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Gentrification or Health Care? Preserving Neighborhood Care in Brooklyn

Activists fight to protect Brooklyn's neighborhood hospitals; their rallying cry: “Care, not condos”
 
 
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The emergency room at Methodist Hospital in Park Slope, Brooklyn was crowded when we got there at 5:30 PM on Tuesday evening. We were the third-place team in a race to different Brooklyn hospitals staged by the New York State Nurses Association to dramatize the need to save two facilities in danger of closing. When we arrived, Methodist Hospital nurses were too busy to talk to our group about the ER’s patient load, but the man at the desk said they'd been busier since Long Island College Hospital (LICH) started diverting ambulances at the end of June.

LICH, which serves serve Red Hook, Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill and Downtown Brooklyn, has been on the verge of closing for months, while NYSNA, 1199 SEIU, LICH doctors and community members fight to keep it open. Currently, the only thing keeping SUNY Downstate Medical Center from shutting the hospital completely is a temporary restraining order acquired by Public Advocate (and mayoral candidate) Bill deBlasio—a TRO obtained by NYSNA, 1199, and LICH physicians still exists, but hearings on whether SUNY is in contempt of court have been stayed after an appeal.

At 5pm, de Blasio had waved the green flag to start off the “ Race for Care” in Red Hook's Coffey Park, noting to the assembled crowd that the Brooklyn neighborhood is underserved medically and had been devastated by Superstorm Sandy. He'd brought maps with him demonstrating the distances to local hospitals with and without LICH. For Red Hook's residents, many of whom are public housing residents living on low incomes, the nearest emergency room would be miles away.

As the race began, three teams set off in cars; one for LICH, one for Brooklyn Hospital in Fort Greene, and one for Methodist. An additional team headed to Methodist via public transportation—a torturous journey from Red Hook. (For reference, it took me nearly an hour to reach Coffey Park via public transit from my Crown Heights apartment.) I tagged along in the Methodist car with Gabe Kristal of NYSNA and Margaret Weber, an audiologist who once worked at LICH and whose family has relied heavily on the hospital over her 30 years in Brooklyn Heights. Her son was born at the hospital; her husband was treated there after a stroke and continues to volunteer at the hospital.

“I remember looking out the window and thinking it was really nice,” she said of her time at the hospital. “Now I realize that's part of the downfall.”

Care, not condos

“Care, not condos” has been a rallying cry of the movement to save LICH, which sits on land valued at some $500 million in a rapidly gentrifying area. The nurses, who have been fielding calls asking them to come work elsewhere, demonstrate by sticking with the fight that patient care, not just self-interest, is central to their battle.

As I wrote in Jacobin magazine recently, unions of workers whose job is caring for others—including K-12 teachers and child care workers—have scored victories by making that care visible and central in their struggles. The Chicago Teachers Union famously made their connections to the community and their concern for their students paramount in their strike, and has continued to do so as they fight alongside parents against Rahm Emanuel's proposed school closures.

Similarly, NYC nurses have foregrounded the needs of patients in their battle to keep open both LICH and Interfaith hospital in Bedford Stuyvesant, which is also facing closure.

In particular, the “race for care” was designed to make the case that keeping LICH open is in the interests of underserved patients. The nurses stressed their connection to the community and created solidarity with the people, making the push to close the hospital look even more like the financial calculation the nurses say that it is. Researchers such as Paula England, Nancy Folbre and Carrie Leana have found that care workers will often prioritize their patients to their own detriment, foregoing demands like higher wages or shorter hours, but managers, who rarely come into contact with care recipients, will prioritize cost-cutting.

 
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