The rare challenge of building a pandemic memorial

A boy lights a candle at Vienna's plague memorial, the Trinity Column.

In late March, Vienna residents began leaving candles and prayers for protection at the Trinity Column, commonly called the plague column.

Dating back to 1679, the enormous, elaborate, centrally located pillar commemorates the Great Plague, in which more than 80,000 people died. More than three centuries later, the monument became a logical gathering place for memorialising those who have died during the coronavirus pandemic, which has a still-rising death toll of more than 400,000 around the world.

Public memorials often serve as solemn places for solace-seekers during and after disasters. At their most powerful, they offer “a gentle push toward a thoughtful or empathetic frame of mind,” says Dr. Mechtild Widrich, an associate professor in The School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Department of Art History, Theory and Criticism.

But unlike wars, terrorism, or other disasters, surprisingly little has been done to commemorate victims of pandemics, including the global outbreak that Covid-19 most closely resembles, the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed tens of millions worldwide. Similarly, despite being one of the most relentless and fatal diseases in human history, little has been built to commemorate those who have died from Ebola.

That has to do, in part, with the complex nature of memorials. “Historically, monuments were made for the victor,” Widrich says. Unlike statues built to fallen soldiers, the deaths of a pandemic are not heroic, nor did those deaths pave the way for success. The purpose of such a memorial – and the challenge – would be to honor the individuals who died of the coronavirus while in no way celebrating the loss of life.

Vienna's plague memorial, the Trinity Column, quickly became a place for mourners to memorialise the victims of the Covid-19 pandemic. (Alex Halada/AFP via Getty Images)

The pandemic has waned in some of the hardest hit epicentres like Italy and New York, while it's still raging in others like Brazil. Architects and planners everywhere are focusing on designing for life in response to Covid, but it's in some of these hardest-hit areas where discussions could soon turn to considering the overwhelming task of creating meaningful, lasting monuments to the victims of this pandemic.

One of the most obvious, moving examples of dedicated public space for reflection and contemplation about a pandemic is the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, designated as a national memorial in 1996, 15 years after what became known as HIV/AIDS was first mentioned in US medical literature. In the five years before its official designation, hundreds of volunteers collaborated on annual workdays to beautify the grounds and design a memorial space that earned the city's participation and, eventually, recognition from the US Congress.

A man looks at the engraved names of AIDS victims at the National Aids Memorial Grove in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Like the best memorials, the space is somber and beautiful, with a blend of natural redwood trees and stone structures rendered with the names of the dead. It feels welcoming to the public, and sobering without being scary. It has also served as a catalyst for further memorials: In the past year, related projects have coalesced under its stewardship, including the AIDS Memorial Quilt and two HIV/AIDS oral history projects that have preserved more than 1,000 stories from survivors and loved ones.

The goal of the Grove extends beyond memorialising those who died of AIDS. It serves as a physical space that furthers a mission of keeping AIDS at the forefront of the national conversation. For that reason, it may serve as one of the most useful models for Covid-19 commemorations.

Much like Vienna’s Plague Column, the AIDS Memorial is also a space for communing during tragedy. “Over the past decade, the Grove has been the site of spontaneous gatherings in other times of great loss,” says John Cunningham, the memorial’s executive director, noting mass shootings have brought San Franciscans to the garden in collective mourning. “Hundreds gathered here after Newtown, when the nation was in a state of mourning, and again after Pulse nightclub, to remember the tragedy there and also redouble our efforts toward social justice and human rights.”

The lack of a memorial or place to gather – even something as obvious and seemingly simple as a burial ground – can add to feelings of grief and loss. Numerous strains of Ebola have emerged in the past 40 years, yet little physical space is designated to mourn the terrible, ever-growing death toll.

Between 2014 and 2016, the world’s largest-ever Ebola outbreak devastated West African nations including Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, killing more than 11,325 people. The current ongoing, second-largest Ebola epidemic, centered in the Democratic Republic of Congo – the nation’s tenth in 40 years – has raged since August 2018, killing more than 2,270 people, and shows tentative signs of finally slowing last month.

Due to both the magnitude and severity of the contagion, death caused by Ebola frequently leaves survivors without a body to bury. Bodies are often cremated in order to stem the epidemic, and in some areas, this means families do not hold funerals and have no cemetery to visit. This complicates important commemorations, such as Decoration Day in Liberia, when families spend time with and spruce up their loved ones’ gravesites – and it also informed the creation of Liberia's Ebola Memorial Cemetery, an Ebola gravesite that had initially been left unattended but was designated an official memorial in 2016.

While large physical gatherings are still mostly off limits due to Covid, much of the early work to memorialise the coronavirus pandemic has already begun in a virtual setting. To try to measure the overwhelming death toll, several news organisations have devoted resources to tracking Covid deaths. A small alliance of interfaith and social justice groups held a 24-hour virtual memorial in late May, reading aloud via livestream tens of thousands of names of people who died from Covid.

Other personal projects, such as the FacesOfCOVID Twitter account, seek to compile even a small percentage of the fatalities. Alex Goldstein, who runs a strategic communications firm in Boston, started the account in March and publishes several dozen obituaries every day with the help of his friend, Scott Zoback. They also receive photos and stories directly from family members whose relatives have died of the coronavirus.

Goldstein grew up in the shadow of a different disaster; he was a high school senior on September 11, 2001. For him, profound memories of 9/11 include crowds of thousands attending the funerals of firefighters, and the services broadcast to thousands more viewers. “But the nature of this pandemic limits our ability to gather, and that impacts how we mourn and grieve,” he says.

How these early digital projects might translate into physical monuments and memorials is unclear. In the aftermath of many disasters, makeshift memorials often arise first, as do digital remembrances. In the case of a catastrophe such as a terrorist attack or natural disaster, the designated memorial site is typically obvious.

People pause during a visit to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

That doesn’t mean it’s straightforward for numerous constituencies to negotiate the physical and emotional range the piece will convey. The process of selecting architects, artists, and designers can be fraught. The 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City, for example, was the subject of political and economic debates for fundraising disputes and budget-related delays. Many victims' families boycotted the memorial, aghast that it would house unidentified human remains and commercially profit from entrance fees and a gift shop.

Some countries in particular might choose to include an element that reminds visitors of the devastating effects of a slow or inadequate public health response. For that, they could draw inspiration from a memorial in Hong Kong that pays homage to frontline healthcare workers that treated patients suffering from another coronavirus, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). In addition to the eight medical professors honored in the small park, the 2003 SARS epidemic killed nearly 300 people.

Cunningham notes that the National AIDS Memorial, created during a pandemic that has still not ended, offers a physical template for plague memorials as well as emotional and spiritual reminders on how to persevere through Covid.

“The Grove offers those living through a new pandemic a legacy of resilience,” he says, “and the reminder to never give up hope.”

Britta Shoot is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.