Malik Segu remembers when he couldn’t walk down his block in South Corona, Queens, without hearing someone shout, “Unclean! Unclean!” or “Hey, pizza-face, is this your foot?” But now, he says with a wide, toothless grin, such anti-leper slurs are seldom if ever uttered in this quiet, working-class neighborhood known for its large, rectangular apartment buildings and concrete-covered streets with vehicles often parked on them.
“Queens residents have become much more knowledgeable and sensitive about Hansen’s Disease,” says Segu, a 54-year-old toaster repairman. “Also, since HD victims became the majority in South Corona, they have learned we will beat them with sticks should they hurl their vulgar imprecations upon us.”
Despised in Biblical times as sinners cursed by God for committing unspeakable acts, lepers are now viewed by most Americans as simply another annoying group of victims whining for attention.
But here in the streets of South Corona, they are yet one more large, tightly knit clan of typical New York ethnics, aggressively claiming rights and privileges, cooking malodorous delicacies and flaunting their rotting limbs.
Leper restaurants, bars, bodegas and cockfighting pits line the main commercial artery of Tweed Boulevard and partially dressed old men with few remaining body parts sun themselves in their motorized wheelchairs, trading local gossip and innuendo. The city’s largest concentration of used-prosthetics stores is also found here.
Most of the lepers in South Corona hail from Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti and other impoverished nations in the Horn of Africa where Hansen’s Disease remains inexplicably popular. In the past 20 years, census figures show, 3.8 million of them have crowded into this small corner of Queens, drawn by the vast array of Duane Reade drugstores where they can purchase aspirin, which alleviates many of the symptoms of the disease.
The Uruguayan and Paraguayan immigrants who formerly were the most populous group here at first fiercely resisted the interlopers but eventually gave up and resettled en masse to nearby East Flushing, driving out the venerable but tiny Coptic Visigoth community, which melted into the desolate marshes adjacent to John F. Kennedy Airport, where most are believed to have been eaten by recently arrived cannibals from Papua New Guinea.
Though the lepers of South Corona have largely succeeded in placing their stamp on the area, some signs of strains and tension still exist.
“You’d be surprised at the strange ideas people still have about lepers,” said Senak Manzaki, a vivacious 16-year-old student at Albert Anastasia High School. “A neighbor once asked me, ‘Is it true leprosy is contagious?’ ‘No, that is a myth,’ I assured him. ‘In fact, medical science tells us that the condition is caused by eating feces.’”
“They’re nice, quiet people,” said Ray Blenzer, a reformed petty criminal who used to make his living beating up lepers and taking their valuables. “They mostly keep to themselves and don’t bother anyone. Of course, now and then you find a body part on the street, a hand or maybe an eyeball, which is revolting, but I’ve learned to tolerate the obnoxious customs of people less fortunate than me.”
Recently, trendy young people from Manhattan have begun journeying to the neighborhood to sample its exotic cuisine and vibrant nightlife.
“I love the clubs,” said Tara McFetlock, a 22-year-old bankruptcy trader from Tribeca. “There is a haunting, tragic feeling of despair and horror there unlike anything you find in Manhattan.”
Her date for the evening, Caleb Ostrowsky, 27, said he was a smug, self-satisfied foodie excited by the adventure of dining in restaurants “where on any given evening you might just find the chef’s finger in your ragout.”