing of our neighbors. When I was finally able to move around again after a few weeks of what is euphemistically referred to as postpartum “discomfort,” I delightedly walked down the block to my favorite coffee shop and down a couple more to another, just because I could.

But soon the three of us came down with a cold and again began receding from the world. It was just as well, because days later, on March 4, a Covid-19 cluster surfaced just north of the city. As we monitored our temperatures and the baby’s cough—which is one of the saddest and scariest sounds I have ever heard—and gradually nursed ourselves back to health, the city got sicker and sicker all around us.

A neighbor posted to the building’s invite-only Facebook page, which is populated almost exclusively by the building’s gentrifiers, expressing concern for elderly residents and for the woman who cleans the hallways and takes out the trash. Ideas were circulated about how to help: sign-up sheets, phone calls, pros, cons.

At the same time, discarded latex gloves started littering the streets and sidewalks like a dystopian second autumn. At first we spotted just one or two each time we took the dog out for a walk, but soon there were scores of them clustering in slow-moving eddies.

Headlines forecasting calamities bled into each other across all our devices, the drumbeat growing louder and closer, and the warm exchanges we had been having with neighbors gradually fizzled into a mutually fearful, distanced dance when negotiating doorways in common spaces. The streets began feeling empty. Normally coveted parking spots opened up as people with means packed up and drove away. At the same time, the building’s Facebook page went curiously quiet. Had the other gentrifiers left the premises?

Since we had no country house to flee to nor the means to indefinitely rent one, we figured we would just stay put. We signed up for new internet service that week; if we were going to stay, we were going to do it with high-speed broadband.

But what might have been even more contagious than the virus so many were fleeing was the panic it induced. When close friends also with a newborn and also without a country house announced their decision to flee the city, we finally accepted that the postpartum back-to-work routine we had so meticulously planned and were started to look forward to implementing had become obsolete. So had the need for a new internet provider. The elevator, which we needed to ride up and down twice a day with our 12-year-old dog, started to feel like a death trap. High-touch zones like the front doorknobs seemed to glow, radioactive. The day Governor Cuomo finally announced the closure of public schools, I started feeling desperate. We tapped into our networks, learned that a friend’s parents had left behind an empty house in the suburbs when they decamped months earlier to the Virgin Islands, and that they would let us have it. Two days later, we made our first of several car trips to the midcentury house on a wooded road which would become our temporary home.

After hearing that we were leaving, friends in our building who had been planning to ride it out decided that they would follow suit. As they wheeled their suitcases packed with dried beans and all-season clothing through the lobby, a young black resident standing with a friend by the elevator muttered after them: “Have fun in the Poconos.”

Our friends, who are also white, weren’t going to the Poconos, and we weren’t going to the Virgin Islands. But what difference does it make? Whether their family’s empty suburban condo or our friend’s empty suburban house, we have options because the people in our communities have options. And the fact that neither we nor our friends are even paying for our temporary housing only underscores the inequality of our opportunities.

Packing up the car in front of the same neighbors who saw us off to the hospital just two months earlier is not an experience I will soon forget. As we crossed one bridge out of the city and then another, leaving the dimmed skyline behind, we found ourselves arguing about the dynamics of our departure. Ethically speaking, by most accounts, fleeing to an empty house with two weeks’ worth of groceries was the best thing to do. Three fewer people in the building means three fewer disease vectors, and three fewer hospital beds to take up if we fell ill. Our presence helped no one and was only a risk, and a potential resource drain.

And yet. Leaving behind the neighbors whose outpricing our presence only accelerated felt like a betrayal. Not that anyone seemed sorry to see us go. Maybe, just maybe, some felt a certain satisfaction at being right: that we might be friendly, we might move secondhand furniture ourselves out of our 15-year-old Honda, and we might hold doors whenever there isn’t a pandemic, but at the end of the day, we have choices, and many of them do not. The virus itself might be equal opportunity, but the crowded conditions and impossibility of remote working are not.

Maybe in the end it’s just as well the Facebook group never really integrated. If our good intentions didn’t bear fruit, at least their transience could go largely unnoticed. Except, that is, by those of us who spoke and then fell silent.

Ilana Sichel

Ilana Sichel's writing has been published in a variety of outlets, including Prairie Schooner, Narrative, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Haaretz. She is currently working toward a doctorate in clinical psychology. Follow her on Twitter @ilanasichel.