the covid memorial project

Bronze Hands to Commemorate the Barely Seen Delivery Worker

Part 2 of 15 proposals to help us remember the pandemic’s toll.

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 clients’ 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 the 15 concepts submitted by architects, designers, artists, and composers; the rest will appear over the course of this week.

Client: Otoniel

Delivery worker from Guatemala

Otoniel: I used to work as a waiter in Astoria, but the pandemic closed the restaurant. I got very sick, maybe from COVID, and I stayed in bed for around 20 days. I thought, What am I going to do now? My brother made deliveries for a restaurant, and he asked me if I wanted to work with one of the apps. It’s very stressful. To survive, you have to work under any conditions. I take my bike onto the train from the Bronx to Manhattan and carry it up the stairs. We go into parks to use the bathroom. Sometimes, when we’re delivering food to a building in Manhattan, we’re told we can’t come into the elevator.

What I remember most from this past year is the empty streets. When the streets were empty, a lot of us got robbed.

Still, we deliveristas are a labor force to be reckoned with. When restaurant owners were withholding tips and too many e-bikes were being stolen, we decided to speak up. Last October, we protested. People need us, and our work should be valued. One day, I had to climb the stairs to an apartment with a ton of bags — it was heavy! But when I got to the front door, I realized that I was delivering soap and disinfectant to an old lady who couldn’t go out. The app doesn’t know who I am or who I’m delivering to, but that night I understood that what I do is important.

Architects: Zena Howard and Jennifer Graham, Perkins&Will

Location: West 72nd Street subway station plaza, Manhattan

Zena Howard, a principal at the architecture firm Perkins&Will who worked alongside David Adjaye on the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., has made a career out of designing places that tell stories and preserve collective memory. When she read Otoniel’s account of what it takes to get a bánh mì, a bottle of Clorox, or a prescription to another New Yorker’s front door, she and her colleague Jennifer Graham decided to pay him homage in a work of public art.

Art: Roger Landivar, Perkins&Will

“We were engrossed by Otoniel’s story,” Graham says — his fatigue, discouragement, resignation, and strength, culminating in the moment when he makes a delivery to a customer who responds with gratitude and appreciation. “He experiences a metamorphosis and goes from feeling like an exploited individual to understanding that his work has great value.”

That narration became the basis for an animated storyboard, an imagined journey through rain-swept, gloomy Manhattan streets to the spot where López and his fellow deliveristas often gather to rest and swap stories: the plaza outside the West 72nd Street subway station. There, Graham and Howard would place a weathered-bronze relief of two figures with outstretched hands, one giving, the other receiving. It is a hands-on artwork in other ways, too: Mounted on a pivot, it turns when pushed, facing whichever direction there are people in need and others willing to help them. The sculpture is six feet six inches high — big enough to loom over some passersby and to meet others eye to eye, but not so big as to feel oppressive. “It’s not monumental, but discreet and personal,” Howard says.

Semi-abstract and slightly mysterious, the sculpture will reveal its meaning to those who take the trouble to scan a QR code. To everyone else, it offers the very thing that the pandemic has denied so many: physical contact. “The arms are faceted and beautiful,” Graham says. “People will want to touch.”

Art: Roger Landivar, Perkins&Will

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Bronze Hands to Commemorate the Barely Seen Delivery Worker