Annette John-Hall: Makeshift memorials a balm and a blight
Driving down 62d Street in Southwest Philadelphia, it's easy to spot the object of neighborhood friction. You wouldn't think a pile of soft, lovable teddy bears could be remotely controversial. But when they're a constant reminder of sorrow, well, that's where the contention comes in.
Driving down 62d Street in Southwest Philadelphia, it's easy to spot the object of neighborhood friction.
You wouldn't think a pile of soft, lovable teddy bears could be remotely controversial. But when they're a constant reminder of sorrow, well, that's where the contention comes in.
Someone is killed - usually by gun violence - and then, like a garden of perennials emerging from concrete, up springs a bouquet of stuffed animals, candles, and other mementos.
If you're in the city, you've seen them. They dot street corners. They're Saran-Wrapped around telephone poles. They clutter curbs and stoops.
A public remembrance for the entire neighborhood to view, sometimes for years.
But how long is too long? That's the question Paul "Earthquake" Moore is asking.
Moore, a community activist and a 12th Police District representative, is most known for his personal passion of passing out gifts as "Community Claus" during the holiday season. This time, he's embarking on a sensitive crusade - to rid the neighborhood of teddy-bear memorials.
He wants to replace them with a permanent plaque or a cross, "something small," he says.
The way Moore sees it, the memorials take a toll on the community because they stay around too long, become a blight, and glorify violence to impressionable youngsters who pass by them every day.
But that's not how Stephanie Terrell sees it.
Terrell, 40, created the 62d Street memorial in tribute to her son, John Bland, 18.
The coroner says that Bland's death in March probably came, tragically, at his own hand - a gruesome game of Russian roulette played with friends.
Terrell has no choice but to accept the coroner's finding, even though she doesn't believe it. No member of her family would ever commit suicide, she insists.
The memorial serves as a source of comfort to her family and all of Bland's friends who live nearby, she says. Two months is way too soon to take it down, especially when others have been up for years.
Now, Terrell, Moore, and the 12th District are grappling over what to do about a public eyesore or a precious place, depending on who you talk to.
I have to say, when I rolled up on the memorial, my first thought was, "Wow. That's a lot of teddy bears."
Resting on the stoop of a boarded-up building at 62d and Elmwood were an amusement park's worth of stuffed animals, along with a dozen or so votive candles and a photo collage of Bland, glued to posterboard.
Family members sweep around the site every day. They fluff up and rearrange the stuffed animals. They replace the used candles with new ones.
They visit often. In fact, Terrell, along with her sister Nicole; mother, Laurel; and at least a half-dozen other relatives and friends just happened to be there when I went by the other day.
"This is our hangout place," Terrell says. "I come out here with my gospel music and I sit. Some people didn't know [Bland], but they see this and they tell me they're sorry for my loss. It makes me feel like someone cares."
Others "are trying to act like it's a sad thing, but it's not," Nicole Terrell says. "Who's to say we're not grieving in the manner we're supposed to?"
Well, I'm guessing everybody gets a say because, after all, it's a public memorial.
"Sure, it's helping her, but who else is it helping?" asked Officer Joe Young of the 12th District's Community Relations Department. "This is a bus corner. Every day, people have to walk by here and think, 'Oh. Something happened here.' "
Which, frankly, doesn't speak well for the neighborhood.
Moore understands the dubious perception all too well.
"You see this stuff in poor neighborhoods all the time. You don't see it in the suburbs," he says. "If you do, they take it down.
"It's a grim reminder. Enough is enough."