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Driving around D.C. with Lloyd Wolf, there are ghosts everywhere — in the alleys behind garden apartments, next to chain-link fences, and on the bars outside corner stores.
"I really see that, I actually see the city that way, with ghosts," says Wolf, a freelance photographer based in Arlington. "There are so many people who have been killed. 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," says Wolf.
With wars, we build monuments to the fallen. We have big, official ways to mourn and commemorate.
For a photographer, ghosts everywhere
Wolf is driving around Congress Heights, in Southeast D.C. Every few blocks, he points to a lamppost or tree he's visited before.
"Congress Street, there've been two of them here. Down there."
These are Wolf's ghosts: street memorials, put up by friends and family of murder victims. You've probably driven by them — that's what most people do — drive by. But Wolf stops. And gets out his cameras.
He parks near 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 really high-end liquor," says Wolf, as he snaps photos. "It's from 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.
"This isn't the story of one murder," he says. "This is the story of a city's coping with violence, and the scope of it."
Wolf started this as kind of a personal project. He was mentoring a young man living in Southwest, who 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 neighborhoods, 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 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. Police tape, a burned house, a teddy bear and pink candle.
A one-man project strikes a chord
In 2008, Wolf started a blog called 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.
He pulls up the post for a young man named Demarcus Brown, who was killed June 14, 2009.
There is a long string of comments including several from his mother, Darnice Brown. Two years after his death, she writes:
"Demarcus this is your mother. I love and miss you so much. It's going on two years and it seems like yesterday. I'm sitting here on this computer crying thinking about you. Every waken minute of my day I'm thinking about you. I really don't know how I'm making it. I truly believe you are walking behind pushing me. So son rest in peace and remember mommy loves you and misses you. I'll see you when I get there."
Then, there is a string of back-and-forth posts — someone who appears to be a girlfriend of Demarcus writes:
"i never got a chance to meet you, but I wanna say im sorry for your loss... U and ur family are in my prayers..he talked about u all time often saying you were his best friend :)... im grateful God put ur son n my life..... eventho I dont kno u, I love u for creating such a beautiful person..inside and out."
Then, six weeks later, a new commenter appears, writing as Anonymous:
"I was with Demarcus that night... 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.
"For his mother and friends I don't know if it will give you any comfort but know that someone held his hand, spoke to him, encouraged him to "hang on" and tried to give him some comfort and peace in his final moments. He was NOT alone when he passed."
Then the girlfriend writes back:
"Omg ThankGod for u!! Im glad someone was there with him..i cant get over it.."
Wolf says these types of interactions aren't unusual.
"There's a lot of this on this blog. There's a lot of material like that."
Ten years ago, when Wolf started this, he says he'd go out every couple weeks, with long lists of murder sites to visit. Now, weeks can go by with nothing.
Last year, the District recorded 88 murders — the lowest number since 1961, and the first time in 50 years it has dipped 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.
[Music: "Twin Peaks Theme" by Angelo Badalamenti from Twin Peaks Soundtrack]