Why holiday light shows are the therapy we need
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Why holiday light shows are the therapy we need
People enjoy the display of lights at Lightscape at Brooklyn Botanical Garden on Dec. 1, 2021. Outdoor installations like the elaborate illuminations at Brooklyn Botanic Garden are perfect for this second pandemic winter. Kholood Eid/The New York Times.

by Ginia Bellafante

NEW YORK, NY.- A year ago, several months into a pandemic that had run him ragged, Ahsan Hussain, an ophthalmology resident, was introduced to Nayab Rizvi through family friends. COVID-19 has been difficult on dating life, and that was especially so for Hussain, who was working until 10 or 11 every night at Metropolitan Hospital, a city-run facility in East Harlem. Rizvi was studying to become a dentist and also very busy. But they found many areas of commonality; their connection was instant.

Marriage loomed, but would an ordinary proposal do? Hussain believed the moment required more. One day he saw an ad for a light festival at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and poetry itself seemed to intercede. It was hard to imagine a better way to honor the surreal, magical quality of finding someone as if in a vertiginous forest, amid so much darkness.

Hussain was not accustomed to taking breaks during the workday, but for a week he drove to Brooklyn every afternoon to figure out where and how he might pose the question, getting to know some of the 20 people who had been working full time for more than a month to mount the installation over nearly half of the garden’s 52 acres.

On opening night, Nov. 19, which was also Rizvi’s birthday, close to the end of the mile-long walkway, where plants and trees are illuminated and torches and candles reflect on the water, Hussain got down on one knee under a cathedral of tiny lights and proposed. His brother and sister had come earlier to set up bright white letters on the ground spelling out “Marry Me.” (Should you find yourself reading this with any twinge of suspense, Rizvi said yes.)

A gift of art and timing, the exhibition had been in the works at the garden for three years and appears to be exactly what the city needs as we enter our second pandemic winter, under the specter of the omicron variant and with the prospect of more backyard firepits and propane lamps and dining yurts, all devoid of the initial thrill. The hunger for something else seemed clear right away. More than 60,000 tickets have sold so far, and those for weekend nights (the show runs through Jan. 9) were nearly gone as soon as they became available.

Light shows have a long connection to the holidays — this season there are installations at Snug Harbor in Staten Island and the Bronx Zoo, for example — but Lightscape is surely the biggest and most sophisticated in the city’s history. The project originated with a company called Culture Creative that is based in Northumberland, an English county on the Scottish border where the sun is down during winter more than it isn’t and a reframing of the season was needed as a defense against the joylessness of the pitch black. The show traveled to the Chicago Botanic Garden for the first time last year to great success and is also on display now in Los Angeles, San Antonio and Houston, where the hope, of course, is to raise money.

Public gardens have not been an obvious beneficiary of philanthropy during COVID-19, having suffered financially even as they have provided the solace of so much peace and fresh air. Brooklyn Botanic Garden lost 7,000 of its 19,000 members at the outset of the pandemic — though the numbers climbed back up after reopening. It also faced a $9 million deficit that was winnowed down to $1.2 million by the end of last year only by way of an emergency measure that forced the garden to draw from its endowment, something that nonprofits are famously loath to do. Lightscape, the garden’s executive director, Adrian Benepe, told me, has been a salvation, bringing in as many visitors in a single night as the garden might ordinarily have over the course of a month.

“This is a real opportunity to be out in nature and also think about what we have lost,” he said. “We’re not forcing a happy, jolly experience on you.”

Benepe, the city’s former parks commissioner, has for decades been at the center of efforts to integrate New Yorkers with the outdoors during the coldest months of the year. In the 1990s, when he worked in development at the New York Botanical Garden, he was the one who introduced the popular holiday train show, with landmarks of the city re-created in bark and other organic elements. It was during his tenure in the parks department that Christo’s “Gates” finally went up in Central Park.

Christo had been trying to persuade the city to let him work in the park for many years. He first received word that his vision for thousands of fabric panels, adorning 25 miles of pathway in the park, would be denied permission to proceed. By this point, Christo was well-known for his ethereal interventions in the natural world — having draped a curtain across the 1,250-foot Rifle Gap in the Colorado Rockies a decade earlier. But his notion to celebrate the “processional, ceremonial walkways of the park” by “activating their overhead space” did not sufficiently enthrall the city’s then parks commissioner, Gordon J. Davis, who in 1981 delivered his rejection in the form of a 107-page report that argued for the sanctity of the city’s public land, free from much externalized aesthetic imposition.

But it is just this kind of imposition that is needed during times of the year when parks and gardens are underused. When “The Gates” finally appeared in February 2005, 4 million people came to see the installation over 16 days. Drawing them out of hibernation had been part of the point, even if it had not been a civic priority. It has taken the pandemic to really change the way we think about outdoor public space, to push us to consider what we want from it and how to appreciate it. Sometimes the lights in the garden in Brooklyn look like fireflies; sometimes, many have noticed, the trees themselves don’t look real. Sometimes we need to be reminded that the familiar in nature belies the extraordinary.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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