A year after New York City went into lockdown, COVID-19 has claimed the lives of more than 30,000 of its residents. The tragedy’s scale has made it difficult to comprehend the private griefs so many of us have experienced: the million heartbreaks of lost friends, lost livelihoods, lost neighborhood fixtures, lost senses of belonging. Instead of proposing a grand permanent memorial, we asked a wide range of New Yorkers about the moments from the pandemic that stood out to them and how they would want those experiences to be commemorated. In response, a selection of architects and artists translated those memories into proposals for temporary installations. We imposed no budget limit and no restrictions: The result could be a sculpture, a mural, a pavilion, a song — anything that could become part of the streetscape for a while. Presented here is one of 15 concepts submitted by architects, designers, artists, and composers.
Client: Dustin Jones
A disability-rights activist, board member of the Center for Independence of the Disabled, NY, founder of United for Equal Access, and a lifelong New Yorker.
I live in the Bronx and I am a disability-rights activist, pretty much trying to ensure that people with disabilities have access to everything in New York City, whether it be transportation, fair housing, and things like that. I’m 32, and I’ve used a manual wheelchair for ten years now. It’s gotten harder for me to travel because I don’t have an elevator station. So normally anywhere I had to go into Manhattan I would have to take the BX19 [bus] about a mile away and go to Hunts Point and use that train station to come back to go into Manhattan. Quite frankly, this whole entire pandemic, I’ve been on the train once. There’s a fear of getting on the train because there’s been a rash of unprovoked attacks. Unfortunately, some of these [attackers] are mentally disturbed, and I know that they’re attacking a lot of people of Asian descent, but at the same time they might see me, as a wheelchair user, as a target. So that’s heightened my sense of awareness and not really wanting to go down into the subway as well.
I feel like a soldier left all alone in the middle of nowhere. You’ve lost all your comrades, you tried to do the best you could, but you’re just that last man standing and you’re all alone and the fight’s not even over yet. I’m that one-man army trying to survive, trying not to get this COVID, but trying to also look to see what’s next, go back to some type of normalcy, get out of this war. It’s a dark, lonely place, you know? I wish I could have some type of party for my birthday [in May]. I would just like to be able to just get back to normal, even if I have to wear a mask for a couple more months, but at least go back to work and go back to the gym and see people, go sit down at a restaurant and eat — stuff like that.
My stepfather died because he was caught up with the whole Andrew Cuomo bullshit. He was in a nursing home. He caught COVID. They sent him to the hospital. They never told us. And then they sent him back to the nursing home. Then he got worse. Then they sent him back to the hospital. Only then did the hospital contact us and said, “Hey, he’s been here for a couple of days. And we just found out who he is.” Because they had him as an unknown. My mom spoke to him the day before he died. He sounded 100 percent okay. They did not allow us to see the body. They didn’t take any pictures, nothing that we asked for — we weren’t even allowed to have a funeral because they lied to us. They just gave us an urn [filled] with what they say is his body. But he died alone. I don’t even know if he was in good spirits. To have no idea what his last looks were kind of bothers me. My stepfather practiced the Rastafarian tradition. So we were going to put him in an emperor outfit. We were going to give him some nice clothes and it was going to be just us and his only brother, no friends or nothing. And they took all that away from us.
“Pre-pandemic, I was never in the house,” says Dustin Jones, a disability rights advocate who is currently involved in class-action lawsuits against the MTA related to the dearth of elevators or stair-free routes in the subway. He was busy traveling to Albany to attend different court hearings, going to his office at Union Square, and just living his life. But during the pandemic, all of that disappeared overnight. The isolation that Jones has dedicated his life to fighting returned to him. Before the pandemic, traveling around the city was already challenging for Jones. But cuts to MTA service and a fear of both COVID transmission and unprovoked attacks on the trains meant he no longer felt safe riding the subway. “There was a routine of nothingness and that started to mess with me because I was so used to going here, going there,” Jones says. “It still messes with me now.”
Jae Shin and Damon Rich, partners at HECTOR, the urban design and civic arts practice behind a new riverfront master plan for Newark and a redesign of South Philly’s Mifflin Square Park, knew they wanted to create something for Jones that would honor his advocacy work and bring him something joyful. As designers who have extensive experience in community-led, democratic design processes, they also wanted to introduce a new kind of public space.
To that end, HECTOR designed “The Curb Cut Fête,” a scenographic celebratory space that Jones could use for his birthday and to give his stepfather the homegoing he and his family wanted. It’s filled with “monumental party furniture” in the shape of an accessible elevator, which could hold a DJ booth, an elevated ramp that could be used as a stage, and a curb cut that could be used as a chill-out space at the party. The concept highlights the elements that Jones has been fighting for, and frames them as things that we all ought to become more aware of.
“We hope that it highlights how every curb cut, ramp, and subway elevator in New York City testifies to all of the work that goes into making the environment more accountable to all residents,” Shin says. “And we hope this monument provides the release and relaxation from this time that Dustin deserves.”
Jones’s advocacy work is currently focused on the accessibility of MTA stations. Currently, only a quarter of the city’s 472 subway stations are accessible. Elevators are critical parts of this work. HECTOR envisions building a DJ booth with the exact detailing of a full-scale, ADA-compliant elevator entrance — one that has doors on both sides, buttons at the correct height — in order to show more people what these look like and what Jones is fighting for. Meanwhile, its shape is based on the Rastafarian Lion of Judah as a tribute to Jones’s stepfather.
HECTOR envisions a stage for the party in the shape of an enormous ramp, with the correct slope needed for wheelchair users. (It might surprise many people to learn that some of the ramps in MTA stations aren’t actually wheelchair accessible, because the slope is too steep.)
Jones mentioned ambitions of running for office, and HECTOR imagines this as a space where he might give a speech one day. While it’s not uncommon to find stages and amphitheaters in New York City’s parks — like in Poe Park, Prospect Park, and East River Park — they might not be fully accessible either.
“If we are designing and building cities that are more accountable for a broader set of people, we may have a much more interesting and just city for ourselves,” Shin says. “That work isn’t necessarily this big abstract thing. Accountability could mean that a park is designed for the people who live nearby.”
The Curb Cut
At many intersections in the city, if they’re designed right, there’s a gentle slope where the sidewalk transitions to the roadway. It’s called a “curb cut,” and if you’ve pushed a stroller or wheeled a suitcase, you’ve probably noticed how useful they are, and how frustrating it is when they’re not there. Their existence is the result of decades of work by disability advocates like Dustin Jones, who have fought for equal access in cities. If you’re a wheelchair user like Jones, a curb cut isn’t about remedying an inconvenience, it’s about civil rights. HECTOR’s concept imagines the curb cut becoming an area of the party where people could take a break from dancing, have quieter convos, or just people watch.
“The curb cut as an architectural artifact is maybe more meaningful to us than the pyramids in terms of what it says about our ability to create a shared living environment for the people that live here,” Rich says.
HECTOR, Jae Shin & Damon Rich with Nashay Blancher, Abou Diallo, Abdou Drabo, Breyelle Gupton, Beyoncé Harmon, Naquan Harmon, Devonne Miller, José Pantoja, Rakim Perry, Antoine Rainey, Noelia Rodriguez-Ruiz, and Paige Scott-Cooper
More From The COVID Memorial Project
- Leni Schwendinger Makes a Lightscape of the Evening Streetery Scene
- Yeju & Chat Assembles Street-Vendor Umbrellas Into Community Message Boards
- Paul Chan Wants Us to Look Up at the Night Sky
- David Lang Turned Remote Learning Into a Song
- David Rockwell Wants Us to Never Forget Their Faces