One pleasant Sunday morning about a month ago I waited in a long line for a packet of masks the New York City Department of Health was giving out. The line stretched from one end of Manhattan’s vast Alfred E. Smith NYCHA housing project along St. James Place, as if a store were hiring. It curved onto Madison Street and terminated around the corner on Catherine, where a table waited all the way down the street near the entrance to the playground. The line’s various complexions, looping through several demographics, showed COVID to be a leveler: neighbors from nearby Chinatown were there, as were those who might have strolled up from Southbridge Towers, a gracious cooperative complex to the south. I live in Two Bridges, a sliver between Chinatown and the Financial District once nameless until realtors understood its gentrification potential. An older Black woman—from the Smith Houses and steering a walker—struck up a conversation with me long enough to ease herself into the line without those behind us noticing, but she deserved a pass since, as she would explain, she was not only in pain as a result of an infected knee replacement but had recently braved a COVID-era emergency room to treat it.
It took a long time to get our masks. No one complained. It was Sunday and the weather was fine. The masks were free. Our well-behaved cohort felt as wholesome as a small town’s Memorial Day parade, an expression of civic duty rather than the chance for a freebie. I was glad to be among my fellow New Yorkers doing the right thing. Not only was the line very long—it took me the better part of an hour to get my packet—but everyone wore a mask and stood six feet apart, more or less. The relaxed mood lacked the town hall togetherness of lines—this was a pandemic, after all. Masks—to say nothing of those six feet—inhibit the spontaneous commentary New Yorkers dispense while on supermarket checkout lines or frozen before the LIRR’s track announcement board in Penn Station. Masks hide a smile’s spontaneous empathy; the camaraderie is implied. Alas, COVID has turned innocent strangers into potential dangers, giving new meaning to the Sartrean idea of hell as other people.
I was in that line by choice. I had a job and income enough to buy my mask and enjoyed the luxury of being able to work from home. The long wait wasn’t going to make me late for my Sunday shift at the Rite Aid across the street. Yet many were lined up to save the price of a mask. This line would have reminded the woman with the knee replacement of her wait outside the ER. Good things might come to those who wait, but for the roughly 20 percent of adult New Yorkers living in poverty, waiting is often obligatory and no guarantee of goodness.
Before 1950, our line would have snaked past tenements built by landlords buying up cheap real estate near the waterfront to profit from waves of immigrants—my grandparents among them—streaming into New York toward the end of the 19th century. Robert Moses eventually targeted the area for slum clearance, which meant sanitizing those neighborhoods of unsavory immigrants (read: Jewish and Italian and other southern Europeans) America was stuck with. Still, the roomy configuration of Smith’s otherwise lackluster brick slabs, Le Corbusier’s towers in a park provided relief—sort of—from tenements that crammed rentable space into every inch of building lot at the expense of interior light and air. Before the 1930s, our line would have sidled past a tenement jumble known as the “Lung Block” for its high rates of TB. Those buildings were replaced by Knickerbocker Village, the first housing project in the United States to receive federal funding, acknowledging America’s responsibility towards housing its poor. Knickerbocker offered sturdy brick construction, landscaped courtyards, elevators, and its funding model stipulated a moderate-income tenant base—even if the apartments ultimately proved too expensive for many of those it displaced. Yet its density replicated the brooding press of the tenements, which was developer Fred F. French’s way of compensating for an early example of rent control.
Among its residents were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who paid $45.75 a month for a three-room unit on the 11th floor at 10 Monroe Street in 1942, not long before the first of their two sons was born. Their living room, with its view of the East River, was where Ethel purportedly arranged a card table to type up information about an implosion-type nuclear device gleaned by Julius’s brother-in-law David Greenglass, who secreted the details out of the Los Alamos project, where he worked. Julius and Ethel would have lived long enough to see the tenements across the street torn down but not quite long enough to see them completed in 1953, the year they were executed.
The dark maroon brick Knickerbocker Village loomed a half a block away as I neared the mask table, and its brooding presence recalled the shadow cast by the electrocution of the Rosenbergs, considered victims of Cold War anti-communist hysteria at the time, even if Soviet records clearly implicate Julius. (Their children are still seeking a pardon for their mother.) I wondered what the two would have thought, looking down at our line. Would they have decried the materialism embodied in the expensive sneakers and designer jeans worn by any number of those along Catherine Street, since Keds and dungarees were moderately priced children’s clothing in the 1950s and never meant to be status symbols? Would they have condemned those from Chinatown who’d forsaken a valiant communist regime for corrupt capitalism? (The Sino-Soviet split occurred only after the Rosenberg’s died.) Would they have lamented that few of us had read Das Kapital? Or would the long line remind them of pictures of people waiting for produce in Leningrad or Novosibirsk, implicit proof that their socialist paradise was lacking? Would they have lauded New York City’s public housing, with its murals and community centers and tenant councils any Soviet city would have been proud of?
I’d like to hope they would have put their orthodox politics on the back burner enough to recognize that while COVID certainly spreads along economic vectors, it confounds dialectical materialism. They would have certainly understood how a fear of the unknown can be weaponized for political purposes: just as communism was seen as an invisible stealth bomb in 1950s America, COVID-19 has been rumored to be some Chinese plot. Smear campaigns against Mexicans and Muslims based on essentialist myths are comparable to those that once framed Jews as part of an international conspiracy or Italians as criminals. Catherine Street, midway between Smith House and Knickerbocker Village, seemed to be the perfect place for a public health measure designed to get the facts of COVID out into the open. People on that line weren’t about to be scared by what they couldn’t see.
I peeked into the courtyard of 10 Monroe Street before going home. It was hard giving up my image of the Rosenbergs as progressive victims of American injustice, especially when the likes of J. Edgar Hoover, Joseph McCarthy, and Roy Cohn engineered their downfall, engendering a brand of hatemongering that continues to poison America’s body politic today. The enclosed garden seemed almost European. I imagined the Rosenberg children climbing through its shrubs until Ethel shouted down for them to stop tearing up the place. Like other American children of their day, they faced the epidemic of polio, once thought to be spread by soft drinks, bananas, and stray cats until people put their trust in science.
People were still waiting in line by the time I left.