What Was Lost, What Was Learned: The Zip Code Memory Project's First Public Gathering

Emily Johnson
January 05, 2022

On December 5, 2021, the participants and organizers of the Zip Code Memory Project joined together for their first public gathering since the project’s launch. 

In the pale afternoon light, by the bronze Peace Fountain at The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine on 111th, participants and onlookers assembled in a circle, holding white taper candles and listening to speakers share their experiences of the pandemic.

The Zip Code Memory Project, based at the University of Columbia’s Center for the Study of Social Difference, aims to memorialize the losses resulting from COVID-19, and to acknowledge the radically different and racialized effects of the pandemic across communities in Harlem, Washington Heights and the South Bronx.

For the past few months, community members have gathered in workshops and events to give voice to their experiences of the pandemic in a variety of mediums. This event was their first opportunity to publicly hold space for the grief and loss they experienced, and to create space for others to do so as well.

Many speakers discussed how the great divide between have and have-not communities has been exacerbated by the pandemic, specifically in terms of access to resources, especially physical care and mental health. Others discussed loved ones lost to the virus.

“We’re going to take a minute of silence,” announced workshop leader George Emilio Sanchez, “to acknowledge, mourn, and celebrate those who are not with us, whether you know them directly or indirectly.”

Following the minute of silence, participants began to walk from the fountain in a slow procession, loosely two-by-two, accompanied by drums and vocals performed by members of the musical collective MUSA. 

MUSA is a musical community formed in response to the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, that now offers community-oriented live performances featuring primarily Afro-Cuban and Afro-Colombian rhythms. Their aim is to provide collectives and activists with safe, intentional space to be in community, in dialogue, and in respite: a purpose that aligns perfectly with the Zip Code project.

The procession moved across 111th to Broadway, returned back to Amsterdam across 112th, and ended at the steps of the Cathedral. At intervals all along the steps, paper bag lanterns were glowing. 

Lights illuminated a wall lined with blank postcard-sized spaces, affixed with double-sided tape. Here, participants were invited to come up and post their postcards. The theme of the cards, and of the event itself: what was learned and what was lost during COVID?

“Please hold the silence,” Sanchez encouraged the crowd gently, though people continued to chat and greet each other softly as they waited, taking photos and selfies and videos.

Workshop leader Jordan Corine Cruz explained to me that the postcards give people space they haven’t had before to express themselves. Indeed, it felt like people were offering testimony. Some cards were illustrated, colorful, or collaged; some were like letters, others were poems. 

One card read: “In the time of COVID, I lost all certainty about what the future would bring, or even the next day, for myself & for generations to come. I lost the pleasure of working with people, & so much I had taken for granted.

Another: “We lost friends and family members. People got sick; people died across the world. Our neighborhoods were emptied. We were silenced and alone. In our grief, we learned compassion. We helped each other heal.”

A simple one, bearing a heart: “Soy más fuerte de lo que pensé”—“I am stronger than I thought.”

Award-winning choir Sing Harlem performed a showstopper of a concert on the steps of the Cathedral, heart-stirring classics like ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘The Storm is Passing Over.’ Against the backdrop of the lit-up cathedral arches, soloist after soloist stepped forward to let their voices soar in dizzying triumph—absolutely jaw-dropping vocal pyrotechnics that made the crowd erupt in cheers again and again.

Sanchez thanked everyone for gathering, for holding space, and for their participation in the Zip Code Memory Project workshops. 

Finally, MUSA’s ensemble took the stage again, and this time the crowd moved up the steps to gather closer around them, some clapping in time with the syncopated rhythm. The warm stage lights made the circle feel as though it was a gathering around a fire, invoking an almost primal feeling of togetherness that sent the participants off into the night with a sense of restoration, and perhaps catharsis.