By Renée Roden
The New-York Historical Society on 77th Street and Central Park West has opened a free outdoor exhibit called, Hope Wanted: New York City Under Quarantine, highlighting the singular experience of New York City during the height of its battle with COVID-19. Photographer Kay Hickman, and poet, journalist and author Kevin Powell drove across all five boroughs during NYC’s COVID peak, April 8-9, 2020, to capture scenes of the city on pause.
The exhibition is an intimate experience. Hickman’s photographs are stunningly evocative, and draw viewers right back to the ghostly days of early April. The images of quiet streets around Grand Central Station and hands clapping for essential workers through open windows are particularly atmospheric.
The powerful photos document the shuttered shops, the empty airport and ferry terminals, the quiet streets that have been replaced by a muted version of New York City’s usual springtime activity.
Along with the images, the exhibit features 12 minute-long stories from some of Hickman’s subjects. These interviews are accessible via cellphone or the Museum’s website. Some visitors were waiting to listen to the stories until they were home. Other tech savvy visitors could pull up each interview by scanning a code on their cellphone.
The stories are testaments to the courage of New Yorkers in the midst of a catastrophe. The interviewees share stories of new routines, loneliness, cabin fever, or anger at systemic wrongs, Trump’s response, or weeks-long delays in COVID test results.
Each audio recording is an intimate, quiet experience—almost as if each person speaking is directly addressing the visitors viewing their photos on the wall.
One particularly poignant interview is with an anonymous worker at Hart’s Island, where many COVID victims are buried, offering a little-seen perspective on the crisis.
Kim Estes-Fradis, a visitor to the museum, struggled to find the right way to respond to the exhibit saying, “it’s hard to articulate.” She compared the experience to her memories of visiting the New-York Historical Society’s exhibit after 9-11. She remembered “needing to be here, to witness it.” But this felt different. Because, although the city has changed, “there’s traffic” now, businesses are open, and residents have left the shelter of their home to flood the streets—but the crisis continues.
“This isn’t today,” Estes-Fradis said, gesturing to the photos, “but it’s still happening.”
As if to emphasize this, another visitor noted the seeds of a continuing debate in these early photos. “I see a lot of people not wearing masks in the photos,” Denise Ginzberg, noted, “and I don’t know why.”
In fact, Cuomo’s mask mandate for New York State did not go into effect until April 15–roughly one week after the photos were taken.
Each visitor in the exhibition was wearing a mask. New-York Historical Society limits the number of visitors to sixteen at a time. Admission is free but must be reserved ahead of time. Temperature checks are taken at the door, and arrows on the walkways help ensure social distancing.
The exhibit, which will run through November 29, emphasizes the hope and persistence that New York City demonstrated through the deadliest months of the pandemic in March and April.
As one subject in the Manhattan section, Dara Wishingrad, put it, “We will get through this and we will keep bringing on this brave and kinder world.”