fb-pixel Skip to main content

What coronavirus has wrought in a single Boston neighborhood

Robin Williams walked with her children Takari, 7, and Anthony, 8, in the Fields Corner neighborhood of Boston last week. Williams said they needed to go shopping and were taking precautions. "We still have our daily lives to attend to."
Robin Williams walked with her children Takari, 7, and Anthony, 8, in the Fields Corner neighborhood of Boston last week. Williams said they needed to go shopping and were taking precautions. "We still have our daily lives to attend to."Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The aftershocks, one after another, have trembled through the Dorchester neighborhood of Fields Corner.

Anthony Caldwell stood by himself in 50Kitchen, the restaurant he opened just three weeks before, despairing over the debt he owed as he tossed out food he could not sell. Josiehanna Colon, a high school sophomore and an only child, scrolled through Snapchat, looking for comic relief or anything to pass the time. And Dr. Huy Nguyen donned a gown, two pairs of gloves, an N95 respirator mask, and a face shield at a local clinic before examining a toddler.

The coronavirus pandemic has ricocheted across the globe, shutting down borders and terrifying governments; it has also crept into every neighborhood, trailing fear, loneliness, and the threat of financial ruin.

Advertisement



The scenes of solitude, wary neighborliness, and trepidation unfolding across Fields Corner, home to 20,000 Bostonians of every age, profession, and nationality, offer a glimpse of just how intimate it has become. The people who live and work here are grappling with realities they’d never imagined a week before, and wondering — like the rest of us — how much worse things will get, and how long this all might last.

The neighborhood, centered around the intersection of Dorchester Avenue and Adams Street, has already undergone a profound transformation.

Robinson Paul (right) joked with his daughter, Kennedy, 11, while the family did school work in their kitchen.
Robinson Paul (right) joked with his daughter, Kennedy, 11, while the family did school work in their kitchen. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

“It was such a bustling and busy area," said Wendy Issokson, who owns the ice cream shop Chill on Park. “Now it’s almost like when you walk by people, nobody will look at you."

On a recent Wednesday, some shops were boarded up, papered with now familiar signs: “Due to the coronavirus . . . . ” The doors of the public library, a squat brick building tucked behind a “Welcome to Fields Corner” sign, were shut; a row of spring-themed children’s books sat neatly in the dark window. Residents hurried past each other, some wearing masks, no one in the mood to talk.

Advertisement



Fields Corner residents and businesses try and navigate life during a pandemic
As news changes daily, Fields Corner residents and businesses try and navigate life during a pandemic. (Shelby Lum|Globe Staff)

In a third-floor apartment above the empty streets, Robinson Paul, Gwendolyn Gustave-Paul, their five children, and their two cats prepared to hunker down.

On a typical school day, the children would be up by 5:30 a.m. Gwendolyn would make sure 7-year-old Aleczander, who is autistic and does not speak, brushed his teeth and used the bathroom. The kids would head to school, Gwendolyn, 37, would go to culinary class, and Robinson, also 37, would begin his workday, driving Uber and Lyft customers for up to 13 hours at a stretch.

Owner and chef Anthony Caldwell looked out from 50Kitchen in the Field's Corner neighborhood of Boston.
Owner and chef Anthony Caldwell looked out from 50Kitchen in the Field's Corner neighborhood of Boston. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

But none of that is happening anymore. Culinary school and public school are canceled, and Gwendolyn has five students at home, some with high needs. The family’s eldest daughter, Madison, is also autistic, and the youngest, Aleczander, requires intensive therapy for several hours every day, in addition to a quiet, separate space to learn.

“I’m at a complete loss for how to teach him so he doesn’t lose any of the skills that he’s developed in school. I don’t even know where to begin,” Gwendolyn said. The other four children are on the honor roll — but how is she supposed to keep them on track?

Owners David Nguyen and his sister Huyen Nguyen worked at the counter at A-C Farm Market in the Field's Corner.
Owners David Nguyen and his sister Huyen Nguyen worked at the counter at A-C Farm Market in the Field's Corner.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Robinson is no longer driving; he does not want to risk spreading the virus to his wife, who has lupus, or his children, three of whom have asthma.

On Thursday, the couple had 55 cents in their bank account, not even enough to buy more pull-ups for Aleczander, who was about to run out.

Advertisement



“We’ll just go back to the wild. We’ve been watching ‘The Good Dinosaur’ and he didn’t have pull-ups," Gwendolyn joked. “I’ll just be following him with a spray bottle."

The world inside the apartment has changed almost as much as the world outside.

Jose Vasquez prayed at Saint Mark Catholic Church.
Jose Vasquez prayed at Saint Mark Catholic Church. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

At the end of January, the couple had decided to separate, and as recently as two weeks ago Robinson had been looking for a new place to live. But now that they are stuck at home together, and, with the future of everything else so uncertain, they have decided to stay married.

“All of a sudden, everything changed,” Robinson said. “It’s as if the universe said, ‘You guys can’t separate.’”

Robinson applied for Uber’s two-week financial assistance for drivers who are diagnosed or asked to self-isolate by a public health authority, and, after a Globe reporter contacted Uber to ask about its status, he was quickly granted the paid leave.

But what will happen when the two weeks are up?

***

Catering to a vibrant Vietnamese-American community, the VietAID center in the heart of Fields Corner is typically bustling with preschoolers, students, staff, and seniors. But these days, it is quiet, only open for morning meal distribution. Those who used to visit every day miss it.

Robinson Paul walked home from the post office.
Robinson Paul walked home from the post office. Craig F. Walker/Globe staff

“I feel really lonely at home," said Sung Nguyen, 79, speaking in Vietnamese as Christine Nguyen, the community center coordinator, translated. Sung Nguyen arrived at VietAID on Friday morning to pick up a hot lunch.

Advertisement



“Before, I would come to the center and participate in activities. I would do group yoga, I would sit down with friends and play around, talk about whatever, and we’d sing karaoke all day,” Nguyen said. “Now we just stay at home and there’s nothing to do.”

He lives in a nearby one-bedroom apartment with his wife. There he keeps the TV on, following the news closely and drinking ginger and garlic tea to prevent infection. Most of those who have died from the coronavirus around the world are elderly, he knows.

A man stood at the intersection of Dorchester Avenue and Adams Street in the Field's Corner.
A man stood at the intersection of Dorchester Avenue and Adams Street in the Field's Corner. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

“I do feel very worried about the virus infecting my body,” Nguyen said. But he is taking precautions, he said, and still feels connected to those in the outside world, even if he can’t see them. VietAID staff and friends call to check in and to remind him to wash his hands. When things get too quiet, he picks up the phone and calls neighbors in his housing complex, just to have something to do.

***

The loneliness is seeping in everywhere. Josiehanna Colon, a hyper-efficient 16-year-old, can no longer take the MBTA to New Mission High School, where she’s a sophomore. Debate and youth in government clubs have been canceled. She wanted to try out for the softball team this year, but she’s pretty sure that’s also off. She misses her friends and, to her surprise, her teachers.

Fallon Senat, 4, and her brother Noah, 9, waited in line while picking up free breakfasts and lunches with their mother Naomie Senat at the Community Academy of Science and Health (CASH High School).
Fallon Senat, 4, and her brother Noah, 9, waited in line while picking up free breakfasts and lunches with their mother Naomie Senat at the Community Academy of Science and Health (CASH High School). Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

“Especially as an only child, going to school — that’s my only time to socialize with kids my age in English," said Colon, whose family speaks Spanish.

Advertisement



To pass the time and to help out her family, she offered to pick up extra shifts at Chill on Park, where she works. It’s quiet there, too — no one can sit inside anymore and she can’t offer tastings. But at least there’s the paycheck, which she typically shares with her grandmother to help pay the bills.

When she’s not at the shop, she scrolls through Facebook and Snapchat, searching for something to make her smile or laugh.

“Everyone’s on edge,” Colon said. “I’m usually on Facebook a lot, just to kind of chill with it.”

German Larmonie waited for a train at the Field's Corner MBTA station.
German Larmonie waited for a train at the Field's Corner MBTA station.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

In another corner of the neighborhood, the Rev. Marcos Enrique has been spending time on Facebook as well, streaming his solitary Mass from St. Mark Catholic Church. Some mornings he finds dollar bills and checks in his mailbox from congregants, because there is no longer a collection plate on Sunday. The church doors are open, but few people are inside.

“I’m worrying about the people, and the people are worrying about me," the pastor said.

***

The lively rhythms of commerce on Dorchester Avenue have been disrupted, as if there were a war or a natural disaster. Some shops are overwhelmed by the flood of customers, while others are desperate for any at all. At the family-owned A-C Farm market store, canned mackerel flies off the shelves, as do instant noodles, squash, carrots, and radishes — anything that might last.

“We’re keeping up, but barely,” said David Nguyen, 35, the driver for the store and a member of the family that owns it. He used to pick up produce at the New England Produce Center every other day; now he goes six times a week to keep up with demand.

“We’re going so long with no breather,” he said.

But down the street, restaurants that have been forced to switch to takeout and delivery only are bearing an entirely different burden.

“It’s devastating," said Caldwell, who grew up in Dorchester and opened 50Kitchen, a Southern and Asian fusion restaurant, just three weeks ago.

It had not been an easy road to his dream. Caldwell learned to cook in prison and had worked as a line cook for a decade before winning a small business contest to open in Fields Corner. After two years of development, 50Kitchen had its grand opening last month.

The restaurant can still deliver, but because the virus hit so early in the life of the business, it had no online ordering system set up and few regular customers to rely on. He is grateful that some customers have gone out of their way to buy gift cards or send donations.

“I’m hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt,” said Caldwell. “I’ve got to make money.” On Wednesday, he was instead forced to throw money away, tossing out more than two dozen salmon patties that he would not be able to sell before they spoiled. Most of all he misses being in the kitchen.

“This is my baby,” he said.

***

At the Doherty-Gibson Playground, Skye Ortiz, 28, looks out for her babies, too, as they tumble down the slide and race across the bridge. It’s sunny and warm, but her kids are the only ones outside.

“I am nervous,” Ortiz said. But what else is she supposed to do with three kids under the age of 4? She lives in a shelter about 25 minutes away; an advocate called her last week to ask if she had enough toilet paper and food for the next two weeks. She does, for now.

There’s no guidebook for parents or providers who work with kids. What should they be told? How should they be prepared?

Dr. Nguyen, a pediatrician and the chief medical officer at DotHouse Health, had to wear full protective gear last week to treat a sick toddler. Normally, if a pediatrician entered an exam room with a face shield and a mask, families and their kids might be alarmed. The doctors there typically don’t even wear white coats with kids to avoid alarming them.

“I said, ‘Hey, what we’re doing is to keep you safe,” Nguyen said. The toddler, and her mother, were unfazed. They understood: Everything is different now.


Zoe Greenberg can be reached at zoe.greenberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @zoegberg.