I came back from out of town one day in the mid-1980s to find my son with a black eye, a real shiner, caused by a basketball hit by a baseball bat into the left side of his face.
As we walked to St. Vincent’s Hospital, people stared at his swollen black-and-blue cheek and at the man who must have done that to that poor child. Located in the West Village, St. Vincent’s was our neighborhood hospital. To the north was Roosevelt, to the east were Cabrini and Beth Israel and to the south was Beekman Downtown, but we could walk to St. Vincent’s from our Chelsea apartment and that made all the difference.
At the hospital he was immediately taken in — it was St. Vincent’s policy to see children as soon as they arrived — and I was quickly asked if I had done that. I explained what had happened but was glad they asked, thinking, “St. Vincent’s protects children. Good.”
St. Vincent’s had a long history. Established in 1849 by the Roman Catholic Sisters of Charity with the specific purpose of helping the poor, it was the third-oldest hospital in New York City and the first to establish an ambulance service. It helped the city through some of its worst disasters, treating victims of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. It served as the first-response hospital for the 9/11 attacks, taking in more than 800 survivors.
More than that, St. Vincent’s was at the epicenter of the 30-year battle against AIDS. When the pandemic began to spread, it was St. Vincent’s that created a special ward to care for those who would die. At the time there was no living. Whether that ward was to isolate — there was general ignorance about AIDS and its transmission — or to make treatment easier, I don’t know. But it was a hospice with art-filled walls and kind patient care.
Twice, I spent a few days in the hospital for hernia surgeries. We, St. Vincent’s intake and I, had a disagreement about the method to be used for the operations. I was on Medicaid, and it was in the hospital’s financial interest to keep me as long as they could for the reimbursement. Once that was dealt with I was a patient to be cared for like any other. In my days there I wandered the wards meeting people, some new and some I knew from my neighborhood. They included the guy who sold me pot, who was there because the cops had cracked his kneecap. He gave me a nice joint to smoke in the stairwell. You could do that.
Years afterward, a close friend went to the St. Vincent’s emergency room on Thanksgiving night, fell asleep and woke up two and a half months later still in the hospital. He had contracted a spinal infection that mirrored meningitis but wasn’t. He was well taken care of until he went to a nursing home. That was in 2010, right as the doors of St. Vincent’s were closing for good.
St. Vincent’s isn’t the only hospital that has closed. There have been 15 since 2003 and another two are on the brink: Long Island College Hospital and Interfaith Medical Center, both in Brooklyn. None of the powers-that-be really want to save them, because they serve patients without insurance and without clout.
St. Vincent’s was demolished in 2012. Today, we see luxury housing being built where it once stood. Now, whichever hospital the neighborhood’s residents go to, it is neither in nor of the neighborhood. The Catholic Church didn’t single out St. Vincent’s; it’s been closing hospitals, as well as schools, all over. There are no Catholic general hospitals left in the city. Maybe the monies being paid out for abused children wiped out the resources needed to keep them open.
Others will tell you that Rudin Management, the builder of the new housing in St. Vincent’s footprint, is coincidentally former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s largest campaign contributor and she didn’t do all she could do to save the hospital. Or it just might be total incompetence on the part of the church’s financial management. Who knows?
What I know, and what our communities know, is that health care has taken a beating in Greenwich Village and Chelsea and that citywide, the assault continues.
Gary Schoichet is a photographer and journalist in the labor movement and has been living in Chelsea for almost 50 years.