Nothing is ever “empty”

“It was empty”. I will never forget the mayor’s words as he talked about how NYC Health and Hospitals Coler facility was being converted to COVID-19 use. Coler is located next door to our apartment here in Roosevelt Island, and where some of my best friends live. Even after twenty years of working with marginalized people all over the world, it was shocking and striking how some people could just be made invisible — disappeared, obliterated from the Earth, vacated to some adjacent imaginary to make room for bigger, grander, more productive visions of how physical space and material resources should be used.

Hanging out with some of the guys during a campus event in happier times.

It was made all the more real because these people are my friends, and because their lives are being put in immediate risk without any consideration of their lives or value, nor any opportunity for them or any of their loved ones to speak out on their own behalf. And speak OUT they would have. These are amazing artists, performers, thinkers; in them I found my true ideological brethren, dudes who stand up for each other and who spit fire into the abyss even when they know that it is all fucked.

It has been many years since I have felt as much a part of a group as I do of Open Doors. Not a leader of a group — part of one. Since the first day I met them, they have welcomed me with open arms into their group — not with any expectation of material gain, but with a sense of solidarity and friendship and neighborliness that has provided me and my family with a true sense of community on this island. When I had a small dispute with the local government last year over the closure of a soccer field, they were the ones that really had my back, supporting me and checking in with me about how it was going even months later. We ate together, drank together, chilled together. These were the people that I stopped and chatted with on my way in and out of my apartment -my closest friends in a real day to day sense.

Now, one of them is already dead of COVID-19, and the others are living in a squalid public nursing home that has hastily been converted to COVID-19 triage use amongst so many other sick, and wounded bodies, being cared for by imported health care workers brought here on false pretense, with little to no training, inadequate PPE, and quarantine practices that amount to shuffling known and suspected COVID-19 patients around a dilapidated building in a dystopian game of whack-a-mole. How many more of them will die? I keep saying zero and hoping and praying that is true but I’m not sure how much longer I can believe it.

It is made all the more real because these guys were on such an amazing trajectory before this ridiculous virus interrupted their flow. They had written and performed a play, and were in discussions to convert it to a movie. They had written and published a beautiful anthology of poetry. They were involved in youth education and outreach, filmmaking, music, beats, photography, graphic design — an eclectic group of artists living in unusual (and, to be honest, unfortunate) circumstances drawing on their life experiences to make amazing art, who had found each other and banded together to truly live their best life. And now this. To say that it is heartbreaking is an understatement of emotion.

Even after we all survive the next few months (I pray we all will!), will I even see any of them for the next 12–18 months outside of Zoom calls? When will Coler come out of lockdown and quarantine? Will we ever be able to go inside and do our programs again? When will it be safe for the guys to come outside, to even move around their own facility freely? To hang out in the library, in their clubhouse, to use their equipment and to create art? Will anyone even care that they are locked down and confined to these “wings”, these men many of whom have their own experiences of other kinds of “lock down” and all of the associated trauma that it brings? How will they be after this?

It is made all the more real because some of the patients at Coler lived at Goldwater Hospital, a facility that was also considered “empty” when it was knocked down to make room for Cornell Tech, the institution for which I now work. Many of the students and faculty at Cornell Tech still think that the land where the campus stands was empty before, or that Goldwater was empty, or that nothing of value was displaced there. Goldwater was the largest long-term acute care hospital complex in the world, intended for poor and low income people who had no other place to go. It was a national leader in providing long-term care for people who needed ventilators, providing almost 2000 total beds of capacity. How many more New Yorkers would have survived if Goldwater still existed? How many of my friends at Coler? Would they have been able to move freely if there were more space and resources available to them? These are the questions that keep me up at night.

People lived their lives at Goldwater, making art and friendships and memories, finding solace together within the bowels of a decaying public institution cast adrift in the middle of the East River, amidst cherry blossoms and river views, and all of the other things that make this island a wonderful place to live and work for all of us. The guys loved coming to campus to collaborate with me and my wife on so many different projects, even when (or maybe because) they had previously lived at Goldwater. At times like this, I reflect on the kindness, benevolence and solidarity of these men — to welcome us as one of their own while carrying their own intimate and painful personal memories of this history.

As technologists, we often take for granted the “blank slate” that we are given to begin our work. Our visions may not always be radical and new, but they always displace something. I’ve come to realize over time that nothing is ever “empty”, there is always something that came before, that if we care to look, there is extreme beauty in every corner of our Earth, but also that we can also crush it if we aren’t looking. This is the real reason to “look” — not to replace what we see with “better” products and services, but to approach the world with humility, with a level of respect and appreciation for what we already have in this world, and the things that matter to all of us within it.

(This essay is dedicated to all the patients at Coler and to my friends the Open Doors Reality Poets).