By Mark Hallum
A tearful acknowledgement of the disaster that was the COVID-19 pandemic took place in the Bowling Green Station on Monday as agency leaders revealed a tribute to employees who died.
Interim New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg, who took up the temporary role about a month before the health crisis was visited upon New Yorkers, said the digital tribute with a special poem commissioned by the MTA was in itself an “interim” way to honor those who died while keeping the trains and buses moving.
About 107 stations will play the tribute featuring “Travels Far” by former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith about three times per day with music, also commissioned by the agency, and cycle through photos of the men and women of the MTA.
“We wanted to do more than just show something on screens and give family members a place to gather and we also wanted some unique elements to it and so we actually commissioned the poem,” Feinberg said. “This has been something that we’ve been working on in some form or another for 10 months.”
Feinberg said the tribute will play three times per day for up to two weeks, ending on Feb. 7, but a more permanent display can be expected in MTA headquarters as well as another location. The poem will be displayed in Bengali, Chinese, English, Haitian Creole, Korean, Russian and Spanish.
The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on transit workers became nearly immediately apparent, first with MTA cutting back service by 30% while staff was out sick or in quarantine. Then by mid-April, 59 MTA employees had died due to complications from the virus.
The agency acted quick in approving $500,000 death benefits to the next of kin as well as making drastic changes to operations such as suspending fare collection on buses in order to allow rear-door boarding to keep drivers safe from the public through PPE and social distancing.
“We quickly made sure that those families who lost an MTA worker to COVID were taken care of financially, but the launch of today’s memorial is aimed at personalizing the legacies of those who died during the pandemic,” MTA Chairman Pat Foye said. “It is a moving tribute to the members of our heroic workforce who lost their lives and we will continue to make sure those who perished are not forgotten.”
While the MTA employee deaths remain in the ballpark of about 140, the tribute features 111 portraits from families who were willing to contribute, while others, according to Feinberg, are grieving in private.
“Surrounded by a spectrum of colors, the portraits in black and white allow us a glimpse into unique personalities known to their families and colleagues,”Sandra Bloodworth, Director of MTA Arts and Design, said. “This memorial shows that art can be a powerful messenger, conveying loss and honoring the memory of our colleagues.”
As the pandemic continues, however, Feinberg confronted the reality that the names worthy of remembrance will accumulate, but also expressed hope in the deployment of the COVID-19 vaccine as an end to the crisis.
Find a station with featuring the tribute near you by following this link.