MS. REBECCA SHEIR
I'm Rebecca Sheir and welcome back to "Metro Connection." This week we're carrying on with our annual pre-Halloween tradition, and presenting a show we call Haunted D.C. But our next story is haunting in a way that has nothing to do with the approaching holiday. It's about a local photographer who spends his free time traveling across the D.C. area and taking pictures of murder sites and the memorials left to victims of urban violence. Jacob Fenston has more.
MR. JACOB FENSTON
Driving around D.C. with Lloyd Wolf, there are ghosts everywhere -- in the alleys behind garden apartments, next to chain-link fences.
MR. LLOYD WOLF
I actually see the city that way, with ghosts, because there's so many people that have been killed and I don't know the number, but it's in the many, many, many thousands of people in the last 20 years. It's a big number.
It is a big number, 4,882 people have been murdered in the District over the past 20 years.
This is like the slow version of a war.
But with wars, we build monuments to the fallen. We have big, official ways to mourn and commemorate. Not so for the thousands who die on city streets.
I'm not sure. I've got to look at the map. So I'm just going to pull over.
We're circling around Congress Heights, in Southeast D.C. Every few blocks, Wolf points to a lamppost or tree he's visited before.
Congress Street, there've been two of them here.
These are Wolf's ghosts, street memorials, put up by friends and family of recent murder victims. You've probably driven by them. That's what most people do, drive by. But Wolf stops and gets out his cameras. We've stopped at the spot where a young man named Devar Battle was killed in late September. Under a huge oak tree, there's an odd collection of stuffed animals, family photos, candles and liquor bottles.
You notice it's mostly really high-end liquor, plus a Snapple, or whatever that is. It's from -- in the Bible, there's a tradition of a libation, you pour it as a sacrificial offering.
Over the past 10 years, Wolf has collected more than 2,000 photos of street memorials.
2,476. To me, part of what makes this work is volume. This isn't the story of one murder. This is the story of a city's coping with violence.
He started this as a kind of a personal project. He was mentoring a young man living in Southwest, who'd lost four relatives to violence over the course of 13 months. Wolf lives in a safe suburban neighborhood in Arlington, but as he spent more time in rougher areas, he started pulling over when he saw memorials. It grew into an obsession. He'd plan out his weekends looking at the Washington Post's crime pages.
It's just part of my routine now. I'll go out with my little maps and boxed lunch and drive around the community.
He's fascinated by the memorials as folk art, spontaneous, communal expressions.
A lot of these things have all the elements that you might see at an avant-garde gallery. Except to me, they have so much more power.
Some memorials are elaborate and gaudy. But sometimes the simplest are the most moving.
Since there's less there to engage your eyes, you have to focus your attention on the specific and small sad remnant.
He pulls up photos from a tiny memorial to Samauri Jenkins, a 4-year-old girl who died in an arson fire in February. The photos are sparse and almost monochrome in the stark winter light.
You know, police line, burned house, teddy bear, pink candle.
In 2008, Wolf started a blog. He calls it Washington's Other Monuments. He posts photos of each memorial site, with whatever information he can find about the homicide from police or news reports. The blog's comments section has grown into a place of community grieving, an online graveyard. I asked him about one post in particular. Demarcus Brown, shot and killed June 14, 2009. I don't know if you remember the comments on the original post, but…
Yeah, there's a lot.
There's a bunch of comments. And one of them is his mother. Darnice Brown, posting two years after her son's death. "Demarcus, this is your mother. I love and miss you so much. I'm sitting here on this computer crying, thinking about you every waking minute of my day." And then there follows this exchange with, I guess it was a girlfriend. Demarcus's girlfriend had never met his mother, but writes, "I'm grateful God put your son in my life. Even though I don't know you, I love you for creating such a beautiful person inside and out."
Then, six weeks later, a new commenter appears.
"I was with Demarcus that night." I assume the night he was killed. "I found him in the alley during his final moments. I was there when he passed and although I had never met him before, I think of him often and the senseless loss of his life."
Then the girlfriend writes back, "Oh, my God, thank God for you. I'm glad someone was there with him."
There's a lot of that on this blog. I mean, there's a lot of material like that.
When Wolf started this, he says he'd go out every couple of weeks, with long lists of murder sites to visit. Now, weeks can go by with nothing. Last year, the District recorded the fewest murders since 1961. It's the first time in 50 years that number has dropped below 100, a tipping point, according to Police Chief Cathy Lanier. Wolf says, in this changing city, he's thought about stopping his project.
I don't think I'm going to. I hope -- actually I'd like to stop.
And he will, when the number of murders in the city hits zero. I'm Jacob Fenston.
If you'd like to see some of Lloyd Wolf's photos of street memorials, you can view a slideshow on our website, metroconnection.org.
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