Memorials Grow From the Sites of Cleveland Tragedies

A spontaneous shrine continues to grow near the spot where Tamir Rice was killed
A spontaneous shrine continues to grow near the spot where Tamir Rice was killed
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A few days ago, 18-year-old Angel Williams gathered up the courage to visit the place where her friend Tamir Rice died.

ANGEL WILLIAMS: It’s taken a huge impact on me. Tamir was like my little brother.

She brushes away some broken glass, and props up a framed personal message to the boy. People have left similar personal objects at other spontaneous memorials that spring-up in the wake of tragedy --- from the mylar balloons and teddy bears at the site of traffic deaths, to the flowers and running shoes near the finish line, after the Boston Marathon bombings. Cultural geographer Kenneth Foote says up until recent years, such offerings for the dead took place at gravesites.

KENNETH FOOTE: But, I think in the last generation, there’s been a greater attention to the site where the accident or tragedy occurred. That sense of attachment to where the person died is more important.

Foote says these improvised shrines that appear while the pain is still fresh sometimes lay the groundwork for something more permanent.

KENNETH FOOTE: Those teddy bears, those candles, those events in the very first few days or weeks set the stage for debate on how events are going to be remembered.

Cleveland architect Kevin Robinette suggests these immediate responses to tragic events become a form of collective mourning.
KEVIN ROBINETTE: I think there is a genuine need on the part of many people to reach out to those who have experienced a loss. I think it’s a way that people can step up and feel a part of a greater community and make a gesture towards those who have experienced the loss.

A little over five years ago, teddy bears started showing up along Imperial Avenue, in remembrance of the women that serial killer Anthony Sowell murdered in his eastside home. After the house was torn down, members of the local American Institute of Architects chapter met with community leaders and with the families of the victims to broach the idea of creating a more permanent memorial. Kevin Robinette helped steer complicated process.

KEVIN ROBINETTE: It was not something that they wanted remembered; it was not something they wanted to be reminded of. And they were wary of the fact that it would be somehow honoring the person that perpetrated the crime.

The designers also met initial resistance from people in the neighborhood --- and even from some of their own colleagues --- who felt that not all of the victims should be honored, due to past histories with drug abuse and incarceration. Cultural geographer Kenneth Foote says sometimes the process for creating permanent memorials can last for years.

KENNETH FOOTE: The Lincoln memorial wasn’t dedicated until 1924, because there was still a lot of lingering hostility toward Lincoln.

It took three years to break ground for what is being called “The Garden of 11 Angels”.

SOUND: Ground breaking, shovels go into the earth

Eleven shovels, wielded by family members of Anthony Sowell’s victims, dug into the earth, this past October. The families, neighbors and other community members agreed on a memorial that will feature eleven small fountains that feed into a larger pool of water. To the side, a wall will be inscribed with excerpts from the Maya Angelou poem “Still I Rise”. Donnita Carmichael looked across the patchy grass that covers the property where her mother was murdered, and reflected on what is due to rise from that dirt.

DONNITA CARMICHAEL: You don’t even know how much it means to us to be here today; to be able to break this ground, and try to erase some of the negativity that this ground represents. We got something done today. (applause)

On the west side of town, the spontaneous shrine for Tamir Rice has become a focal point for demonstrators from outside the neighborhood protesting the use of excessive force by the police. But, it’s more personal for Angel Williams.

ANGEL WILLIAMS: I wanted to come up here and have a closing with him, so I can find a little more peace.

The offerings at this makeshift memorial continue to grow, as a community tries to come to terms with the loss of one of its own.

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