Six months following the devastating terrorist attacks of 9/11, the Municipal Art Society of New York and Creative Time got together at the former site of the World Trade Center’s twin towers, shining a pair of massive blue beams from New York City’s skyline into the heavens.
It’s known as the Tribute in Light, and is designed to not only remember the 2,606 people who died at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, but also the 371 others who died at the Pentagon in Washington, and on United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
It was intended only as a temporary art exhibit that lasted less than a month in 2002. However, it returned in time for the attack’s anniversary in September 2003.
But then it kept returning and returning, year after year, not allowing the distance in time affect our memory of such a horrific event.
The Tribute in Light has become a cornerstone event in New York City, well beyond the New Year’s Eve ball drop, the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, and Fourth of July at the Statue of Liberty.
The installation includes 44 xenon spotlights for each tower, and costs as much as $500,000 each year to install and maintain.
Yet this year, which would mark the 19th anniversary of the attacks, was set to be the first year where there would be no Tribute in Light. The National September 11 Memorial & Museum, which took over the project several years ago, just couldn’t bring it together with the threat of coronavirus lingering. Yes, while we continue to mourn thousands of people who lost their lives in a single day, our country — our world — now faces a threat that is claiming so many more.
Except New York seems to have a hero when it comes to the coronavirus. And, believe it or not, his name is Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He’s not perfect, there remains some questions about how he handled the coronavirus that need answering, but his leadership has allowed the coronavirus to be nothing more than a passing thought in New York for weeks, even as the virus rages out of control in most other parts of the country.
And now Cuomo has stood up in support for the Tribute in Light against the coronavirus, assuring September 11 Memorial the heartfelt annual remembrance will continue as planned.
Obviously, we don’t need 88 beams of light shooting through the sky to remind us of our past, but it doesn’t hurt. For many of us who remember vividly each and every minute of Sept. 11, 2001, there are so many more who only know about it from history books and what they’ve read on Wikipedia.
Kindergartners on that day are all old enough to be college graduates now. Babies being placed in the arms of their mothers for the very first time are adults now. Few under 30 even have a recollection of that day and what happened.
This is why history is so important. Of course, there are many horrific events we hope we can stop from ever repeating, but there are other events we can just never forget.
Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921.
The Trail of Tears.
Martin Luther King Jr., assassination.
Pulse nightclub shooting.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There could even be a day when we’re remembering those we lost to the coronavirus pandemic — an event in human history that was competely preventable, and just wasn’t.
Installations like the Tribute in Light is essential to maintaining those memories. Because just as essayist Joan Didion once said, “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.”