Thursday, May 25, 2017

Cincinnati Street Memorials

Street Memorial for Office Sonny Kim
At the corner of Whetsel and Roe, in Madisonville 

It's almost Memorial Day and I've been thinking a lot about street memorials. That's what I call the arrangements that adorn trees and poles along streets throughout Cincinnati. Of course, I've never heard anyone else call them "Street Memorials"--or anything, actually. In fact, I've never heard anyone talk about them at all.

Perhaps that's because those arrangements have been there so long they're accepted as a normal part of the scenery. Or maybe it's because each one marks the spot of an untimely, often violent death and that's just too painful to think about.

The phrase "street memorials" came to me one day as I drove past several of them in the grassy strip between the sidewalk and the street on Reading Rd. in Bond Hill. I thought about the persons who died and how someone somewhere loved and missed them enough to erect a public remembrance.

They remind me of my family's annual Memorial Day tradition of honoring lost loved ones by decorating their graves with flowers. In fact, when I was a child, we called the holiday "Decoration Day." Back then, my father taught us to memorialize our deceased relatives because it was the right thing to do. Street memorials uphold a similar tradition.

Whetsel & Roe
in Madisonville

Corner of Whetsel & Roe in Madisonville

I could find no names or dates on the Street Memorials I photographed, but some are well known despite the lack of identifiers. This simple memorial at the corner of Whetsel and Roe Streets honors Officer Sonny Kim who was shot and killed at this location two years ago. 

It's a simple display of red, white, and blue plastic flowers with a small US flag. At the base of the stop sign, someone added a bit of sparkle by embedding glass beads in the ground. Despite the passage of time, this memorial remains neat and colorful.   

Tokens of Love & Affection on Reading Rd 

Street Memorials are collected objects, the spontaneous offerings after a death on the street. They are flowers, balloons, teddy bears, and crosses... tokens of love and affection. These collections are often tied to a tree or a pole with a web of ribbons. Enduring rain, wind, and snow, the decorations fade yet they stand their ground for years.

Site where Iesha Williams was killed
Reading Rd. in Bond Hill

Based on a scene from a WCPO news video dated January 24, 2016, the above street memorial is a tribute to Iesha Williams. The young mother was shot and killed while driving down Reading Rd.

Reading Rd

Each Street Memorial is Different 

No two street memorials are alike. While some appear worn out and weatherbeaten, others show signs of upkeep with recently placed toys, newly-inflated balloons, and fresh flowers or colorful plastic versions of the real thing.

Each is the result of contributions inspired by unique grief, emotion, and maybe anger. Still, they all share the same purpose. They identify the spot where someone died and a call for remembrance. Street memorials are proof that someone cared.

It's Not Just a Black Thing

These days I mostly see street memorials in African American neighborhoods, but those remind me of decades ago when I first saw similar collections in rural Ohio. As an insurance claims investigator, I frequently traveled to communities along State Route 27, a two-lane highway designated by locals as the "Highway to Heaven.

Before the state straightened Route 27, it was a far more twisted path than it is now. That's where I first saw bouquets of flowers, crosses, and other tokens of affection. They dotted the grass at the edges of the sharpest bends and leaned against dented guardrails. 

I'd never seen them before, but knowing the reputation of the road, I didn't have to ask what those roadside artifacts meant. The Street Memorials along State Route 27 marked the scene of so many fatal accidents. 

Over the years, I investigated a number of those accidents myself. I came to understand how drunk or sober, day or night, drivers died because they felt compelled to take those curves at outrageous speeds. Their actions were just as dangerous as the gunplay that kills Cincinnati residents.  

 Vine Street Across From The Zoo

Most people create Street Memorials as a tribute to other people but not this one. The biggest, most colorful arrangement I've photographed decorates a light pole across from the Cincinnati Zoo's main entrance. 

This collection of colorful flowers, small stuffed bears, and ribbons is a tribute to Harambe, who was killed by zoo staff to save a child's life.

Lost Lives

I suppose I've been haunted by street memorials since my first sightings all those years ago. I've noticed them along streets and highways everywhere I've traveled. That urge to memorialize a life in a public place is a natural human instinct, I suppose. 

Each time I pass a tree or a pole or a grassy patch decorated with objects not ordinarily found along a roadside, I think about lost lives. I think about the senselessness of lives taken too soon by gunplay or reckless driving. I'm sure I will continue this line of thinking long after Memorial Day has passed.  


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