I wondered where this idea, previously mentioned in another recent article, that bed bugs entered NYC through Queens, and particularly Astoria, arose. According to this article in the Queens Tribune, it’s Gil Bloom, of the NY State Pest Management Association. I would like to know more about this theory, which seems plausible enough.
What’s less certain is the implication here of the connection between immigration and bed bugs, with Queens being the most international borough (more languages are spoken in Queens than anywhere else in NYC, NY state, or the entire United States; that’s because so many Queens residents are immigrants). I am wary of theories that blame the recent rise in bed bugs on people coming from other countries, since people have always been coming from other countries to Queens. It doesn’t exactly explain the recent epidemic to say that an increase in immigration or foreign travel accounts for the rise. In all the decades since bed bugs were “more or less eradicated” (though never entirely done away with in North America), people were traveling to and from, and immigrating from, countries with bed bugs. Astoria did not become such an international neighborhood in the last 10 years.
According to the article, Queens started seeing bed bug cases in 1999. The recent NYTimes article Everything You Wanted to Know About Bed Bugs But Were Afriad to Ask (unfortunately no longer available except to paid subscribers; libraries will have access) had an interesting graphic which showed Astoria, Queens and Williamsburg, Brooklyn (at least I think it’s Williamsburg?) having the highest concentrations of reported bed bug violations in 2005; in 2006, it was Astoria, Harlem, Williamsburg, and Rikers Island.
That is interesting: Astoria, already mentioned as a very international location, has also been a very popular neighborhood with younger people (I’m using the term broadly). Since the 1990’s, it’s been a popular place for working people in their 20’s and 30’s, as well as students; since 1999 I’d even venture a guess that more people fitting that demographic have moved into Astoria, than people from other countries. In any case, perhaps it’s the movement of people that is relevant here, rather than their origin. Williamsburg? Gentrification: artists, then hipsters and now yuppies, moving in. Harlem? Gentrification: first students, then yuppies.
And Rikers Island? People from all over the city pass through, but since it’s the site of 20 city jails, you can guess that there’s more movement of people there than in any of these other areas. 15,000 inmates on any given day plus 5,000 employees including some professionals who go home to Manhattan’s tonier neighborhoods, a lot of white and blue collar workers, who go home all over the 5 boroughs. But we can guess a lot of them live not too far away.
The fact that Harlem and Rikers Island joined Astoria and Williamsburg as the areas with the most complaints in 2006 (as opposed to 2005) is interesting. First, Harlem’s newest residents are mostly not immigrants, but yuppies and students moving north and pushing out longtime tenants. (Where’s the news article arguing that middle class yuppies, and not immigrants, spread bed bugs? I missed that one!)
Rikers? Well, Rikers is a prison: high turn-over, lots of people in a small area. Some of them gone so fast they don’t get a chance to complain, others putting up with so many other hassles that an itchy rash of unknown source pales by comparison. In any case, 1/4 of the people at Rikers each day are workers who go home at night. Many inmates also go out to other places (such as classes in local colleges) during the day. In other words, if Rikers is a hot-spot for bed bugs, they are getting spread a lot, and not just when inmates are released. 130,000 inmates a year come through Rikers, and 11,500 officers and employees.
Something else just occurred to me: there have been a few anecdotal and news reports that specific NYC Housing Authority Buildings are infested. Interestingly, the city’s 311 statistics (which say there were 4600 calls reporting 1195 bed bug cases citywide in 12 months ending last summer) would not appear to include reports of bed bugs in NYC public housing. How do I know this? Because the NYC Housing Authority fact sheet “Stop BedBugs Safely” says:
What should I do if I find I have bed bugs?
Do not attempt to solve the bed bug problem yourself. Pesticides – even the ones commonly available in stores – can be hazardous to people and pets, and bed bugs are particularly hard to treat.
If you discover that you have bed bugs, contact your Management Office immediately so that a work ticket for a visit by a NYCHA exterminator can be filled out. Remember, residents of Queens and Staten Island should call the Centralized Call Center at (718) 707-7771. Also report any cracks in the plaster, especially in the bedrooms, for repair.
Note: NYCHA tenants are not encouraged to call 311, but instead their building management (which is what the rest of us do too). So the statistics on reported cases in NYC leave out the 170,000+ apartments provided by NYCHA public housing. The City of New York needs to come clean and provide statistics on the level of bed bugs in those units. I hope, but doubt, they’re being any more proactive about searching for signs of bed bugs than any other NYC landlords.
Remember, I am not trying to fuel the idea that working class and poor people and immigrants have bed bugs. Yes, they do, but so do rich people, yuppies, and basically, any kind of people with blood coursing through their veins. My point is we need more information on where the bedbugs are– and we don’t have any repository for such information from privately-owned units. Yet while the city can turn a blind eye to the many tenants of private dwellings who have bed bugs, you can be sure there are records specifying exactly how many residents of city-owned apartments, the 20 jails at Rikers, and how many employees working at all those sites have been affected.
What’s clear is that, in time, the people who are exposed to bed bugs in the hot-spot neighborhoods and city buildings will come in contact with the people (like Bloomberg) who think bed bugs are not a big deal. They are now, every day. The bottom line is it’s irrelevant where bed bugs entered our city; what matters is how they’re spreading now.
Think “six degrees of separation” and then whittle the degrees down to two or three. Do I have bed bugs? Who do I work with? Who visits their homes? Who do they have occasional meetings with? Who’s their doctor? Wash and fold and drycleaning service? Car service? What’s their subway line?
The bed bugs did not walk from Astoria to Rikers, from Williamsburg to Harlem. They moved in moving trucks, they went to thrift stores, they moved into diner stools and office chairs. If they came into a building with one person, they can go home with another.
Let’s get some honest accounting from the city to tax-payers about the true scope of the problem, starting with the NYCHA buildings and city and state institutions that the city is accountable for, and for which we know there are statistics.