Building a Covid memorial in New York could take many years and will raise a flurry of complex questions about what it should look like, where it should be built, and whose stories it will tell. With over eight million opinions to consider, the endeavor could be spirited and messy.
There is good reason to think big and creatively, encouraging as many New Yorkers as possible to participate. A memorial could take the form of a stone monument, but it doesn’t have to. It could be in a park; it could come in the form of an annual event or a piece of art. New York could create a gathering place for remembrance, or hold a marathon to support the families left behind and the survivors with long Covid. Neighborhoods could hold block parties, bringing people together to celebrate life.
Memorials need not be morbid.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, a Dutch flower supplier and the city of Rotterdam sent New York a million daffodil bulbs as part of a kind of living memorial. The bulbs have bloomed every year since. Juneteenth, a holiday marking the emancipation of Black Americans, was born out of the horrors of slavery. But it is a day of celebration. The AIDS Memorial Quilt, a collection of hand-sewn panels from across the country honoring people who had died of AIDS, was spread on the National Mall in 1987. It was a key part of a movement that raised consciousness about the AIDS crisis and forced politicians to act.
Already, there have been smaller such efforts across New York. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s largest union installed a memorial in its Brooklyn office for members who died of Covid. A joint project last year between the de Blasio administration and the nonprofit news outlet The City projected some of the faces of the tens of thousands of New Yorkers who had died in the pandemic onto the Brooklyn Bridge. The ZIP Code Memory Project, an effort housed at Columbia, has hosted workshops for artists, students and residents to look for ways to use art to help New York heal, particularly from the disparate impact of the pandemic on vulnerable communities. “We’re talking a lot about what to do with the rage,” said Marianne Hirsch, the project’s co-director.
There are consequences for not collectively acknowledging these losses. In a deeply unequal city in which Black and Latino New Yorkers died at twice the rate that white New Yorkers did, the failure to acknowledge those who died only deepens the divide. “Memorialization has a critical role to play,” said Bryan Stevenson, who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, the nonprofit that built a national memorial to victims of lynching in Montgomery, Ala.