When I wrote “Nothing But Flowers,” a story about the aftermath of world-changing disaster in New York City, for the Rebuilding Tomorrow anthology, I didn’t think that I would soon live to see such a catastrophe myself. It wasn’t that the possibility was totally removed from my mind: as a queer disabled woman living through a time of global climate change and dangerous political turmoil in the United States, I’m keenly aware of the fault lines in the systems in which I exist, the ways in which the city and country I was living in can shift and swallow up the people already precariously perched on the edges of its fatally flawed structures. But the New York City of the summer of 2019, the summer when I drafted my story, was a noisy, bustling place, with free concerts in the parks where strangers shoved up shoulder to shoulder to see the stage, and sports games with tens of thousands of attendees, and bars and restaurants and theaters filled with people, talking and laughing with nothing but the occasional hand or napkin covering their mouths. I wrote notes for my story sitting in the cramped corner of jam-packed cafés, trying to imagine a city that had fallen to cataclysm while its present version clamored around me, irrepressible and vibrant and always threatening to knock over my cup of coffee.
Now the bandshells and stadiums are empty. Broadway’s lights have gone dark. Some of the restaurants have makeshift patios set up outside, though many have closed for good. Between the time I wrote “Nothing But Flowers” and today, the New York City I knew vanished before my eyes. It felt like it happened overnight. One day I was walking the long, lively stretch of a Brooklyn avenue to go to work, greeting neighbors and chatting with bodega owners, and the next all of us were suddenly shut up in our separate apartments, listening to the ceaseless sirens of ambulances and the rumble of deserted subway cars underneath us.
Much of what I thought might happen in a disaster—much of what I’d mapped out in my post-apocalyptic vision of the future—did unfold. Certain zip codes emptied out almost entirely, with people leaving vacant apartments in Soho and the West Village behind while they retreated to second homes. Unsurprisingly, though, these same zip codes were the places you had the best chance of survival if you were rushed to the nearest hospital in one of those tireless, expensive ambulances. People who had no home to go were hounded off the subways by cops, who also tackled and beat pedestrians in the name of enforcing social distancing.
The city leadership dallied and faltered, issuing confusing and contradictory messages and significantly worsening the situation and the rates of transmission. By August, more than 20,000 people in New York City would die from the virus. Candlelight vigils dotted the stoops near my apartment; I didn’t go any farther than a few blocks from my house for months. The whir of police helicopters joined the sound of the sirens as spring disappeared into summer and the NYPD responded to protests against police brutality in my neighborhood by ramming SUVs into a group of civilians. It felt like the city was collapsing, the five boroughs splitting and drifting away from one another as the transit lines that connected them became tenuous links, with every day bringing new shocks that threatened to sever their connection for good.
But in the midst of all this willful neglect and targeted oppression, something else I’d envisioned began to happen, too. People reached out to fill the gaps, to try to patch up the cracks opening under our feet. Mutual aid societies emerged to cover almost every neighborhood and took the lead on supplying groceries and PPE to anyone who needed them. My building’s WhatsApp group sprang into action, making sure everyone in our apartment complex was safe and fed and protected. We’re one of the few truly accessible buildings in the area, and so have a higher proportion of disabled and elderly residents than surrounding apartment complexes, making it even more vital that we all check in on one another. The protests reminded us that we weren’t fractured pieces of a fallen city at all, because you could march over those bridges between the boroughs, and pool resources, and spread crucial information to fight as a collective for an equitable future for all.
We shouldn’t have been the ones responsible for fixing a system that was failing us, for using the small tools at our disposal—our hands and our signs and our spare masks and our stashes of tote bags, perfect for hauling food and water to make contactless deliveries—to try to address massive problems in a world deliberately designed to be unjust. But we knew we were responsible for each other, and we did what New Yorkers and many other city dwellers do in a crisis: we paid attention, we asked what need to be done, and we adapted, redesigning our daily lives to respond to the crisis and the myriad problems it brought.
It’s that world—the world where people help one another, even when all other structures have failed them—that I wanted to bring to life in my story in Rebuilding Tomorrow. Like any disabled person, I do a lot of disaster scenario planning on both a personal and societal scale, like trying to anticipate delays and obstacles to obtaining necessary medication and healthcare. I assess every building I enter for accessibility, checking for seating options, for exit routes, for the number of stairs and proximity of elevators. I make detailed plans for any trip I have to take; I map out travel routes and call ahead to venues to check on their accessibility and accommodation policies, creating multiple back-up plans in case things don’t function as they should. I have been disappointed again and again by the failure of institutions and establishments to take on any of this work themselves, by their willingness to put me and other disabled people in uncomfortable and actively dangerous situations, and I know that there’s no amount of planning and double-checking that’s too extreme when your body is an afterthought to the non-disabled people who are largely put in charge of designing the world.
To be disabled or chronically ill is to be intimately acquainted with the inadequacies of infrastructure, of social and medical services, of public transportation and housing options. It’s why disabled people, and particularly Black disabled people, should be at the helm of urban planning efforts and should be centered in conversations about how to build resilient cities that are truly livable for all residents. Disasters like the ones we’re living through offer us a chance to examine what’s not working, and to remind us that anything that is built—especially anything that is rebuilt after structures and systems have failed—is done so with intention.
Rebuilding Tomorrow illuminates that reality, giving us visions of new worlds built from the ruins of the old, of new ways of living that serve the needs of all, instead of the desires of a few. Cities give us so much when times are good, but their most vulnerable residents are often left behind when times turn bad. With radical thought and action, however, they can be transformed into some of our greatest assets as we face down the existential threats of the future. We can imagine and create cities that are built on the principles of interdependence and total accessibility. Cities that disabled people aren’t forced to leave because of lack of access, because of insurmountable living costs and the inability to thrive. We can’t unerringly predict the future, but we can plan for one that includes all of us, that centers those who are most vulnerable when crisis strikes and makes them the architects of our new and better worlds.