The House of the Living is a fitting name for a new monument in Elkins Park honoring the victims of gun violence
An art professor at Swarthmore College is converting a dilapidated greenhouse on the Elkins Estate into an enduring memorial to Philadelphia’s dead.
Spontaneous memorials to the dead are heartbreakingly ubiquitous in Philadelphia. They come in many forms — balloon releases, stuffed animals on sidewalks, flowers lovingly placed on the exact spot where the victim of a homicide took their last breath — and are often adorned with the occasional strand of discarded yellow police tape.
But imagine if there were also a place where mourners could go and honor the lives of those who have been killed that wasn’t stained by bloodshed — and that wasn’t a cemetery.
That is what’s driving the creation of a new memorial to the victims of gun violence. It’s called the House of the Living, and it’s the brainchild of Ron Tarver, an art professor at Swarthmore and former photojournalist at The Inquirer.
“There’s really nothing like this in the country, where people can come and be in mediation with their loved ones,” Tarver told me during a recent visit to the memorial, which is still under construction in Elkins Park. “This is what this is all about.”
As they’d stroll quietly, the Pulitzer Prize winner would find himself gazing at a dilapidated and badly overgrown greenhouse that hadn’t been used in more than a decade. It was a scary-looking mess. Windows were missing. It looked as if a thicket of shrubbery was growing inside.
But where a pragmatist like me sees a teardown, Tarver envisions potential. One day while wandering across the property near Ashbourne Road and Juniper Avenue, he asked himself: “What would happen if you inscribe portraits of gun violence victims into the glass with the idea that the light shining through the glass would nurture the plants inside? That was the root of the idea. It just popped in my head.”
At first, that’s all it was: a creative idea percolating in his brain. Then one day, Tarver noticed workers clearing brush away and learned that the FarmerJawn & Friends Foundation Fund had leased a one-acre plot on the estate that includes the greenhouse.
Tarver reached out to Brandon Ritter, FarmerJawn’s chief operating officer, and pitched his idea of cleaning out the structure and transforming it into a monument to the lives of those lost to gun violence.
Swarthmore’s Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility granted $18,000, which was used as seed money. The idea picked up steam as Jody Joyner, who teaches a class on monuments at Swarthmore, involved her students in the effort. Officials at the EMIR Healing Center, a Germantown-based nonprofit that serves the families of those lost to gun violence also agreed to help birth the project.
Inspired by the late African American science fiction writer Octavia Butler, Tarver named it the House of the Living, which is a reference to “The Book of the Living” from Butler’s novel, The Parable of the Sower. At one point, while he explained the project, Tarver paused and began quoting from the book:
“All that you touch
All that you Change
The only lasting truth
The words are apropos considering the massive renovations underway to transform a tumbledown greenhouse into a community space for healing. From a distance, it looks like a small church, or perhaps a modern mausoleum. Each window pane on the front of the glass enclosure is covered with black-and-white images of a portrait along with the person’s name. Instead of the windows being opaque, they are sheer to allow light to shine into the space.
The plan is that one day, the sunshine beaming inside through the etchings imposed on the plexiglass windows will nourish seedlings that can then be transferred onto the grounds nearby and grown into vegetation that will feed marginalized families. So far, 80 panels bear completed etchings. Once it’s finished, the structure will be covered with 410 faces, which is equivalent to the average number of annual homicides in Philadelphia over the last seven years.
“It’s a healing place,” Chantay Love, EMIR’s president, told me. “It also lets you know that even though you’ve lost someone, your loved one will not be forgotten.”
Love and I walked over to the portrait on the 1,400-square-foot building that an artist made of her late brother, Emir Greene, who was only 20 when he was shot to death on the night of March 26, 1997, by a drug dealer for whom he worked.
“We say we want to help everyone without judgment,” Love pointed out. “Let’s just care for the people who are left behind.”
Another visitor, Rhonda Gore, led me to an engraving of her son, Shelton Hayes, whose March 2018 killing remains unsolved.
“This way he lives on,” said Gore, who now works with EMIR counseling families who have experienced similar loss.
Gore imagines the day when the greenhouse is complete and the plants inside are nurtured by the light passing through the image of Hayes’ face. “Every time the sun shines, he’s growing life, so he’s still living,” she said.
This project, to me, feels divinely inspired.
This project, to me, feels divinely inspired. But finishing it is going to take way more money than what organizers have raised so far.
Tarver estimates that the project will need at least $300,000 to make repairs to the building’s infrastructure and also improve the landscaping. There’s still the HVAC and other improvements that need to be done. And that doesn’t take into account what the project will need to pay grief counselors to staff events or to create an endowment to fund the House of the Living in the years to come.
The hope is to create something lasting — like the memories of those it is intended to honor.