Teddy bears are fuzzy and cute. Flowers are fresh. Handwritten tributes are clean and clear.
Then, time and weather take their toll.
After weeks or months – in some cases, years – the makeshift memorials on utility poles or trees around Akron deteriorate.
The teddy bears turn soggy and gray. Flowers wilt. Handwritten tributes become illegible.
Rather than serving as a tribute to someone who died, they become an eyesore.
A group of block watch leaders in West Akron is asking City Council to consider limiting how long these memorials can be displayed. They suggest the city remove them after a certain period, perhaps two weeks or a month.
“We are not insensitive to the issues,” said Gerald Stafford, president of the Beechwood Block Club. “How long is long enough to have it out there? It does have the tendency to bring the neighborhood down.”
Stafford had a firsthand view of the ugly side of the impromptu memorials with one erected on a light pole down the street from his Beechwood Drive home. Candles left burning around the memorial — put up to honor a 19-year-old Akron man shot and killed after a fight with another man over a gun in August — caught the stuffed animals on fire. Neighbors had to rush to extinguish the blaze.
Residents haven’t been able to get rid of a message spray-painted in white in the middle of the street: “RIP (Rest in Peace) Juice,” which was the nickname of the man who was killed.
Stafford, Ivory Alexander and Zenobia Lathan, who head the three West Akron block clubs nicknamed “The Woods” because the streets have the word “wood” in their names, recently wrote a letter to Council President Marco Sommerville, who represents Ward 3, urging him to consider legislation limiting the memorials. They say they have the support of the other 15 to 20 residents who regularly attend their block club meetings.
Sommerville and Councilman Russel Neal Jr., who represents the nearby Ward 4, also in West Akron, are studying the issue and looking at how other communities have addressed it. They hope to craft legislation that responds to the concerns raised by residents, while being sensitive to those who put up the memorials. They are considering offering a permanent marker as a replacement — possibly where the makeshift memorial stood or on a tribute wall elsewhere in the city.
“We want to find a way, when we do lose people, that we can acknowledge it and honor it,” said Sommerville, who owns a funeral home and has handled the services of some of those being memorialized.
Besides considering the memorials unsightly, the block club presidents say they provide a constant reminder of crime in their neighborhood.
Some of the memorials are in honor of people killed in an accident, like a car crash, but many are for people who have been shot or beaten to death.
“These things are just reminding us of how many homicides we have in our area,” said Lathan, president of the Fernwood Block Club and a Fernwood resident for 30 years.
The block club presidents have been trying to figure out how many memorials there are in Akron. They’ve found more in their neighborhood than elsewhere in the city, though they know of a few in other neighborhoods and realize there might be others they haven’t heard about. They recently took the Beacon Journal on a tour of the ones they’ve found.
The tour began on Beechwood, with the memorial that caught on fire. The memorial mysteriously disappeared after a recent block club meeting where the memorial issue was discussed. The grass around the pole is charred from the fire and bits of paper and tape still are visible on the pole. The spray-painted message remains in the street.
The next stop was the largest memorial the residents know about: on a utility pole at the corner of Copley Road and Mercer Avenue. It was put up in honor of a 3-month-old girl who died when she was thrown from a car in an accident in August 2010. More than 30 dirty, soggy stuffed animals, baby blankets and fake flowers are attached to the pole. One teddy bear has a burned spot on its head from a candle.
The memorial is in front of the former Handel’s, where the girl’s name and “RIP” are spray-painted in blue on one of the boarded-up windows.
The third stop was a much smaller memorial on a tree on the devil’s strip at Hillwood and Work drives, where a 24-year-old Akron man was found shot in his car in May 2010.
A mother walking her son to a school bus discovered the body. A few sad-looking stuffed animals are attached to a tree, along with several faded T-shirts, including one that was a tribute to the victim but is now hard to decipher.
The tour next headed up East Avenue, going past a couple of roadside memorials — one for a young girl who was raped and another for a 44-year-old man who was beaten to death.
The final stop was on Celina Avenue, where police shot a 42-year-old Akron man 22 times in July 2009 after he refused to get on the ground and reached for a gun. The memorial, which once completely covered a chain-link fence, has dwindled to a sign with a picture of the man, a few flags and a pin wheel, and a couple of stones with spiritual messages. One stone reads, “Your memory is our keepsake, which we’ll never forget.”
The Rev. Bob Denton, who heads Victim Assistance, a local agency that works with crime victims, said the memorials are a way for people to cope with their loss.
“It gives people the ability to do something and express to the community their concern,” he said.
Still, Denton said he knows the memorials start to lose their appeal when they’ve been up awhile.
“If you put it up for one of your loved ones and it is standing there ragged and sad, it doesn’t reflect well on the person you are memorializing,” he said.
Denton hopes the city will give families a different option, perhaps a permanent marker to honor the people they lost.
“Put the control for how they want to deal with that back in their hands,” he said. “They didn’t have a choice when they lost their loved one.”
Katherine Brooks, aunt of Garland Dean, whose beating death is marked by a memorial on East Avenue near the spot where his body was found in the woods just over a year ago, doesn’t think regulations are needed on the memorials.
“It’s not hurting anybody,” she said of the memorial, which includes a white wooden cross, balloons and fake flowers.
Brooks said her family maintains the memorial by periodically replacing the balloons and cleaning up around it. She thinks it’s a good reminder of how the police haven’t charged anyone for her nephew’s death, much to the family’s frustration.
She said, however, that the family might be satisfied with some other type of marker.
“As long as it’s something,” Brooks said, breaking into tears. “Something we can go and look at.”
Her voice catching as she sobbed, Brooks said, “They won’t even find the person.”
Gloria Twitty, an Akron woman whose 29-year-old son, Lemetrius, was killed in Atlanta nine years ago, thinks the memorials should be taken down after a reasonable time period. She said Akron is trying to improve neighborhoods, including where she lives near the Akron Zoo, and the memorials detract from that effort.
“I wouldn’t want something like that representing where my son was killed,” she said. “I wouldn’t want a reminder.”
Akron isn’t the first community to grapple with makeshift memorials.
Neal and other city officials have found legislation on this issue from as far away as Arizona. He said most allow the memorials to remain for two weeks to a month. After that point, he said, some communities allow families, at their own expense, to purchase a permanent marker to take the place of the memorial.
Other communities have started a memorial wall, where names of victims can be posted.
The memorials people might notice most are those they zoom past on the interstate.
The Ohio Department of Transportation doesn’t permit memorials, but allows them to remain as long as they don’t pose a hazard or draw away drivers’ attention. When the state does maintenance work, such as mowing, memorials in the way are removed, said Justin Chesnic, a spokesman for the department’s District 4.
The state legislature can pass a law for a permanent highway sign to be erected in a person’s honor, he said.
Neal said one challenge in Akron is that the memorials are often on property owned by someone other than the city, such as a utility pole, where the city probably wouldn’t be permitted to place a permanent marker.
He wants to involve residents in crafting the city’s legislation. He and Sommerville are working with the law department to draft some ideas and will meet with local block clubs to get their input.
Neal said he hopes to get the legislation together in the next two months.
“I think, when we get the community together, we will be able to work through this — and honor their lives,” he said.
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705 or firstname.lastname@example.org.