They were very fussy about the way it looked, the elm tree where Asheile George was slain a few months ago. Every night, his friends fiddled with the collage of dried flowers, weather-matted teddy bears and emptied liquor bottles that crawled up its trunk and along the curb of an otherwise unremarkable Northwest Washington street.
"It's the way we mourn. The way we remember him. We got his shoes here. His favorite brand of ginger ale. His dice," said a friend, who expected to visit and tend the 24-year-old man's memorial in the 500 block of Kenyon Street for years to come, as he has done at shrines for other friends killed on Washington's streets.
But with the clatter of a trash truck and a police escort for protection one chilly fall morning, this particular neighborhood -- a rapidly gentrifying part of Northwest that now has coffeehouses and young professionals -- told George's friends that their homegrown memorial would no longer be part of their landscape.
"All of us felt this was an eyesore. It's not the way normal people grieve, not to this extent," said Lisa Eady, a computer analyst born in Washington and raised in Virginia who recently bought a new home in the neighborhood.
"I bought here because I thought things were getting better," Eady said. "I have a daughter; we want to be happy and feel safe in this neighborhood. We don't want to be reminded every day of what happened here."
Similar street shrines have been tolerated and even nurtured for years throughout the city. In neighborhoods known for violence, they dot the streets at nearly every turn. Where children were slain, tree trunks adorned with stuffed animals resemble furry totem poles. Where the death may have been part of a rivalry, dozens of bottles -- usually Remy Martin cognac or Moet champagne -- are emptied and displayed as a sign of loyalty to the dead.
For years, elected officials and neighborhood activists simply winced at the reminders that created a driving tour of the city's homicides.
"It's a tough thing, because you really have to respect the way people mourn," said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1). "But in some cases, where you'd see dozens of empty bottles and cans, they just looked like a bunch of trash."
It has been a prickly matter without a clear diplomatic solution. If the city government treated the memorials as garbage, hauling them away could be seen as an egregious affront. Without an uproar from neighborhood residents, the city had little ammunition to address the issue.
"A couple of months ago at a meeting, some of the residents said they had finally had enough and asked us to do something about these so-called memorials," said Jose Sueiro, the city's neighborhood coordinator for Ward 1, a dynamic part of Washington that includes both embassies and public housing.
"The residents said there are two problems with these. First, they remind everyone of the incidents of violence on their street," Sueiro said. "Second, there is some belief that they may provoke more violence."
The threat is real, said Rose Money, who is the city's neighborhood liaison for Ward 7, a district east of the Anacostia River.
"About a year ago, I tried to get some of these memorials removed. But really, honestly, the city workers who went out there were threatened. They were scared to death and said, 'No way' -- they wouldn't do it," Money said.
"And imagine the residents. The residents are afraid to say anything about them; they're afraid of the repercussions from the people who put the memorials up," she said. "Only in the past year, or maybe the past few months, some people have called me about these memorials and said: 'I don't want anyone to know I called. Don't tell anyone I told you about this.' "
Money said the recent backlash against the memorials -- sentiments not publicly expressed for years -- may be a reaction to the Sept. 11 terror attacks, last month's sniper shootings and this year's increase in homicides in the city.
"When you see it corner after corner, it's hard to deal with it on a daily basis," Money said.
City officials step gingerly around terms like "gentrification" and "property values" when explaining the recent movement to eradicate memorials from some neighborhoods. But some say the change in demographics is an undeniable factor.
In Ward 1, generations of residents have been unprovoked by the symbols of tragedy, and it isn't usually the old-timers who are speaking up.
"Some of the older residents, not only are they scared to death, but they've seen this for years. They don't think anything is going to change no matter what you do," said Clarence "Buddy" Moore, who has lived in Washington for more than 50 years and recently helped organize a citizen patrol in his Northwest Washington neighborhood. He believes that it's the younger, newer residents of his neighborhood who are trying to put an end to the memorials.
"Our neighborhood is reviving as new residents come in, see us organize, and they want to join and be part of this," Moore said.
Moore and some of his new neighbors took their case against the memorials to the city.
Sueiro had several intense meetings with officials from the police and public works departments. They tried to draft a notice that would gently tell memorial architects that their shrines would soon be removed, advise them to save special mementos and warn them that they were defacing public property with their grieving.
"We just couldn't get the language right. We couldn't find the right way to legally say what we needed to say," Sueiro said.
So they began by talking to the residents, then providing a police escort for the removal of about half a dozen shrines, he said.
In some cases, for example, at the corner of Georgia Avenue and Otis Street NW, the memorials keep coming back. Two people were killed there in March, and almost a dozen stuffed animals are still tied with crime-scene tape to a chain-link fence between dried bouquets of roses.
When workers from the Department of Public Works came last month to take down the Kenyon Street tribute to Asheile George, who was fatally shot Sept. 14, young men scrambled to gather armloads of their friend's clothing and the cards and flowers.
"We're gonna put it back 10 times as thick!" one man shouted at police. "They say we're marking our territory with this. This ain't about territory. It's about our friend."