NYC still has no ideas for a COVID-19 memorial

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Nearly 30,000 New Yorkers have died since COVID-19 touched down in the city one year ago.

And while a patchwork of painters, poets and everyday citizens have honored the dead in their own way, and the city plans a small memorial vigil next week, New Yorkers wonder when a transcendent touchstone to the tragedy — a soaring monument to the dead and the heroic — will emerge.

Around the world and the US, vast monuments and memorials are being proposed, planned and built. In New York, the epicenter of the plague that killed more than 500,000 Americans, only vague and limited visions for local tributes — one at a former New Jersey dump, another on abandoned Hart Island in the East River — have surfaced.

As the city approaches March 14 — the anniversary of the first NYC death from the coronavirus — officials have yet to even convene committees that will hash out ideas for a memorial, a project experts say is key to processing the tragedy.

“Memorials provide society a place to put the grief, a space where we know the lives lost will not be forgotten” said Alice Greenwald, who heads the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. “That’s why the 9/11 memorial and museum are now part of the fabric of our city.”

In Brazil, a 128-foot long undulating steel sculpture was erected in September at a Rio de Janeiro cemetery were many COVID-19 casualties were buried. The names of 4,000 of the deceased are to be etched in the metal. By May 2020, as the pandemic still raged, the residents of Madrid could visit a black steel sculpture with an eternal flame across from a government center.

In Uruguay, architectural firm Gomez Platero has proposed a striking “World Memorial to the Pandemic” designed to be a reminder “that mankind is not the center of the ecosystem in which we live since we will always be subordinate to nature.” The large-scale memorial features a circular platform designed to sit at the edge of an urban waterfront with an opening in the middle so visitors can view the ocean.

British artist Jeremy Deller has put forth a rendering of a giant pangolin sculpture, rendered in gold. The anteater was once thought to be the source of the coronavirus, and Deller has said the idea for the work was “about how we think about the future and what we prioritize, about thinking of animals as things to be respectful of, rather than to exploit, because they can … the world to a stop.”

The Golden Pangolin, a post-COVID-19 sculpture.
The Golden Pangolin, a post-COVID-19 sculpture idea.
Courtesy Jeremy Deller/The Moder

One early plan floated in New York was to erect a memorial on Hart Island, the city’s potter’s field where burials nearly tripled last year. One rendering by Manhattan-based architectural designer Jack Beckmann would install 12 towers of light throughout the island to be illuminated at a designated time of year.

a proposal  by architectural designer Jack Beckmann for "Covid-19 Light Memorial for Hart Island, Bronx NYC"
A proposal by architectural designer Jack Beckmann for “COVIDS-19 Light Memorial for Hart Island, Bronx NYC.”

“There’s nothing out there. It’s very hard to visit it,” Beckmann told The Post. “It made sense to do a concept with light that would be visible from the city.”

Beckmann said that alternatively the light tributes could be placed throughout the five boroughs, with the number in each borough a symbolic representation of how many died there.

City Councilman Mark Levine has sponsored legislation to form a task force on a Hart Island memorial and another bill that would convene a group to work toward a memorial honoring front line workers who died of COVID-19.

The intention is to hold an annual tribute event to raise awareness of the significance of the island, it’s fascinating history and largely unknown role in New York City.
The intention is to hold an annual tribute event to raise awareness on the significance of the island, its fascinating history and largely unknown role in New York City.

“The city has not done with COVID what it has done after other diseases, which is to tell the stories of the people we have lost. It pains me when it comes to essential workers, who are heroes keeping us safe. I want a memorial to honor their sacrifice and tell their stories,” Levine said.

The road to being able to tell those stories has proven to be a long one in the past.

It took nearly eight years from the time architect Michael Arad won a public design competition for the 9/11 memorial in early 2004 until his tribute opened on the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

This would be in lieu of Hart Island. This is for the five boroughs, and the amount of lights would be based on the number of deaths in each borough. So it’s a visual mapping.
This COVID light memorial proposal would be in lieu of Hart Island and for the five boroughs.

Arad’s concept, titled “Reflecting Absence,” was simple — two waterfall-fed reflecting pools to represent the Twin Towers, each 30 feet deep and a block long. Chiseled into the perimeter of the pools would be the names of those lost. And there would be ramps descending to a magnificent gallery.

Many 9/11 families bashed the underground design. Even the competition’s jurors — early on — believed Arad’s work needed something to soften the starkness. They asked him to join with renowned landscape architect Peter Walker, who added a plaza lush with trees. Much later, the architects of the underground museum fiddled with Arad’s design, too.

Today, Arad focuses on how the city’s “remarkable spirit of compassion, survival and resiliency” drove his design and carried him through the years of construction.

“I wanted to capture the enormous loss that we experienced … but also the way in which this city came together to support one another,” Arad told The Post. “Not being able to do that now, to show our love for each other and for our city, is incredibly dispiriting.”

Architect Mitchell Joachim, who teaches at NYU and co-founded Terreform ONE, an architecture group that focuses on urban design and art, said there “will definitely be challenges” to creating a tribute to the latest tragedy.

“Many people must be involved and many voices must be heard because so many people are being touched by this. They will feel invested and they will need to feel invested to get a memorial right,” Joachim said.

As for design, Greenwald thinks any coronavirus tribute should include a monument that recognizes the selflessness of those risking their own lives to help the rest of us — from EMTs and and medical staffers, to grocery clerks and stockers, to warehouse workers and delivery drivers.

“We’re seeing the best of human beings, just like we saw in 911,” she said. “There are so many parallels here, with heroes on the front lines. We need to celebrate them and what they represent.”

The only certainty now is an evening vigil on March 14 to honor those lost.

“It’s important that we have a day going forward in the future of the city to always remember what happened, to remember those we lost, and to honor them and to honor their families,” Mayor de Blasio told The Post. “At the same time, it’s a day to remember all the heroism and all the people who did so much good to protect people.”

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