August 27, 2021
Photography and words by Pan
Introduction by Bill Lacey
In August 2021, with most New Yorkers vaccinated and its streets returning to life, it’s tempting to consider a full return to normal even as many countries on the globe struggle to vaccinate their populations before variants wreak havoc. It is too early to fully understand how the pandemic has changed the way we think, see, and listen. Early on, when New York was in truly desperate shape and the pandemic raged in the outer boroughs of New York City, the photographer known as PAN ventured out to document his neighborhood, the Bronx. His pictures and story document his very personal journey to understand the effects of the pandemic on his community.
The Bronx fights a pandemic and for its people.
In March 2020, news of an epidemic arrived, and then news of ensuing closures of businesses. I went to the taqueria down the block for what might be the last time. I chatted with the owner and two other gentlemen waiting for tortas.
“They are not thinking about us here. What are we going to do?”
Someone I know made his escape upstate. “But there’s nothing else that can be done.”
“No, no, no. Something must be done.”
I decided to take on a project, of walking around the Bronx, to every neighborhood my feet would take me, and photographing the scenes of loss, hope, trouble, and resilience. For thirty days, from May 10 to June 8, everyday, I walked the streets, looking......looking for messages of resilience,...looking for memorials to those who succumbed,...looking for people who were getting by,...looking for corners where normal life flickered on.
With the quarantine, barbers got enterprising and took their business any way they could. As I mentioned about the barber shop, getting a shave and a cut is meaningful to men in the Bronx in a way outsiders might not understand. A quarantine could not lock down that essential part of the culture. So a lot of barbers had to hide in parks or under bridges or wherever to serve their clientele.
I respect the spirit of doing what needs to be done, and also the optimism of my friend who is getting a touch-up here, who didn’t let the quarantine get in the way of looking good.
In Devoe Park, there is a woman just exercising, shooting hoops. Except, the police took away the hoop. In March, the police immediately took down the nets and sometimes even the hoops in basketball courts in the Bronx, citing the need to discourage social gatherings.
Yet, when I went into Manhattan during the spring, the basketball courts were intact, and games were taking place. We all hear calls from government and media to consider social distancing, wear masks, think of public health, but that the enforcement of policies to encourage public health would be meted out along blatantly racial lines is one of the most discouraging elements of the response to COVID-19. That basketball would be acceptable to white people in Manhattan, but discouraged for people of colour in the Bronx, does an enormous amount of damage to the entire program to overcome the disease. It sends out distrust of the message as yet another racist message imposed by authorities, as yet another means to control and limit the life of people in this community who are just trying to get by.
I was walking by in Bedford Park and saw a woman wearing a wonderfully timely shirt. Her son is a basketball coach, but with the closing of schools, he had to turn to other means to work up some money, so he was designing and screen printing these t-shirts, and selling them, with the help of his mother. I love that kind of spirit in response to the disaster that was imposed on the people of the Bronx. When I took the photograph, a guy told me, “She’s the real deal, that’s my aunt.”
During Memorial Weekend, in the Morris Park neighbourhood. Spring was chilly in New York, and that weekend was the first that was reliably warm and pleasant. It was two months into the quarantine, and people were anxious to get out and just live. I walked all the way to Orchard Beach that day, and saw parts of the Bronx very different from the neighbourhoods I am familiar with, such as this one. The people here could not be more different than me, but we all had the same desire, to enjoy the sun.
Two weeks into my sojourn, George Floyd was coldly murdered in Minnesota. Here in the Bronx, people took to the streets.
On these streets, people were speaking out, marching, saying their names, and showing their faces. Here are voices that demand to be heard, messages that demand to be read, demands that can no longer be ignored.
There is Japanese saying, “fall down seven times, get up eight.”
We all need words to get us through, get by, and keep on going in these tough times. It’s as simple as that.
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