We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Laurisa Ryland’s memorial occupies a single tree box at 1st and Q Streets NW. It consists of Forever Beautiful fake flowers, balloons tethered to a tree trunk, dried-up daisies, and a litter of stuffed animals. Although it’s been up since early January, it never spread beyond the tree box and never acquired the thug’s farewell of Moë#t bottles and Black & Milds. The memorial is without the protective armor of green glass, the pomp of drippy candles. No R.I.P.s anywhere.
Still, Truxton Circle residents have become weary of seeing the puny memorial. “Every time you look at it, maybe not physically but psychologically, there’s a bit of a jolt that you get that somebody was killed there,” says Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner James Berry Jr. “You don’t need a constant reminder of that….There should be some regulation that limits the time.”
To that end, neighbors recently started to complain about the memorial for Ryland, who was killed at the corner last winter, at community meetings. At a May 26 forum at the 5th District police station, a Bates Street NW resident spoke out against it, citing its extended shelf life and the fact that the neighborhood was changing. Houses that once sold for $100,000 now go for four times that amount. The resident mentioned that someone was trying to sell a home a few houses up from the memorial. It appeared the seller was having a hard time, she told police officials.
Memorials have long dotted poorer parts of the city, paying homage to murder victims with stuffed animals, liquor bottles, and sports-team memorabilia. But as neighborhoods gentrify, residents have become less tolerant of the makeshift shrines. Last month, the Department of Public Works (DPW) entered the fray after residents complained to its director, William O. Howland Jr., about Ryland’s memorial at a Bates Area Civic Association forum.
The agency had never had any protocol concerning curbside tributes, leaving their disposal up to the mourners’ discretion. But after the meeting, Howland directed his staff to come up with a memorial-removal policy. The agency has spent the last three weeks formulating ideas concerning the length of time a memorial can be up, how the agency would notify the community and the mourners of its removal, and what would happen to the items once the allotted time expired.
“It was only as I became more sensitive to trash in the streets,” Howland says of his decision to address the memorials. “It became evident that we needed to have a policy….There’s a concern about the person that’s deceased as well as the property owner where the incident occurred. All of the sudden they have articles appearing in front of their yard for months on end. That’s unfair to them.” DPW spokesperson Mary Myers says memorial protocols should be in place by the end of summer or early fall.
The teddy-bear totems used to be symbols of outrage, reserved for the most heinous crimes, such as the 1997 Starbucks murders. They appeared in the wakes of candlelight vigils, as the backdrops for TV news reports. If a little girl was killed or that drive-by murder case had grown too cold, loved ones expressed their anger by posting candles and booze bottles at the crime scene. They were reminders meant to expose the District’s negligence in protecting its youngest or making those responsible receive justice.
Now memorials are just an ordinary part of the cycle of grieving for the city’s many victims of violence. “I think they[’ve] become the norm,” explains Detective Jim Trainum, who has worked homicide cases for more than 10 years. “It’s just part of the grieving process now.”
Police Lt. Sam Craig, whose beat includes the area of the Ryland memorial, says that the markers used to disappear after about two weeks. But as the memorials become more and more commonplace, families are continuing to push their life span. “People are putting up balloons, pictures—that stuff will get kicked around,” Craig explains. “After a while, you know what? I need my neighborhood back, too. I want to be able to walk out of my house without constant reminders of this.”
Ryland, who lived on Capitol Hill, wasn’t even a neighborhood resident. According to police records, she worked as a counselor. The corner meant nothing to her. It was just the place her boyfriend agreed to meet her the night of Jan. 6. Ryland was sitting in her Dodge Caravan talking to a friend on her cell phone when she was shot multiple times. “Here he comes now,” she said.
Then the friend heard nothing but the sound of Ryland’s DVD player.
Ryland, 43, was pronounced dead on the scene. The boyfriend was arrested within days. There was little outrage from neighbors, and her case was solved with the help of several witnesses. Yet Ryland’s friends soon replaced the blood and police tape with neon-pink roses and streams of ribbon, converting the murder scene into a roadside memorial.
Six months later, the memorial’s balloons and teddies stand out in contrast to the other tree boxes on 1st Street. The others possess a Martha Stewart orderliness, each containing the same bulbs and dollop of fresh mulch. None of them boast synthetic blue petals and nappy gorillas.
Mary Ann Wilmer says the contrast is a result of the upcoming Flower Power competition. Now in its third year, Flower Power began as a way to spur community-beautification projects. Neighbors nominate and judge each other’s yards and blocks, scoring them on cleanliness, tree-box landscaping, and innovative patio design, among other criteria. With Ryland’s memorial, the 1600 block of 1st Street can only hope for an honorable mention from the judges. “We can’t plant there,” says Wilmer, Flower Power’s coordinator.
But families who tend the memorials argue that you can’t put a time limit on grief. On April 3, two men shot Eric “E” Bartley at Robinson Place SE. The following Sunday, his family set up a memorial at the nearby Parkway Overlook apartments. His sister, Amekia Bartley, says that the family wanted a visible reminder of Eric for the community and that the shrine helps. “Some people have seen the memorial and just recently learned about his death,” she says.
Bartley’s memorial has grown to include about 50 stuffed animals, ranging from traditional teddy bears to SpongeBob SquarePants, and 23 mostly empty liquor bottles: Moët & Chandon, Hennessy, Rémy Martin, Absolut. A few contain one final gulp. A cobweb has started to form between two bottles of Rémy. The family still finds it a comfort. “I sit out there and talk to him,” says Bartley’s brother Ricardo Bentley. “It’s like he’s still here with us.”
Bartley’s memorial may be the biggest in the area, but Maurice “Lil’ Mo” Owens’ memorial, a block away on the grounds of A.P. Shaw United Methodist Church, is the oldest. On Oct. 20, 2000, Owens was killed in Maryland. Instead of running back and forth to the Harmony Memorial Park Cemetery in Landover, Md., mother Cynthia Eaglin and her family thought it might be easier to have something nearby. A week after Owens died, they set up the memorial around a tree on the church property.
The shrine once contained 20 stuffed animals, says Eaglin. But now there are only two: a giant green teddy holding a purple crayon and an oversized elephant. A black T-shirt reads “Happy 18th Birthday Lil Mo.” The two stuffed animals are a little weatherbeaten, and when they get too soggy, Eaglin says, she will replace them.
Twice a year the family gathers at the tree. On Owens’ birthday, they grill, and on the anniversary of his death, they hold a candlelight vigil. “It’s not in anybody’s way. It’s not in the center of attention,” says Eaglin. “I had spoken to the owner and he said, ‘I’m not rushing you to take it down, but do you know when you might be ready?’ I said, ‘Not no time soon.’”
But just as in Truxton Circle, neighbors are critical of the memorials. Parkway Overlook resident Vernial Batts isn’t much of a fan. “[It’s] basically an eyesore,” he says of Owens’ 5-year-old memorial. He looks over the weathered Crayola bear. They’re “breeding grounds for germs, bacteria. [A] breeding ground for filth,” he says.
Other residents take issue with the values they think such memorials promote. Bridgette Thomas objects to the liquor bottles that often clutter the sites. “To have liquor bottles out, what is it showing?” she says. “I don’t know the significance.”
Absalom Jordan, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 8, worries that the significance is gang-related. “I understand the symbolism if somebody is innocent, [but] these are usually gang people,” he says. “[It’s like] a dog urinating on a fire hydrant to mark territory.”
Eaglin responds to such criticism by separating Owens’ memorial from those honoring gang life. “It’s not like people come up and say ‘This was my dog, and he was my nigga.’ That’s not what this memorial was about. It’s about coming together,” she says.
Amekia Bartley shares a similar view. “They’re so used to people getting killed because of drugs,” she says of voices like Jordan’s. “My brother was not killed because of drugs or [anything] gang-related.”
And at the mention of having to take the bears down, Ricardo Bartley says, “There are people ’round here [that] are really petty. We keep this area clean. They gonna tell us we gotta take it down out of spite.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.