Robert Bridge is an American writer and journalist. He is the author of the book, ‘Midnight in the American Empire,’ released in 2013. Follow him on Twitter @Robert_Bridge
This week, New Yorkers watched in horror as their beloved architectural gem transitioned into a gigantic distress signal engulfing the skyline as new cases of coronavirus exploded. This time the authorities may have gone too far.
Most people have probably experienced a turbulent flight, where things got so shaky that the passengers began to sneak nervous glances at the crew for confirmation that everything was normal. So long as the stewards and stewardesses appear unfazed then everything is believed to be under control. Once the crew begins to show signs of distress, however, that’s the sign to crack open the duty-free vodka and resign yourself to fate.
So imagine how New Yorkers felt this week when they threw open the curtains from their penthouse prisons and, instead of being greeted by the iconic Empire State Building bathed in its soothing white lights, were confronted with the world’s largest distress signal smack in the middle of Manhattan. Not an encouraging sign, to say the least.
Without any prior warning, the upper section of the 102-story art deco structure had suddenly turned an ominous ruby red, while the antennae began flashing forbiddingly with red and white strobe lights. The only thing necessary to complete the apocalyptic picture was the sound of an air-raid siren. To put the scenario into a comic book context – really the only context that fits – it was as though the Joker had just defeated Batman and was sending a diabolical message to the residents of Gotham that all hope was lost.
Even Snopes felt compelled to provide its stamp of verification and assure readers that no, their eyes were not playing tricks on them. “Strange sight for strange times,” the fact-checking site concluded.
Is this the sort of crazy optics that New York City needs right now? After all, the nine million residents of the Big Apple require absolutely no reminder that they are in the midst of a veritable war. As the death toll from coronavirus surges past 1,500 in America’s most populated city, Wall Street continues to melt down at a time when not a single bar is open to provide some limited solace.
Indeed, happy hour has disappeared from the entire country when it is needed most. On top of this relative carnage, it is estimated that some 40 percent of New Yorkers won’t be able to make next month’s rent payment. In case all of that wasn’t enough to remind city residents they are in the midst of an unprecedented crisis, a 68-bed makeshift hospital has taken over a corner of Central Park, and the US Navy hospital ship Comfort is docked in the Hudson River to provide relief to overflowing hospitals.
And just as the Empire State Building opted for the full-blown panic look, the number of coronavirus victims in the United States has surpassed that of the fatalities from the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The overlords of New York City’s famous structure, however, defended the decision to place the metropolis under a menacing code-red sky at the peak of a pandemic, explaining the color scheme was to honor emergency workers now working overtime to help those infected with the coronavirus.
“Starting tonight through the COVID-19 battle, our signature white lights will be replaced by the heartbeat of America with a white and red siren in the mast for heroic emergency workers on the front line of the fight,”read a tweet from the building’s Twitter account.
“The Empire State Building has always served as an international symbol of hope, of challenges overcome, and of New York City itself,”said Anthony E. Malkin, chairman and CEO of ESRT.
Let’s be honest. When was the last time anyone confused an ambulance siren with a symbol of hope, or as something for people to rally around? If anything, the sight of a speeding emergency vehicle with lights flashing is a symbol of tragedy and one that evokes feelings of dread and pessimism. This is not to suggest, of course, that the emergency workers being transported to the scene from those vehicles are not worthy of society’s highest accolades.
The doctors and nurses who are serving on the front lines against the coronavirus, putting aside their own personal health to tend to the sick, are genuine heroes. Nobody doubts that. To pay tribute to these individuals with a massive siren, however, is a bit like acknowledging a military hero with a crack-of-dawn missile launch. It does nothing to instill a sense of confidence in the observer, rather just the opposite.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio should do the right thing, finally, and demand that the Empire State Building management stop illuminating the city skyline with a fear-inducing display.
Or, alternatively, cover up the world’s largest distress signal with the world’s largest mask to conceal its negative effects on a populace in desperate need of some positive vibes.