It’s a rare day when I trek over to the East Side to see my friend at NYU Uptown. I always glance at the Empire State Building during the long trudge from the 6 Station to her 1st Avenue apartment. Last week the group of us that had gathered at her place debated the significance of the evening’s lighting colors. Red, yellow and black signaled the start of Oktoberfest to some and nothing to others, but a quick Google search confirmed that we were all wrong. The lights commemorated the 54th annual Steuben Day Parade which, while perhaps related to Oktoberfest, was still lost on us when we interpreted the color scheme from a mere glimpse.
The Empire State Building, as its website claims, is one of the most seen buildings in the world. To become a “lighting partner”—or, to have the ability to choose a night’s lighting color scheme—demands a detailed application and an approval from the private group that owns the building. Charitable and nonprofit groups are most often accepted. (Famously the Empire State Building displays red and green lights for Christmas and blue and white for Hanukkah, but religious requests are unilaterally denied.) Even the competition as to whose technology has the privilege to light the building is fierce.
Mark Kingwell, author of Nearest Thing to Heaven: The Empire State Building and American Dreams, described the Empire State Building as “the distinctive image of mythic New York,” an image that is “totally irresistible.” (Although it’s a bit old, this commemorative section in the New York Times elaborates on the Empire State Building’s inner workings, its social meaning and its importance to New York’s skyline.) It is difficult to resist the urge to advertise one’s cause on the top of a billboard that reaches millions of people nightly. While these lights are surely seen, the transmission of their intended message is often ambiguous, sometimes obtuse and even incomprehensible.
Some of the lighting arrangements are universally identifiable: red, white and blue for Independence Day, green for St. Patrick’s, orange and black for Halloween. Yet, often divergences from the classic white (which itself signals a lack of a lighting partner for the day) are more obscure and therefore puzzling. Could you guess what this lighting scheme represented?
It’s Hanukkah and Christmas put together, on December 24, 2008. What about this one?
This was in honor of the various countries competing in the 2006 Olympics, where each side represented a different nation. In celebration of a particular school’s commencement every year, we get this:
While Columbia students easily recognize this sign, the typical city resident may have no idea what it indicates. Luckily for the stumped and irked, the Empire State Building publishes the lighting schedule and its significance online. You can even create your own color combination with a unique meaning and send it to a friend using the e-card maker.
Colors serve as indicators for many unspoken concepts in New York City. The colors of the subway lines signify which express and local lines travel on the same paths, or even the character of the station (the powder blue tiles at 116th Street come to mind). Colored traffic lights direct trains, vehicles and pedestrians (although they are not strictly obeyed). Wear red at a New York Yankees game and prepare to face ridicule, even if you do not intend to associate with the Red Sox. The coppery green patina of the Statue of Liberty not only secures its status as another recognizable symbol of the New York skyline but also its old age.
The Empire State Building and its lights are paradoxical: they are ubiquitous and recognizable, yet their nightly color-coded message can be confusing and even unintelligible. One person may see one meaning while others see another. Unlike the letters of language or the colors of a traffic light, there is no predetermined paradigm for what the Empire State Building’s color arrangement represents. Whether or not we understand its significance is independent of our identification of the colors in and of themselves. The sign may be visible to all, but the code is not always easy to crack.