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OPINION

Boston could take the lead in memorializing those lost to COVID

Boston is well suited to lead commemorative work, as it can build on the experience gained through its planned memorial dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King on Boston Common.

Rendering of Hank Willis Thomas and MASS Design Group's proposed design for the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the Boston Common.Hank Willis Thomas

As COVID-related deaths approach 1 million, an important question arises: How will we remember this chapter in our local and national history?

From New York to Long Beach, cities across the country are beginning to design monuments to grieve the lives lost during the pandemic and to honor essential workers. Virtual memorials have also emerged, such as COVID Memorial and the A/P/A Voices project, which documents Asian American pandemic experiences in the midst of surging anti-Asian violence. Boston should join these important efforts and become a national leader in memorializing this pivotal time. If approached thoughtfully and inclusively, a memorial in Boston can serve as a blueprint for other cities embarking on similar efforts.

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Boston is well suited to lead commemorative work, since it can build on the experience gained through its planned memorial dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King on Boston Common. This memorial is part of a nationwide pre-pandemic trend that emerged to memorialize the lives and experiences of people of color, immigrants, and low-income people. In 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture was established in the National Mall in Washington, D.C. In 2018, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery, Ala., to honor enslaved Black people and those who have faced the terrors of racism and segregation. These highly successful and creative interventions provide people with much-needed influence over American identity and our broader cultural landscape. A COVID-19 memorial can similarly address the collective thirst — and quest — for equitable and accessible representation in public art and monuments.

Our national reckoning with race and memory makes a pandemic-related memorial particularly timely. We are experiencing widespread reexamination of public art and memorials. Across the country, we have seen the deliberate removal of racist monuments, especially after George Floyd’s murder.

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Inclusion is critical in the planning and creation of a COVID-19 memorial because people of color have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic.

To be sure, a memorial may be costly. But its construction — and future visits to the site — can also help to reactivate the local economy as we emerge from the pandemic. As of 2020, arts and cultural production was valued at $876.7 billion, or approximately 4.2 percent of national GDP. As city and community leaders plan a memorial in Boston, they could prioritize hiring a local artist of color. They could also place the memorial in a neighborhood that was disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and that can benefit from the economic revitalization generated by the creative production.

East Boston, an early epicenter of COVID-19 infection and loss, would be an ideal candidate for the memorial, especially because it is home to many front-line and essential workers. The memorial would help to deepen and expand the emerging creative and cultural economy in East Boston that is anchored by institutions such as the ICA Watershed and Zumix. In partnership with Lawyers for Civil Rights and the Whittier Street Health Center, another community-based institution, the Veronica Robles Cultural Center, has been organizing clinics at the intersection of public health and culture, offering COVID-19 vaccines along with folkloric dancing and mural painting for kids.

Regardless of where the memorial is sited, the most important elements are city-wide stakeholder engagement and accessibility. Why? Because the memorial will provide a much-needed space to mourn those we lost and to honor the front-line and essential workers who kept us alive during the pandemic’s darkest days. Stakeholder participation is also crucial because of the opportunity that a memorial presents for Boston residents to come together to shape our history and culture.

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Although COVID-19 undoubtedly hit some communities harder than others, especially communities of color and immigrant communities, it left no one untouched. As a city and as a nation, we have experienced business shutdowns, mask-wearing, and social distancing. We lived through sleepless nights filled with fear and worry, and many of us also faced personal illness and loss. By providing a space to share in storytelling and memory-guarding together, a memorial can reflect both our individual struggles and our collective experiences.

When it comes to a COVID-19 memorial, we are all stakeholders. But we should make sure that families who lost loved ones are particularly involved, along with front-line workers, essential workers, and sanitation workers. Their vision and narratives should guide the memorial’s design and construction from beginning to end. In doing so, Boston can become a model for other cities seeking to memorialize and learn from our pandemic experience. As America mourns the loss of 1 million lives, let’s join forces to create a new cultural landmark for ourselves and for future generations.

Iván Espinoza-Madrigal is the executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights. He serves on the board of directors of the New England Foundation for the Arts. Heather Odell is a law student at Boston College Law School.

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