Teddy Bears and Tragedy
Streets of the Dead
When Washington youths get killed, memorials pay testament to the victims -- and to the grim realities of life in the District
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."