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Times Square has not been the same since the coronavirus took hold in New York City. Tourists are gone, theaters are closed, and commuters, of course, are home. Even so, on any given day, around 30,000 people pass through - many of them essential workers. And a public art project unveiled today covers Times Square's famous billboards with messages of hope and gratitude and public safety. Marisa Mazria Katz reports.
MARISA MAZRIA KATZ, BYLINE: On a typical day, Times Square's sidewalks are choked with crowds - theatergoers hustling to make curtain calls, buskers serenading in spandex, squinting tourists posing for selfies in front of towering pixelated billboards.
JEAN COONEY: You know, for as chaotic as it is, there's this one unifying factor, which is most people are coming there because they're seeking something. You know, they feel that if they've come to Times Square, then they've seen New York City - then they've seen America.
MAZRIA KATZ: Jean Cooney is the director of Times Square Arts. She oversees temporary installations of public art in the square's plazas and on its billboards. She says today the people in Times Square are different.
COONEY: There are health care workers staying at hotels along with the National Guard. There's NYPD on the ground. There's everyday people going back and forth to their jobs that have been deemed essential, like people working in grocery stores or bodegas or pharmacies.
MAZRIA KATZ: She wanted to say thanks. Turns out, the Poster House museum and Print magazine had the same idea, so they decided to collaborate, explains the museum's director Julia Knight.
JULIA KNIGHT: We found that a lot of folks were looking for something to do with their spaces that had been depleted of advertisers, naturally, and also really wanted to contribute their assets to something beneficial to the city.
MAZRIA KATZ: Billboard owners donated their spaces. The three organizations chose artists and designers to fill them. They include such well-known names as Milton Glaser, who designed the I Heart New York logo, and artist and illustrator Maira Kalman. Matt Dorfman art directs the New York Times Book Review and illustrates book covers.
MATT DORFMAN: With nearly anything else that I'm doing, I'm trying to assign, you know, kind of, like, fine art values to a piece of design in so far as that I'd like people to stop and look at it for a little while.
MAZRIA KATZ: For his Times Square piece, Dorfman created bold bumblebee yellow and black stripes that simply repeat the phrase six feet is six feet.
DORFMAN: This demands for the opposite reaction. It's something that you should read and absorb and then, you know, quickly move past.
MAZRIA KATZ: Another image in rotation shows health care workers in masks with angel wings below the words New York loves you. For the project's second phase, the art collective For Freedoms tapped artists around the world. Hank Willis Thomas is a member of the collective. When he thinks of Times Square, he sees New Year's Eve - a kaleidoscope of colors and lights and the tens of thousands of people in the square thinking about the past and looking forward to what comes next. He says now's the time to give Times Square some of that energy back.
HANK WILLIS THOMAS: And right now, everyone is at home reflecting on all of our life choices and really looking towards an uncertain future. I think Times Square has this really special container in many of our hearts and minds for a space for joy, reflection and communion. In a way, you can say it needs our energy even when we're not there.
MAZRIA KATZ: Images from the billboard project will also be displayed on nearly 2,000 screens throughout the five boroughs and just above the entrance to Lincoln Tunnel.
For NPR News, I'm Marisa Mazria Katz.
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