On Memory: A Project to Memorialize Covid-19 Victims and Affirm Redlined Communities

Designed by Zawar Ahmed

Tsai City has launched a new intensive program focused on building infrastructure and forging partnerships across the Yale campus and New Haven communities. The name, Hub and Spoke, is inspired by New Haven’s road system, which goes from the center outwards. The phrase evokes the image of an interconnected web in an attempt to oppose Yale’s exclusive nature. Their Fall 2021 cohort, of which Jade Villegas ’24, Joaquin Soto ’24, and Simon Debesai ’24 are members, is focused on a community-centered data mapping project known as On Memory, which will ultimately lead to a public exhibition of local art. In their guidebook, On Memory is described as “a memorial in New Haven for those affected by Covid-19 through the lens of social justice.” “The On Memory project is currently in a phase called Memorial Mapping, a data mapping stage that seeks to evaluate COVID-19’s effects on redlined communities,” Soto explains. “[They aim to] show that it’s no accident that COVID-19 affected these communities the most. There are so many underlying issues that can all be mapped and cross-compared.”

The first phase of On Memory constituted a creative way for the team to survey the concerns of New Haven residents. The cohort installed 11 large disks, called Diary Disks, in different neighborhoods around the city, each displaying a different prompt for locals to respond to. Prompts on the disks included, “I hope…”; “I dream…”; and “I remember…” The responses residents wrote revealed the prevalent issues in New Haven that On Memory would then emphasize in their data analysis. When asked why the team took the time to install Diary Disks throughout New Haven, On Memory Innovation Fellow Ye Qin Zhu, an artist and the Innovation Fellow overseeing this project, responded that they served as an “immediate memorial to acknowledge that the pandemic is ongoing. We wanted a place where people could reflect and a way for us to hear more voices and include them in our analysis.” 

The second phase, the focus of this semester, is called Memorial Mapping. This phase seeks to conduct data analysis based on the issues raised in the Diary Disks in order to curate various maps. Villegas listed the data sets the team is working on: “We are mapping food access in New Haven by marking the coordinates of every supermarket. We are also working on a bike lane map and an urban tree canopy map, which both speak to how historically redlined neighborhoods have less access to green spaces. We also have basic demographic maps based on race, age, income, and immigration status.” All of these can be layered on top of each other digitally.

Aside from the robust data analysis, the other main component of this project is about community engagement. The team is curating a series of exhibitions which can be expected to begin at the end of this semester. The exhibitions will combine the data team’s findings along with community stories that add a tangible component to the various numbers and maps involved. Exhibitions will hopefully take place in New Haven public libraries and will be a place for residents to connect with the team and become involved in the next On Memory phase, where they will pick a brownfield to create a memorial art park. The team is carefully considering how to make these exhibitions as accessible as possible by creating both visual and auditory components as well as using thoughtful strategies to ethically represent these communities in maps.

When asked why the team chose to embark on such a rigorous project, Villegas explained, “COVID-19 did not create these problems. It only exacerbated them.” She went on to reference “Segregation is Killing Us,” a similar data project based in New York City. “When I saw ‘Segregation is Killing Us’, I felt my own direct connection to it because I am from New York; I attended NYC public schools,” Villegas added. “I was able to view the race and income demographics of where I lived and make connections. The ultimate goal is for New Haveners to be able to look at where they live and see themselves in the data. I think data can either scare or affirm people and we are really trying to make it an affirming and empowering experience to be able to look at this data and see their experiences.”

The final phase of On Memory will be the construction of a memorial art park built to exhibit the art of local artists in New Haven. The team plans to use a brownfield, contaminated land that cannot be used, for this park. The team was adamant about welcoming new students who are interested in committing their time and effort to this multi-faceted project. Specifically, they are in need of students who have experience developing websites since they will soon launch one to display their data and maps. They also urge Herald readers to reach out to the team should they know of any local New Haven artists who may be interested in participating. Please reach out to joaquin.soto@yale.edu or jade.villegas@yale.edu if you are interested in joining or have useful information for the project.



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