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Essay

Streets of the Dead

From four murdered sisters to a slain teenage boy, a photographer documents the visible resonance of grief in his images of shrines to local slaying victims.

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By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Sunday, March 16, 2008

THESE ARE NOT THE MONUMENTS OF OFFICIAL WASHINGTON.

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They are street memorials that spring up to mark the places where mostly young people get killed. Photographer Lloyd Wolf began documenting them in 2003 after a boy he mentored lost four relatives to murder in a year. He watched the boy stagger in his pain.

"I learned to see the markers that were erected in the city's rough (and not-so-rough) neighborhoods as representing the powerful emotions of people -- real people, distraught and grieving," Wolf says about his photos. "They are tears and prayers made visible."

The memorials take on different forms in different parts of the country, Wolf says. In New York City, mourners pay tribute with elaborate graffiti on streets and walls. They are freestanding in the Southwestern cities of Albuquerque and Austin, like those that dot the sides of the road. They draw influence from Catholic and Latin American images and symbols: crosses, photos in gilded frames and pictures of saints on candles in glass holders.

Here, they might feature handwritten notes and photos. There are flowers and, most especially, toys, their cheeriness repurposed to aching effect: lions and tigers, rabbits and bears. The memorials spring from a collective will that could not save the dead and now offers eulogy and demands justice in tufts of fake fur.

The toys are scribbled across and sometimes feature bandanas and other gang signifiers, alongside rows of empty bottles -- Chivas whisky and Moet champagne. At a shrine to 19-year-old "Lil Bo," maintained in an alley behind a Northeast Washington nightclub for more than three years, hundreds and hundreds of empty liquor bottles are carefully arranged in a circle. Lil Bo's friends gather on the date he died. They drink and pour liquor on the ground in his name. It is in keeping with an African tradition of pouring libations for ancestors and honored dead, or like the ritual for Cochise, a character played by Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs who is beaten to death in the seminal 1975 movie "Cooley High," a film about friends coming of age in Chicago. It is an image extended to video by a singer from the R&B group Az Yet, who pours and observes, "This is for my homies who ain't here."

The monuments are often fleeting -- snowbound, rain-soaked and blown away. They are subject to the harshest elements, like the victims themselves. Here are maybe 100 bears, dogs and ducks, knitted between Mylar balloons and yellow police tape in front of the Southeast house where four girls died last year. Their mother is charged with killing them. Their bodies rotted for months before anyone noticed.

"Y-US?" someone has scribbled across a bear's forehead. The largeness of the print matches the breadth of the question and conveys a furious vulnerability and a dread sense of place.

On the fringes of Capitol Hill, someone has left a pile of stuffed animals and a poem with the refrain "I HURT." And in Sursum Corda public housing, along a gentrifying corridor, Dre's Aunt Precious writes across a Mylar balloon to anyone who'll read that she loved that boy with all her heart.

In an alley in Southeast, a memorial for 14-year-old DeOnte Rawlings, who was shot by an off-duty D.C. police officer last September, mixes a T-shirt and photos with personal notes and teddy bears. The few bottles of liquor seem especially precocious nestled near a photo of the baby-faced teen. Rawlings, of course, was too young to drink.

R.I.P. "Lil Cindy." She was 17-year-old Cynthia Gray, who was holding her infant godson outside of her Southeast apartment one night nearly two years ago when gunmen started shooting. She managed to push the baby underneath a parked car before a shooter fired into her face and neck, killing her. The baby was unhurt.

There's a candle, a plastic blow-up basketball, a picture of SpongeBob, and a plea. "Please Stop."

Lloyd Wolf is a freelance photographer based in Arlington. He is collaborating on "Jerusalem Stories," a project on peace and reconciliation between Jews and Palestinians in Jerusalem. He can be reached at lloydwolf@lloydwolf.com. Lonnae O'Neal Parker is a staff writer for the Magazine. She can be reached at oneall@washpost.com.


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