Early in the plague years, Jerry Friedland dreamed one night that New York City had died.
Early in the plague years, Jerry Friedland dreamed one night that New York City had died. He was wandering through an Ingmar Bergman vision of the metropolis, a cityscape in stark black and white. He saw buses and elevated trains, passed buildings and stores, lingered at a fruit stand. But the streets were empty. There were no people anymore.—Peter Goldman and Lucille Beachy, “One Against the Plague,” Newsweek.
Nobody knew where the new disease came from, but the symptoms of were easily recognizable: fever, headache, sore throat. As the infection progressively weakened the immune system, patients developed other signs and symptoms, such as swollen lymph nodes, weight loss, fever, diarrhea and a cough. For many, the final symptom was death.
There was no cure, only hope for mitigation. In the United States, unclear guidance from health authority and an executive hands-off policy led to unclear public health directives that cost thousands of lives. The healthcare workers tasked with the care of the newly sick were afraid of themselves catching it –whatever “it” was.
The year was 1981. The disease was eventually baptized “human immunodeficiency virus and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome,” (HIV/AIDS) but not before it decimated entire communities all over New York and the world—especially ones experiencing intersecting forms of marginalization.
“Not surprisingly, already marginalized groups—gay men, intravenous drug users, and immigrants, especially from Haiti—bore the brunt of the fear and antipathy, as preexisting prejudices mixed with loathing of disease to produce a toxic brew of discrimination and stigma,” explained HIV/AIDS researcher Wendy Parmet, JD in a Hastings Center report.
Attracting artists, a large Puerto Rican diaspora, working-class families, and queer people with its cheap rents, the Lower East Side was particularly hard hit by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
“Many of the artists were poor or didn’t have money to rent an apartment, so they had to share with other people. Apartments were cheap back then,” remembered longtime community activist and mosaic artist Chino García. “When they weren’t working, many of them made art. This art would mix with social affairs. Art wasn’t a luxury; we used it for neighborhood development.”
Tony Buczko, now seventy-four, also remembers those years as a particularly creative time despite the grim outlook. A visual artist who lived in 534 East Eleventh street, one of the buildings invested in sweat equity through Adopt-A-Building (AAB). Buczko had shows in the small art galleries in the neighborhood and a contributor to the mural “The Root of Loisaida” at La Plaza Cultural Community Garden.
“The saddest part was all the artists that were dying from AIDS,” Buczko said. “That was the saddest part to me, because Mr. Reagan’s government wasn’t doing anything about it. You know, like Mr. Trump’s government didn’t do anything about Covid for people.”
By March of 1987, the FDA the first antiretroviral drug, zidovudine (AZT). The purpose of the drug was hindering viral replication, as well as attachment to target cells to stop any viral activity and production. However, AZT was prohibitively expensive and unavailable to many of the people experiencing intersecting forms of discrimination.
And so, shortly after AZT was approved, Playwright and AIDS activist Larry Kramer established the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, (ACT UP) much of it based out of Loisaida to host actions, demonstrations, rallies, and open-casket political funerals.
“My friends and I have decided we don’t want discreet memorial services. We understand our friends and families need to mourn. But we also understand that we are dying because of a government and a health care system that couldn’t care less,” wrote AIDS activist and artist Mark Lowe Fisher detailing instructions for his open-casket political funeral in 1992.
Using similar methods to ACT UP, Nuyrican Poets’ Café founder Pedro Pietri combined art with activism. Pietri is often pictured with a cross of condoms. “I cannot save your soul with religion,” it read. “I can save your life with a condom.”
As 2021 marks the fortieth anniversary of the discovery of HIV/AIDS, the world is again facing a public health crisis from a novel illness, except Covid-19 accelerated the pace set by HIV/AIDS. What took years now takes months; discovery of disease to vaccine took about two years. However, the disproportionate effect of a public health crisis on people experiencing intersecting forms of discrimination remains constant.
“Consistent with past public health emergencies and many chronic diseases, Latino/a and Black people and those in low income neighborhoods are disproportionately impacted by Covid-19,” opens a May 2021 data brief from NYC health.
According to the report, As of November 19, 2020, Latinx and Black New Yorkers had died from Covid-19 at twice the rate of white New Yorkers (264 and 247 vs. 126 per 100,000 people, respectively).
Since chronic health conditions are linked to more severe Covid-19 illness and many of these chronic conditions result from structural racism in health care and historical disinvestment in neighborhoods where New Yorkers experiencing intersecting forms of discrimination reside.
“The experience of disease is a lot more dynamic than I think a lot of people are willing to acknowledge,” said Kaylee Lamarche, a recent graduate of NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized study whose concentration, “Plagues, Epidemics, and Disease,” sought to deconstruct the idea of contagiousness and understand the social category of the ill.
“You can’t just see it [disease] as a pure biological diagnosis, because that’s not how it manifests for everyone because of existing prejudices like racism, different language barriers, different accessibility to health care,” she said.
During the spike of Covid-19 cases in the summer of 2020, Lamarche visited around twenty hospitals in all five boroughs for work. “The protocols that were in place were supposed to be the same all throughout, but because of limiting factors like resources, space in the hospitals, and different demographics, these rules that you set manifest very differently,” she said. “It was a big reminder to really take into account how historically-neglected communities are even more impacted when we’re in a crisis like this.”
However, another constant is the unrelenting courage of people who survive the plague, those who answer as people always have; entwining art and activism to keep community alive. From the work of Keith Haring and David Woznowarovicz in ACT UP to the work of Chino García at CHARAS/El Bohío, art has been used as a central tool during pandemics to focus the mind and do the work.
It is no different in this pandemic. With Black Lives Matter protests and a national reckoning on race, art and activism is constantly entwined. Eden Martinez, a queer Puerto Rican-American filmmaker and Loisaida native, grew as a creative through the pandemic. In addition to her other work, she hosted The Corona Chronicles, a time-capsule podcast of twelve episodes that chronicled her experience in the early months of the pandemic
Martinez believes that creativity is about connection and so making Chronicles gave her a new medium to connect with others outside of social media. “Honest conversation has really been lost with the internet and social media,” she said. “I feel like it’s sort of crucial for every artist to keep that at the forefront of their mind, because it is the thing that that sort of opens the floodgates for creativity potential.”
Since April 2018, Eric Díaz from LES nonprofit Visión Urbana partnered with other organizations to host a healthy living initiative designed to educate local churches of color about the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS. Visión Urbana’s food pantry uses a client-choice model that allows pantry visitors to select the food that they take home. About two hundred people would line up outside of the pantry every week get their groceries, Diaz said.
“When the first week of the government shutdown took place, I realized that, well, all these seniors and my Latino folks from the Lower East Side are not going to be lining up because they got to stay home,” Díaz said.
And so, realizing that Visión Urbana had a database with residents’ information, a rogue band of pantry workers delivered what food they had left.
“Before you know it,” Díaz said, “Everybody was contacting us.”
“Are you doing a home delivery pantry?” callers would ask. They had friends who had lost their jobs, a family member who got Covid and needed food, elderly relatives, housebound people who couldn’t access their support networks.
The two hundred regular people became 1,500 in a month. In two months, it became 2,500. To keep up with the demand, Díaz started looking for volunteers in food pantries, tenant associations, and social media. Hearing news, Díaz relates a phone call with a food bank in New York City, which called Díaz, and asked if Visión Urbana’s pantry was still open.
“What do you mean ‘is your pantry still open?’ Why wouldn’t we be open?” Diaz would answer.
“Forty percent of our pantries have closed down over the past two months and we have a surplus,” they said.
“Get out of here,” Díaz said. “Well, guess what? Send it over here.”
On reflection, Díaz wonders at the explosive growth. “It was a little bit crazy of us, I think back on it. I mean, we could have got Covid!”
As theaters and galleries re-open spaces for the arts and the fight for housing justice is reaching the forefront of national attention, García places his hope in the youth that have become involved in the struggle.
“The artista is going to keep on moving forward.” García said. “Little by little, we are going to start again as artists and activists.”