Your Cause in Lights: The Empire State Building's Tribute Policy

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iStock

One of the most recognizable buildings in the world—loved by tourists, locals, and giant gorillas alike—the Empire State Building decorates the New York City skyline with regular displays of colored lights. A recent controversy over the Empire State Building's rejection of the Catholic League's proposal to honor of Mother Teresa's centennial with blue and white lights has put a spotlight on the building's lighting policy. Among the protestors, City Council members are speaking out against the decision.

As stated by the building management, which receives hundreds of lighting requests each year, "The Empire State Building's tower lights recognize key milestones, events, charitable organizations, countries, and holidays throughout the world, not political or religion related events."

Yet, some lighting choices have been controversial. For example, in 2009, when red and yellow lights shone to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of China, critics called it a tribute to Communist rule and a country with a poor human rights record. And religious figures have been honored in the past, such as in 1979, when the building lit up in white and gold in honor of the pope's visit to New York, and in 2005, when they were dimmed to honor his death. The Catholic League also pointed out that in 2000, the building was lit in red and white when Cardinal Archbishop of New York John Joseph O'Connor died, and the building is regularly lit black, red and green in honor of Martin Luther King Day. In May, the building lit up in blue and white to honor the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York's Salute to Israel Parade. Also, a number of the holidays marked with lights (Christmas, Chanukah, Eid al-Fitr) have religious significance.

The 2008 rejection of an application from the Marine Corps to honor its birthday has also come back into the discussion.

The management has stayed quiet on the Mother Teresa decision other than stating that it's final. It has been self-critical in the past for lighting choices on occasion. In a 2003 New York Times interview, building special events manager Lydia A. Ruth said she regretted some of the more commercial lighting choices—Microsoft 95 (blue, red, green and yellow), new M&Ms (blue), and Pink Floyd's new album (red pulses).

WHAT DO HERBERT HOOVER AND JUSTIN BIEBER HAVE IN COMMON?

Justin Bieber may have generated the most buzz when he flipped the switch on the Empire State Building light display for the Jumpstart Reading Challenge in 2009, but Herbert Hoover was the first to light up the Empire State Building back in 1931 after the building's completion. (Technically, he pressed a button in D.C.) Since then, the lights have gone through many evolutions, expanding in size, color and occasions, and decreasing in wattage. In 1932, a searchlight switched on to signify New York's own FDR's presidential election win. (On election eve 2008, the tower displayed both red lights for Republicans and blue lights for Democrats. After Obama won, it switched over to all blue.)

In 1956, revolving beacons, known as "Freedom Lights" were added to the building, turning it into a "lighthouse of the sky." A new set of Empire State Building lights debuted during the 1964 World's Fair, brightening the building's facade.

Douglas Leigh was behind the colorful lighting advancements. In his advertising career, Leigh was also the innovator behind a number of iconic billboards that featured steaming cups of coffee, glowing weather displays and rings of cigarette smoke. Equipped with Leigh's new color palette, the building started lighting up in earnest in the 1970s. The first display was on July 4, 1976: the Empire State Building lit up in red, white, and blue, but it might not have been for the nation's bicentennial. Some accounts say that it was actually to celebrate the birthday of Leona Helmsley, one half of the real estate empire of Harry and Leona Helmsley (she was also born on the fourth of July).

The following year, Yankees fans celebrated their World Series victory in the glow of blue and white lights from a new bigger display that reached from the 72nd floor all the way to the television antenna. As The New York Times put it, "Colored lights turn the Empire State Building into a toy."

In addition to vertigo, engineers who change the light gel colors as many as 200 times per year must contend with snow drifts and wayward hawks. Now, a more computerized system has greatly reduced the daily work of changing the colors of the lights

WHAT DO THE NATIONAL OSTEOPOROSIS SOCIETY AND WINDOWS 95 HAVE IN COMMON?

Since 2006, the official Lighting Partner program has reviewed applications for those who want to celebrate with colored lights atop the famous building. A variety of holidays, occasions and individuals are celebrated.

Usually, no more than three different colors are allowed, but a lighting display in honor of the Grateful Dead's museum exhibit sparkled in a tie-dye rainbow of colors. In addition to regular holidays, what else has been celebrated in lights?

  • Frank Sinatra's 80th birthday and also his death (blue)
  • Mariah Carey's top-selling album (purple, pink and white)
  • The Simpsons movie release (yellow)
  • Popeye's 75th birthday
  • Microsoft, for Windows 95 (blue, red, green and yellow)
  • Snapple, for a corporate meeting (yellow)
  • Breast Cancer Awareness (pink)
  • National Osteoporosis Society (teal)
  • Cat Fanciers Association (purple, orange and white)
  • Westminster Dog Show (purple and gold)

The Cat Fanciers Association lights shone for three nights, one night longer than the Westminster Kennel Club display—perhaps there are more cat lovers than dog lovers behind the scenes at the Empire State Building.

On other nights, the lights shine in all white, or in the colors of New York sports teams when they have home games. Following 9/11, the Empire State Building went off its regular schedule to shine red, white, and blue all through the night to offer comfort to those looking out at the sky in the wee hours.

LIGHTS OUT

In addition to brightening up the sky, the Empire State Building has gone dark on a few specific occasions.

  • In 2004, it went dark for 15 minutes in honor of Fay Wray, the actress carried up to the top of the building in King Kong.
  • In 2008, the Empire State Building went "green" by turning off the lights in honor of Earth Hour. (Though far more energy is conserved in this and other commercial buildings through changes to what's going on inside of the building.)
  • During certain times of the year, the building dims its light to be less distracting to migratory birds.
  • In 1992, Harry Helmsley ordered the lights turned off for the first night of Leona's prison sentence for tax evasion.
  • When Harry died in 1997, the building paid tribute by dimming its lights for 7 days.

If you can't see the Empire State Building from your own window, check out this handy site to see what color the building is today and how it looks.

10 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

For side sleepers, keeping the spine, hips, and legs aligned is key to a good night’s rest—and a pain-free morning after. Everlasting Comfort’s memory foam knee pillow is ergonomically designed to fit between the knees or thighs to ensure proper alignment. One simple but game-changing feature is the removable strap, which you can fasten around one leg; this keeps the pillow in place even as you roll at night, meaning you don’t have to wake up to adjust it (or pick it up from your floor). Reviewers call the pillow “life-changing” and “the best knee pillow I’ve found.” Plus, it comes with two pairs of ear plugs.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Letsfit White Noise Machine; $21

Letsfit White Noise Machine
Letsfit/Amazon

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

Buy it: Amazon

3. ECLIPSE Blackout Curtains; $16

Eclipse Black Out Curtains
Eclipse/Amazon

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

Buy it: Amazon

4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock
JALL/Amazon

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

Buy it: Amazon

5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light
Philips/Amazon

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

Buy it: SlumberCloud

7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket
Baloo/Amazon

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

Buy it: Amazon 

10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band
Philips/Amazon

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

Buy it: Amazon

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Taco Bell Quarterly, a Taco Bell-Themed Literary Journal, Exists—And You Can Read It Online

What does the Crunchwrap Supreme have to do with queer politics? A lot, actually.
What does the Crunchwrap Supreme have to do with queer politics? A lot, actually.
Rachel Murray/Getty Images for Taco Bell

In August 2019, writer and “Editor Grande Supreme” MM Carrigan launched the first edition of a free online literary journal called the Taco Bell Quarterly. It wasn’t a publicity stunt—in fact, it wasn’t affiliated with the fast food chain at all—but rather a quality collection of Taco Bell-themed literary musings that ran the gamut from satirical to totally serious.

According to Food & Wine, about 1500 people downloaded that first issue, and viewership grew to 40,000 for the second issue, which was released in February 2020. The Quarterly is gearing up to launch Volume 3 in September, and it promises to be the most zeitgeist-y edition yet.

“Volume 3 will be very much informed by the state of the world. The pieces we're gravitating toward are foreboding, existing on the precipice of an alternate history in which we might have prevented the pandemic," Carrigan tells Mental Floss. “People think we're a joke, but this will be the issue that proves we're not. Writers are taking chances in writing in our magazine that I don't think the literary world has seen in a long time. We're writing with radical sincerity.”

Capturing the cultural atmosphere of this year through Taco Bell-related poems, essays, and short stories might seem like a tall order, but the Quarterly is no stranger to tackling tough topics. While some early pieces are silly and upbeat—take Alana Saltz’s poem “Ode to Nacho Fries,” for example—others use Taco Bell as a backdrop for deeper musings about “homelessness, suburban dread, poverty, American identity, and so much more,” as Carrigan told Food & Wine.

Carrigan chose Taco Bell as the journal's unifying thread because, to put it plainly, it was the first idea that popped into her head.

“Brands are a symbiote that live in our brains. We're telling that story,” she says. And, as far as brands go, Taco Bell's offbeat, innovative menu items and neon beverages are more “seductive” and “daring” than McDonald's classic Big Macs and smiling clown mascot. In other words, the subversive fast food chain is the perfect theme for an online journal that aims to subvert people's stereotypical understanding of “The Writing Life,” which Carrigan describes as a “journey of MFA programs, writing retreats, [and] rubbing elbows at conferences.”

As interest in Taco Bell Quarterly grew, Taco Bell itself began to take notice, and Carrigan says the company has sent the team hundreds of dollars' worth of free tacos as an unofficial "thank you" for all the free advertising. She distributes them to writers whose work has been rejected by other literary magazines.

While you wait for Volume 3 to hit the internet this fall, catch up on the first two volumes on the Taco Bell Quarterly website here.

[h/t Food & Wine]