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How New Yorkers Found Resolve After 6 Months of Pandemic Hardship

It is not a tale of triumph. Fear persists about what lies ahead. But small transformations have unfolded that reveal the grit and gifts of the city's people.

The 1.3-mile stretch of 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights in Queens has become a neighborhood gathering spot.Credit...Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Even as the coronavirus is ravaging the country and the world, a new reality is emerging in New York City.

Nowhere is that more evident than on a stretch of 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens, that is now a lively symbol of renewal in a neighborhood where the virus infected one in 22 people and claimed 260 lives.

Residents began trickling to the partially closed-off street soon after the deadliest days had passed. Strollers and wheelchairs appeared. A retired nurse planted purple corn and sunflowers in the median, and a group took up a daily bingo game. Regular Zumba classes cropped up, then English-language lessons. Families bicycled in packs, and neighbors cheered one day when a boy finally got to remove his training wheels. Artists sketched murals in chalk next to picnics while children zipped through makeshift obstacle courses.

The renewal in New York City comes roughly six months after it became the epicenter of the virus in the United States. Six months of hardship and numbness: Nearly 24,000 people in the city have died during a pandemic that beat down into it, preyed on its vulnerabilities and sent its identity reeling.

The virus soon spread everywhere. On Tuesday, the nation's coronavirus death toll surpassed 200,000.

Still, in the city, where the infection rate has on some days dropped to only 1 percent, there have been small transformations that have revealed the grit and gifts of those who stayed as others scurried to second homes.

During a crisis that has not disappeared, there are signs of resilience and innovation — vibrancy in unusual places and a reimagining of community, resources and opportunity. And a distinct sense of resolve: Our landscape was profoundly altered. But we remain. We will endure.

It is not a tale of triumph. There is no presumption that any sorrow or despair will be erased. Industries, pastimes, institutions, systems, livelihoods and families have been broken. The trauma of the last six months will play out for lifetimes. And fear about what lies ahead persists. (On Tuesday night, city health officials warned about a troubling uptick in virus cases in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods.)

Yet this is a moment of adaptation and improvisation. When people pool what they have to create something new. When they take unfamiliar steps away from what was to what can work now.

Grass-roots organizations established during the pandemic have helped support businesses in Chinatown.Credit...Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

In Central Park, weddings and birthday parties, once tucked away in rented halls, have spilled out into the open — the celebrations jubilant though everyone is wearing masks. A struggling Greek restaurateur in Queens has added ambience to curbside tables with lanterns and bouquets. Top designers like Christian Siriano and Naeem Khan have included mask-making in their repertoire.

In Brooklyn, a trio of D.J.s throw digital parties to raise money for the owners of dance lounges, while a coffee shop in Bedford-Stuyvesant stocks four community refrigerators with fresh fruits and vegetables for the needy. An opera singer performs every night while standing on a ledge of the Mansion House in Brooklyn Heights.

"There are still these beautiful moments that you don't have in any other place in the world, like walking in Prospect Park and stumbling upon a jazz concert or a brass band. The lows of the pandemic have been really low, but what's been my saving grace has been the people of New York."

said Dominique Nisperos, 37, a comedian and sociologist from Bedford-Stuyvesant who spent two months recovering from Covid-19.

Even the subtlest shows of coping can be lifelines in a city pummeled and suffering: Roughly half of New York State's 2.8 million people collecting unemployment benefits are in the city, where long lines overwhelm food pantries and homeless shelters are strained. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the city's subways, buses and two commuter rails, is facing the largest financial crisis in its history, one that could cripple the system (although it has never been more clean and roomy).

The 1.1 million students who attend New York City's public schools have found their year upended, with poor families thrown into impossible situations. The divide between landlords and housing and retail tenants has become even more vast. Tourism has been wiped out, and Broadway has been shut down until next year. Nightlife establishments have been annihilated, restaurants shattered.

Also, winter is coming. What will we do in winter?

Some businesses in the city have set up community fridges full of food for those in need.Credit...Todd Heisler/The New York Times

If faith exists in anything, it is in the clever and enterprising ways that people have managed to pivot from their routines and devise new ones.

When Alicia Ramos lost her job at a clothing factory where she made $410 a week, her options as an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, with limited English skills and health issues, were few.

So, three months ago, she started rising at 3:30 a.m. every day to prepare five dozen tamales to sell at a train stop in Brooklyn. She had never attempted street vending, and the first outing was tough. But by the third day, her sales went up.

Ms. Ramos, 55, soon added champurrado and arroz con leche to the menu. The venture has been fulfilling financially and emotionally. She's her own boss now.

"We're hardworking and persevere.The city needs us."

she said of immigrants like her.

Many others have turned to street vending to sell goods like homemade yogurt, wheels of chicharrón, birria tacos, face masks and hand sanitizer.

Some make their way to the open street in Jackson Heights where joggers and dog walkers move with a sense of freedom and airiness.

"Within increased isolation you're still seeing people navigate by building community, which is crazy."

said Justino Rodriguez, 39, a Latin American studies professor who meets a friend every morning for a walk around the concourse.

Editor: Johnoy Harrison

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