In lieu of a centralized memorial, artists and everyday New Yorkers are creating temporary monuments to honor the people—disproportionately immigrant, working class, Black and Latino—who have died in a diffuse crisis with no clear end in sight.
Jose Antonio Acevedo, a Korean War veteran, was the glue that bound his family together across Puerto Rico, Manhattan and the Bronx. The man they called “Toño” worked at a sheet metal company in Hunts Point for four decades, all the while rooting for his beloved Mets and Jets, win or, more often, lose.
He paid for his granddaughter Melissa Lopez to attend emergency medical technician school, allowing her to become an EMT rescuing New Yorkers at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. But then the illness came for Toño. He was 84 when he died in April.
“I worked throughout the pandemic and when he passed away it hit me every way possible,” says Lopez, 22. She and her family decided to bury Toño at St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx, but pandemic rules stifled their mourning.
“We couldn’t do a proper memorial. We couldn’t even get out of the car,” Lopez says.
Seven months later, she learned that some of Toño’s friends in northern Manhattan had submitted his name and information to the Bronx Documentary Center, which opened an installation memorializing the dead last month. It’s one of a number of temporary monuments created by artists and everyday New Yorkers to honor the people — disproportionately immigrant, working class, Black and Latino — who have died in a diffuse crisis with no clear end in sight.
Strings of vibrant papel picado hang above the Bronx Documentary Center’s storefront window, where the names of neighbors appear in paper hearts above the words “Lost to COVID.” An altar — an ofrenda — lined with small skulls and candles illuminates the building interior, and a screen facing Courtlandt Avenue broadcasts the names and faces of the dead.
Lopez headed to the venue on a warm November night and approached the photo of her grandfather smiling from the screen. She raised her hands and paused before stepping back to hug a friend. The memorial provided some comfort, she says.
“It’s amazing,” she says. “There is nowhere for us to go and grieve and remember them or go light a candle.”
Melissa Lopez visits an installation at the Bronx Documentary Center memorializing New Yorkers lost to the pandemic. The exhibit includes a photo of her grandfather, Jose Antonio Acevedo, who died in April at the age of 84. (Credit: Maria Galindo/Bronx Documentary Center)
The Bronx Documentary Center’s memorial, a project constructed ahead of Day of the Dead observances, draws a lot of people like Lopez, says Community Engagement Coordinator Maria Galindo. The ofrenda has allowed those who’ve loved ones to “feel they are a part of the community, that someone cares about them.”
“I think the people feel like they are important. That we are taking them seriously,” Galindo says, adding that many of the people who have died in the Bronx were undocumented immigrants. “It’s like they’re invisible.”
The public’s reactions also demonstrate the power of temporary monuments constructed in the absence of a central memorial site. They provide a spark and bit of healing for the New Yorkers who, without warning, lost their loved ones, their colleagues, the neighbors they saw each day and chatted with on their way to the train.
“It’s not like the World Trade Center, where everyone could go there,” Lopez says.
These and other impromptu memorials — candles, favorite photos, Sharpied messages written on cardboard — also help humanize the pandemic’s grim statistics, says artist Kay Turner, who helped create the project at BDC and has organized artists to install monthly Naming the Lost Memorials across the city.
If history is any indication, it will be a long time before New York City creates municipal monuments honoring the people who died, fought and survived an ongoing public health crisis that has attacked the city’s most vulnerable. The steel canopy of the AIDS Memorial in the West Village took more than 30 years to construct. The 9/11 Memorial, a decade. There are no monuments to the victims of the 1918 influenza pandemic.
The challenge for future municipal projects will be in allowing visitors to project their personal experiences and commemorate the most vulnerable victims, Turner says. The city has lost more than 24,000 New Yorkers to confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19 so far.
“The numbers are so overwhelming. There has to be a way to show the faces of the dead,” she says. “To name those who are unnamed is our job as humans.”
Community memorials abound
On Aug. 31, the city of Detroit transformed a beloved island park in the Detroit River into the nation’s first municipal COVID-19 memorial. Large photos of 1,500 Detroiters who died from the coronavirus lined the street that encircles Belle Island; cars filled with their families and friends hit the road for a memorial procession.
In Washington D.C., a team led by artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg planted 165,000 white flags on a parade ground near RFK Stadium last month in a memorial to Americans who died during the pandemic. Visitors added another 63,000 flags as the death toll continued to rise nationwide.
Here in New York City, smaller scale memorials abound.
There’s an annual Day of the Dead exhibition outside St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery, where friends and family members write the names of loved ones who have died on paper skulls attached to a fence. Ribbons representing the dead blow in the breeze at the CoVIDA exhibition, a project influenced by many cultural traditions at the Morris Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights.
Pieces of art created by kids and community members lined a fence outside Flushing Town Hall this summer, until thieves vandalized the project. That has only galvanized creators and community members to rebuild, and the installation is set to reopen with even more works early next year, says Gabrielle Hamilton, Flushing Town Hall’s director of education and public programs.
“The arts are essential for processing trauma and restoring joy and building vigilance,” Hamilton says. “We believe in the power of the arts to make sense of this moment, and students of all ages use the arts as a vehicle to process the moment.”
With children locked out of hospitals where their parents lay dying and wakes or shiva taking place via Zoom, the projects engender a sense of community and engage New Yorkers — nearly all of whom have lost someone to the virus, says Juan Aguirre, the executive director of the Mexican cultural organization Mano a Mano.
“Everyone I know knows someone who died of COVID,” says Aguirre, whose organization commissioned the St. Mark’s memorial.
Mano a Mano employees counted more than 50 people they know who have died, including two of Aguirre’s family members in Mexico, he says.
“In the Mexican community, many died because they were essential workers — delivery workers, construction, restaurants,” he says. “They were people who had to go to work and we have to remember them because many of them had no choice.”
Making a municipal memorial
New York City has erected public works to memorialize and grieve the victims of past tragedies. The New York City AIDS Memorial serves as a gateway to St. Vincent’s Park in the West Village, the former St. Vincent’s Hospital site that was the epicenter of the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s. A nonprofit organization born from the movement to create the memorial describes the plaza as a “place of contemplation” which “provides a shelter for reflection and remembrance of the men, women, and children lost to AIDS.” The site hosts art exhibitions and events to keep the memory of those victims alive.
The Sept. 11 Memorial at the site of the World Trade Center allows people to touch the names of those who died in the attack 19 years ago. Journalist Jim O’Grady concludes his eight-part 9/11 podcast “Blindspot” at the waterfalls cascading into the tower footprints, as he describes his friend Gregory E. Rodriguez, a 31-year-old Staten Island man who worked in the North Tower.
“I run my hands across the granite and let my fingertips rest in the empty spaces in the carved letters of his name,” O’Grady says. “That too is oddly comforting.”
Future COVID memorials must enable that kind of interaction, and channel the energy of the handmade projects cropping up across the city, says Councilmember Mark Levine. Most of all, he says, affected communities must be the ones driving the final product.
Levine has introduced a bill that would create a task force to consider a memorial for hospital staff, emergency responders and other frontline workers who died from coronavirus. He proposes creating the memorial on Hart Island, where the city has buried hundreds of thousands of poor New Yorkers in unmarked graves for generations.
A 2019 measure transferred jurisdiction of Hart Island from the city’s Department of Correction to the Parks Department as part of a plan to make the isolated island publicly accessible. Parks will take over management in 2021, but until then, visits are limited or non-existent.
Before the pandemic, Corrections shuttled visitors to the island by ferry three times per month, but the city has suspended those trips indefinitely.
Truly honoring the dead means making Hart Island publicly accessible with consistent transportation, Levine says.
“It needs to be opened up as a publicly accessible cemetery where people can come to honor the 1 million New Yorkers who are buried there and particularly pay homage to the victims of every major epidemic that the city has confronted,” he says. “Without fail, people buried at Hart Island are marginalized, in some ways ostracized, largely forgotten by New Yorkers.”
Turner says a Hart Island memorial would be a waste if New Yorkers cannot get there. But if the city increases transportation, a municipal memorial installation could transform the site. She says the city could draw inspiration from Berlin’s sprawling Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, where visitors walk among hundreds of slabs of concrete symbolizing the death toll.
A citywide day of remembrance could also help New Yorkers mourn those lost to the pandemic, just as World AIDS Day or 9/11 spurs community activism, art and observances, Turner says. Maybe March 16, the day the city’s lockdown began and the devastating impact of the coronavirus became apparent. “We need some kind of annual creation taking hold as a way to address the deaths that we’ve suffered,” she says.
In the meantime, Aguirre of Mano a Mano says creators will continue building tributes that allow New Yorkers to mourn. At the St. Mark’s Church Day of the Dead memorial, new people continue to stop by each day to reflect at the site and submit the names of those they have lost.
“People who pass by will ask questions, become emotional, bow their heads,” Aguirre says. “I think there’s a lot of healing in creating these memorials because it makes people take a minute and reflect on what’s going on. We need to have more memorials.”
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