American Sociological Association

Suburban Struggles Muted During COVID-19

December 15, 2020

by R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy and Pamela D’Andrea Martinez, Winter 2020 Contexts

New Rochelle was catapulted to national news when the state of New York established it as a containment zone. While the containment zone captured national attention and served as a model of how to respond to COVID, it also served to silence the concerns of communities of color within New Rochelle. Ultimately, the communities outside of the containment zone were not only the most impacted by COVID, but also, they saw their ongoing battles with education, middle-class stability, citizenship, and policing muted. Understanding their struggles to survive and be heard can help us better understand the far-reaching impacts of the tangle of the pandemics of COVID and state violence.

The Containment Zone

On Thursday, February 27, 2020, Lawrence Garbuz of New Rochelle fell ill. On March 1, he was diagnosed with COVID-19—a novel form of the coronavirus—and hospitalized. Prior to showing signs, he traveled around New Rochelle and the New York City area. On his daily commute he came in contact with people at his job in the city and members of his faith community in a neighboring suburb, but mainly he stayed on the affluent and White side of New Rochelle. Upon his diagnosis, Garbuz’s faith community was quarantined, and he was called a “super spreader.”

The choice to call the area in New Rochelle a containment zone carried weight. “Containment zone” sounds like military terminology or a response to an environmental disaster. Declarations that the National Guard was on the ground conjured images of movies about contagions and the apocalypse. What the containment zone was, in reality, was very different. When it was established, the containment zone did not mean people could not travel in or out of the zone. It simply meant the banning of large gatherings, such as religious convenings and the closing of schools, and an influx of resources like drive thru testing and contact tracing during a time when both resources were scarce. A short time later, most Americans would be introduced to similar measures, though enacted without similar geographic limits and without as replete resources. While this response was celebrated as quickly mitigating the virus, it was at best lacking, and at worst, sociologically troubling.

The containment zone didn’t cover all of New Rochelle, instead it covered just one mile—some of the most affluent and Whitest portions of the city. By most casual accounts, New Rochelle is integrated, but in reality, it remains segregated. Segregation in suburbs like New Rochelle cuts deep across housing, schooling, health, work, and friendships. Still, segregation is not impermeable. There are porous boundaries that mark contemporary segregation. In New Rochelle, and places like it, people in different stations in life cross paths and even for a moment cross-pollenate, but full integration remains elusive.

The containment zone intervention acknowledged spatial realities of segregation, but therein lies the danger. In drawing the boundary, it assumed who should be in, who should be out, and what was needed. It flooded one part of town with resources, while leaving out the needs voiced by other sides of town. It raises questions like, what is the line between acknowledging segregation and banking on it to contain a pandemic? Whose voices are heard when there is a crisis? What happens when multiple crises befall communities?

A Tangle of Pandemics

The arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, the establishment of the containment zone, and ongoing state violence created a perfect tangle that exposed the multiple ways the voices and needs of Black and Brown residents are muted in the midst of crisis. The night before the launch of the containment zone, there was an ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raid in New Rochelle, though it’s hard to find reports on it. Two days after activists in New Rochelle marched with thousands to end police violence, the police killed a Black man in New Rochelle, though his name never even reached regional nor national prominence. While one may assume because people in the suburbs have more resources, have less bureaucracy to navigate, and often have a core middle class of color, they would be equipped to address the issues of minoritized communities, sadly that is not the case.

For the better part of three years, Pamela and I have been immersed in New Rochelle to try to understand how different communities have their needs met in the home of the “American Dream.” A place like New Rochelle, for many outsiders, comports to a neat portrait of suburbia: tree lined, an abundance of single-family homes, well-regarded schools, wealthy and White, but the reality is that many different people live within its 13 square miles and their lives intersect often. But the needs of a few are catered to, while the voices of many are muted.

Read the full article.

Read the Fall 2020 issue of Contexts.


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