New York

Children Are the Casualties in New Yorkers’ Daily Struggle for Space

In New York, intimate tragedies often provide the clearest view of our bleakest problems, the most urgent invitation to reckon with systemic failings.

The case of Nicolas Feliz Dominici, almost 2, who authorities say died after exposure to fentanyl hidden near nap mats in a Bronx day care, affords us harsh vantages — on the darkest inadequacies of our child care apparatus, its slippery regulation, and the apparently unstoppable flow of synthetic opioids into the country.

The child’s death also suggests, if less obviously, the danger of living arrangements common in parts of the city, in which domestic space is frequently commandeered for the purpose of making money.

Over the past several months, Grei Mendez ran Divino Niño day care as a home-based outfit on Morris Avenue, where she was also renting a room to her husband’s cousin, a recent Dominican immigrant, for $200 a week.

That a day care-cum-boarding house with a stealth drug operation was the best possible option for the eight or so children enrolled tells us more emphatically than anything else just how limited the caregiving options for struggling parents remain. Nicholas’s father, Otoniel Feliz, has said that he had no idea that a tenant was living there when he sent his son to the center. Had he known, he might have made a different choice.

The tenant, Carlisto Acevedo Brito, and Ms. Mendez have been charged with murder and also face federal narcotics charges as investigators explore the unsettling proposition that the center was merely a front for a drug mill, involving Ms. Mendez’s husband, who is still being sought. A press used to prepare drugs for sale was found in a closet inside Mr. Acevedo Brito’s bedroom and his phone messages, prosecutors said, pointed to involvement in trafficking.

But Ms. Mendez, who wept during her most recent court appearance, has denied knowing that her licensed and recently inspected home business had become a stash house for a kilo of fentanyl and the accompanying paraphernalia. Her lawyer said at her arraignment in the Bronx that “her only crime is renting a room.”

Whether or not that is the real story, the circumstances of this death give us a broad look at some of the most horrific possibilities in a city defined by constrained space — where every square foot can seem contested, pressed into multiple service. This was the second time in just a few weeks that a devastating loss proved to be the collateral damage of an informal leasing agreement. Last month, a 43-year-old woman named Zhao Zhao was killed in her apartment in Sunset Park in Brooklyn when a man went after her with a hammer, also injuring her two children, 3 and 5, who face a long recovery as they learn again how to walk. Prosecutors had initially expected them to die.

The apartment had three rooms; Ms. Zhao and her children occupied one, a single person lived in a second, and a 9-year-old boy took up the third with his father, who was charged in the killing. The families had argued over the state of the kitchen and bathroom, and internet access — the various inconveniences and deprivations that come with living on top of one another.

Overcrowding is common in the neighborhood. Ms. Zhao and her family “were trying their best to survive, to make rent, to have every room occupied,” said Alexa Aviles, the City Council representative in Sunset Park. The city has turned away from these realities, she told me, “even as it knows that overcrowding is problematic.”

To some extent that is vastly understating things. A few years ago, a fire in another apartment building in Sunset Park revealed the scope and hardship of the situation, given that there were roughly 160 people living in 40 small units. Those families are now dispersed throughout the city, their community and social networks having dissolved.

The housing shortage, and the fact that many accommodations for the poor are in terribly maintained buildings, throw that particular scenario into high and troubling relief. Even on a less catastrophic scale, the harm of crowded living, especially for children, is well documented. Last year, the Community Service Society of New York, a 180-year-old organization devoted to promoting economic equality, found that more than a quarter of city families with children were living in overcrowded conditions. Rates for immigrant households were even higher.

A decade or so ago, the journal Social Science Research set out to look at the ways in which crowded housing affected children’s academic achievement, health and behavior in part by using data collected from a survey of families in Los Angeles. It found that living in a crowded house or apartment harmed children in a variety of ways even when controlling for socioeconomic factors. Previous research had shown that crowded living spaces led adults to withdraw psychologically, created strained relationships between parents and children, and made for a higher incidence of children being left back in school.

Nicholas’s parents chose Divino Niño because it was affordable in a city where child care, like housing, notoriously is not. So many terrible things that happen in New York are the result of these conjoined emergencies, what social scientists call “a crisis of social reproduction.”

“The daily work of keeping a household going and keeping members fed and healthy is increasingly difficult,” as David Madden of the London School of Economics, put it. And for the most vulnerable, the most ordinary transactions all too often become deadly.

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