Starrett City made headlines earlier this week when the New York City Health Department released data that showed the death rate for every zip code. Residents of the small Brooklyn neighborhood were dying at a far higher rate than anywhere else in the city.
The city said the neighborhood suffered 76 deaths out of a population of 13,000, meaning the death rate was 612 deaths per 100,000 residents. The next closest rate was 446 per 100,000, in Far Rockaway.
The neighborhood is dominated by Spring Creek Towers, a 153-acre complex with 46 towering apartment buildings filled with middle- and low-income tenants. Most people still call it by its original name, Starrett City.
However, management says more than 18,000 residents actually live in their complex alone, and that’s only about 80 percent of the zip code. That means the death rate is not an outlier, but more in line with other hard-hit neighborhoods around the city, according to Andrew MacArthur, president of the Brooksville Company, which owns the Spring Creek.
“I think what’s happening is something that’s probably systemic, across a lot of underserved communities nationwide, which is that these types of communities tend to go underrepresented and undercounted,” MacArthur said “You’re dealing with a population and a demographic that gets overlooked both in official data and allocation of resources.”
MacArthur said they’ve learned about the COVID-related deaths of 20 residents through their families. Twelve of the deaths were confirmed cases and eight ere suspected, MacArthur said.
Using Spring Creek’s estimate, the neighborhood would have a death rate of 422 per 100,000 residents — still one of the hardest hit zip codes, alongside neighborhoods like Far Rockaway, the Northeast Bronx, Coney Island an,d Flushing.
“The data show that the impact of COVID-19 has not been felt equitably and that Black and Latino communities have been hardest hit,” said Patrick Gallahue, a Health Department spokesman.
He said the department is drawing on population estimates from the census bureau’s American Community Survey. “As we look at particular neighborhoods, it is difficult at this moment to identify all of the factors involved,” he said.
State Senator Roxanne Persaud, who represents Starrett City, suspects a census undercount in 2010 is in part to blame for population underestimates now. She spent Wednesday afternoon on a street corner in her district passing out hand-sanitizer and asking people to fill out their census forms.
“We’re trying to rectify that as much as possible….We’re begging, pleading with people to complete the census,” she said. “When there’s an undercount, the resources that are allocated are allocated based on the count.”
Regardless of the specifics of the exact death rate, Persaud said, her constituents have felt the brunt of the pandemic like many other low-income communities of color.
“Every disparity possible exists here, the medical facilities are not here,” she said. “When they said it was hitting, they said it would hit seniors hardest and our numbers are showing that’s what happened in this area.”
Starrett City is one of the oldest and poorest neighborhoods in New York City, according to the city’s analysis of census data. The median income is $26,000, compared to $60,000 for the whole city. And 29 percent of the population is over the age of 65, compared to 14 percent for the city overall.
Management at Spring Creek Towers estimates that 3,000 to 4,000 seniors live in the complex. In addition, there are two public-housing buildings for seniors, several senior residences run by the non-profit Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, and two nursing homes in this one Brooklyn zip code.
Many elderly residents frequented the Vandalia Senior Center until COVID-19 forced the facility to close its doors, said the director, Simone Dundas. She said around a dozen of her seniors have died from the virus, including three she’d grown close with during hours of conversation in her office.
“When I heard that they passed, I’m not gonna lie, I cried like a baby. I know I’m gonna miss the conversations that I’ve had with them,” she said. “When it comes to wisdom, they take their time to speak with me and to educate me so that I can better serve their era of seniors.”
At a small press conference outside Spring Creek Towers this week, Councilwoman Inez Barron and her husband, Assemblyman Charles Barron, who live in Starrett City and both contracted COVID-19, said the city and state were too slow to act when early data showed higher-than-average infection rates.
They said pop-up hospitals went to Manhattan neighborhoods, but residents here didn’t get that relief.
“Our community has been the recipient of the least and we are the last,” the councilwoman said. “The resources should have come here immediately, juxtaposed to the data we were receiving. That did not happen.”
The nearest hospital, Brookdale University Hospital and Medical Center, is two miles away. A temporary testing state run by the state opened up in a church parking lot last week, but then closed after five days.
Outside a strip mall across from the Spring Creek Towers complex, Jacqueline Mack, 57, walked to the grocery store with her bubbly 6-year-old grandson, Marcellus. Mack’s 58-year-old cousin lived in one of the nursing homes nearby until he died suddenly last month. She thinks it was COVID-19, but she said he was not tested. She said he seemed okay up until the day before he went to the hospital.
“He was calling me three times a day, even after the lockdown,” she said. But then a doctor called and asked if she wanted her cousin to be put on a ventilator.
“He was admitted and was waiting for a bed, and the next thing I know I got a call that he died,” she said. “I just think they could have done better, I really do.”
Others have survived the virus, like Kenny Johnson, a retired MTA worker who declined to give his age, who was lounging on a bench outside the Spring Towers complex on a recent afternoon. He said he spent nine days in the hospital with COVID-19. He described a crushing pain in his legs, and total isolation, with nurses who seemed too scared to get close.
“You felt like you had leprosy,” he said. “You were out there on your own. It wasn’t easy.”
Despite what he went through, he said he feels grateful. He saw the refrigerated trucks from his hospital-room window, filling up with those who weren’t quite as lucky as him, he said.
“I don’t wish it on nobody, cause at one point I just told the Lord, ‘Let me die,” Johnson said. “And I caught myself mentally, and I said no, no, no, I gotta fight.”