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From Issue #38 March 13, 2014

Mourning by Stone and Fountain

Can memorials to crime victims help public and private healing in the same space?

By Jessica L.H. Doyle Twitter icon 

DWI Victims’ Memorial of Perpetual Tears in Moriarty, New Mexico.

Down the street from the capitol building in Montpelier, Vermont, is a rounded garden featuring a craggy stone sculpture, a poem carved into the rock. Jasper, Alabama, has a stark granite fountain on display, but in Boston there’s a streambed purposely left dry. In Moriarty, New Mexico, a series of stark white markers rise from a gravel field; near San Diego there’s a leafy oak grove with names hand-painted on smooth stones.

There are almost always names, whether carved into stones or added brick by brick. The names give the structures and sculptures purpose. Other information is often omitted, but the visitor knows that the name belongs to a victim of crime.

Sometimes a public memorial emerges as a spontaneous expression of grief: a cross appears by the side of the highway or a “ghost bike” marks where a bicyclist was killed. But the memorials to crime victims being built across the country are meant to be public and permanent, and they arise from the efforts of civic organizations and government officials. To put it coarsely: tax dollars are at stake—but so are shared public space and the community’s capacity to repair after the trauma of crime.

Memorials to crime victims are meant to comfort both public and private audiences, provide a space for mourning and reflection, and address a desire for justice and a desire for healing. Is it too much to ask one space to do?

Crimes at the heart

Orange County, California, will find out soon. Last April, the county announced plans to build a memorial for crime victims in Mason Regional Park, with the design to be chosen by public competition. Out of 59 entries, a panel of judges selected five finalists, now on display for public comment. The five designers will present their ideas next month, and a winner is expected to be announced in April.

Todd Spitzer, a former assistant district attorney and California state representative who was elected to Orange County’s board of supervisors in 2012, is the memorial’s champion. For him it is the latest in a series of efforts to improve the plight of crime victims, who he says are treated by the judicial process as “second-class citizens.” He also helped draft Marsy’s Law, the 2008 amendment to the California state constitution that requires law enforcement to inform victims of their rights, prevents early release of prisoners, and extends the length of time parole can be denied.

Orange County’s Parks Department selected Mason Regional Park, considering it the most serene the county had to offer, but Spitzer picked the precise location within the park. He insisted on a spot where people at the memorial could look at the sun setting over the park’s small lake. “They had recommended a different site to me, and I said, no way—this is going next to the lake.”

Spitzer says he wants visitors to the memorial to “absorb the emotion of losing something deeply, whether it’s a loved one, whether it’s your inner strength, whether it’s an heirloom that was important to you. I want people to understand how crime impacts our very core.”

Some memorials are dedicated to a specific type of crime: New Mexico’s Memorial of Perpetual Tears is devoted to victims of drunk driving, while Boston’s Garden of Peace commemorates murder victims. By contrast, the Orange County memorial will be inclusive. “If you believe you’re a crime victim, you’re a crime victim, for the purposes of this memorial,” Spitzer says. Stacy Blackwood, director of Orange County Parks, says staff have argued at length over whether to describe the site as a “memorial” or a “monument,” since it’s meant to serve all crime victims, living or dead.

The spirit of inclusion can be found in the design competition guidelines, which specify that the result should be able to host both large gatherings and solitary contemplation. It should “promote healing, hope, and remembrance” but also “give voice to those who cannot speak for themselves.” It should be “beautiful.” And there should be space to add names.

Of the five designs under final consideration, three are understated and not terribly distinguishable from one another: gently sloping curved walls marking the space but not making much of it. One calls for a series of small reflecting pools, which prompts the question of how crime victims will feel to see toddlers making mud pies in the middle of their memorial.

The last of the finalists creates a sunken space in which visitors may sit in front of a wall of names built into the surrounding parkland. Of the five, it seems the most substantial, the most reflective of Spitzer’s insistence on the scarring that crime leaves behind. But scarring isn’t necessarily beautiful; scarring may not be what Orange County wants.

To remember or forget

“Be very clear why you’re doing what you’re doing.” That’s the advice for memorial creators from James Young, a professor of English and Judaic studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Young has studied memorial design for most of his career; he consulted on the memorial currently being built at the site of the former World Trade Center, as well as on Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and on Argentina’s national memorial to the desaparicido victims of the Dirty War. He has written about grand state projects, “anti-memorials” in Germany, and would-be memorial projects that ground to a halt as the various groups supporting the memorial idea began clashing.

Disagreements are common, Young says. Even memorials to the victims of the Holocaust, where the parties involved are generally in broad agreement as to the need to remember, can be fraught. Putting up a public memorial for events whose effects were suffered privately, disproportionately, by a few, leads to a tension between public storytelling and private mourning. The memorial may be driven by a public imperative to never forget, but the victims and their families, given a choice, may prefer to dwell on something other than the circumstances of their suffering.

This tension plays out in memorials to crime victims. Part of the purpose of these memorials is to draw attention to the inherent injustice of crime: to give voice to the voiceless, as the Orange County design guidelines asked, and in some cases raise support for stricter measures against crime.1 But does creating a memorial centered on crime, and including victims’ names, imply that these people are memorable only because of the circumstances of their victimization? And if a crime is a wound to the larger community as well as to the individual victim, is it fair to exclude the details of that crime from the community story?

In Killeen, Texas, is a slab of pink granite with no details save a date—October 16, 1991—and 23 names. You’d have to have a good memory, or access to Wikipedia, to know that this memorial is for the victims of one of the bloodiest mass shootings in American history. October 16, 1991, was the day a misogynist former merchant marine drove his truck into the front window of a Luby’s cafeteria in Killeen, got out, and shot anyone inside he could reach, before eventually killing himself. The Luby’s itself has since closed.

Compare that to the site in Bath, Michigan, where in 1927 a disgruntled school-board member spent months quietly laying dynamite around the local elementary school, to blow it up on the last day of school: 39 children and teachers were killed. At the school’s former site there is not only a plaque listing the victims, but also a large historical marker explaining what happened, the school’s original cupola (the only part of the building still remaining) surrounded by a white picket fence, and a separate museum containing memorabilia from the school, including a memorial statue built in 1928 from the donations of schoolchildren around the country.

The school building in Bath after the explosion

Is the Killeen memorial too little for such a massacre? Does the Bath memorial linger too much on a gruesome crime? The memorials reflect something of the communities that built them. Bath is, in a way, still recovering: eight decades after the explosion, survivors were still describing their pain and shock, and an elementary-school teacher had her students research the victims’ lives as a way of connecting to local history. By contrast, a longtime Killeen city council member, speaking to CNN in 2009 about the Luby’s murders, called his city “resilient” and added, “We’re a very mobile community…Maybe two-thirds of our population weren’t even here or doesn’t even know anything about this.”

“Everyone comes to these memorials for very different reasons,” Young says. When local officials or civic organizations consult with him about a proposed memorial, his first advice is to concentrate less on the end structure and more on the public conversation that will lead to the memorial. Just having a public conversation about what the memorial should look like can be useful in itself: “Even if nothing gets built, at least you will have had a memorial process.”

Expanding the discussion so that the public can get involved—as Orange County is doing by allowing for public comment on its memorial design finalists—makes the process harder, raising thorny questions about collective memory and public priorities. Memorials pushed through by a small group or a dedicated official may be easier to build—but they may not contribute much to the community’s experience in the long run.

Jesse Shechter touches up the paint on the 34th Street Wall vernacular memorial.

Painted hearts preserved

There’s yet another memorial, in Gainesville, Florida. It wasn’t voted on by the local city council, and there was no design competition. The original designers, by their own account, worked with a couple of gallons of paint in the middle of the night, hoping they wouldn’t be arrested for vandalism. There are names, though—five names, in big white rounded letters, and a couple of hearts, and the word “Remember,” and that’s it.

The names, in this case, are those of Sonja Larson, Christina Powell, Christa Hoyt, Tracy Paules, and Manuel Taboada: the five victims of Danny Rolling, a violent drifter who, over the course of four days in August 1990, decided to make a name for himself as a serial killer. Four of the five victims were students at the University of Florida, and the discovery of the bodies left the entire town reeling in fear and grief. Rolling was arrested for the murders a year later and executed in 2006. He had not yet been identified when a group of friends, not themselves students at Florida, went to the 34th Street Wall and painted their makeshift memorial.

Painting the 34th Street Wall is something of a rite of passage in Gainesville. Thousands of students and passers-by have used it over the years to advocate for a cause, cheer on friends, ask for dates, or celebrate. By general understanding, graffiti on the wall has a short life: any painted message is fair game to be covered up soon after. In some parts of the wall, the layers of paint are more than an inch thick. But more than two decades after it was first painted, the “Remember” panel is still intact.

At first an employee of the Gainesville Police Department took it upon herself to maintain the memorial. Eventually, responsibility passed to the university’s Intrafraternity Council. The fraternity brother currently in charge of maintaining the wall, Jesse Shechter, is a sophomore pre-med student from Miami. He wasn’t even born until four years after the murders. “I assumed it was for a tragedy, but I didn’t know what had happened,” he says. “I tried to find out more about the victims online, but I didn’t get a whole lot.”

Shechter checks the memorial every other week or so to make sure no one has tried to paint over it. If they have, he goes back to his apartment and grabs the cans of paint set aside for maintenance. But he’s only had to do that once in the last year. Somehow, in a university town with a lot of people who are, like Shechter, too young to have felt the trauma of the 1990 killings—and, let’s face it, with a lot of opportunities for alcohol-fueled poor decision-making—the community has collectively agreed to respect and preserve the memorial.

“If you ask 40,000 University of Florida students, they probably wouldn’t recognize the name of the killer,” Shechter says. “But if you were to mention one of the victims’ names, they’d say, ‘oh yeah, I’ve seen that name on the wall.’ That, to me, is the best kind of memorial.”

Moriarty memorial photo by Steve Elliott. 34th Street Wall photo by Hannah Morse.


  1. The fountain in Jasper, Alabama, was built through the efforts of a local nonprofit organization called V.O.C.A.L., for Victims of Crime and Leniency. 

Jessica Doyle writes about business education at Economist.com and previously covered the southeastern United States for the Economist. She has a master's in city and regional planning from Georgia Tech, where she was a researcher at the Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development.

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