There was “the front,” when Sandy Hook, Buffalo, Uvalde, Parkland, Las Vegas, Christchurch, and thousands of other mass shooting scenes seemed so far away. On July 4, they were updated with one word: residence.
On a national holiday, my hometown of Highland Park caught the eye of terror. Media trucks descended, drones flew overhead, and our tight-knit community experienced the worst of humanity.
Overnight, the open-air pavilion at the quiet intersection of St. Johns and Central Avenues, a block from the carnage, became the site of an all-too-familiar ad hoc memorial. Just beyond the phalanx of reporters, solemn people walked past the photo altars of seven good people. The pile of bouquets, candles and teddy bears grew taller and taller as the world watched our community grieve.
Ten days after filming, when the response to the jack-in-the-box crisis continued, I headed around the corner with a stash of craft supplies, launched Joe Purdy, I tied a ball of yarn to a pillar and offered visitors a heartfelt invitation. : “Do you want to wrap this?”
A chorus of a thousand yeses brought a living memorial to our community. These contributors transformed a public thoroughfare into an evolving interactive public art installation that speaks to the best of humanity.
Almost every surface is covered in orange, the color of the anti-gun violence movement. Hadiya Pendleton’s family and friends honored her life by wearing orange after she was shot and killed in a Chicago park in 2013. Orange is the color hunters wear in the woods to protect themselves and others.
Every hue imaginable envelops messages, which are now covered by over 7,000 message tags. One of the first was posted by Scarlett Lewis, whose 6-year-old son, Jesse, lost his life at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It reads: ‘Choose love’. Weeks later, before heading to Washington to lobby Congress, resident Ashley Beasley added a note next to Scarlett’s: “Steadle the ban. NOW.” And on the back, “For Jesse.”
Notes from family members of Highland Park victims hang from altar pictures, necklaces of threads laden with unfathomable loss: “Grandpa, it didn’t get any easier. I miss you so much. I need you. I love you.”
A decorated mailbox is full of handwritten cards to Cooper Roberts, the 8-year-old boy seriously injured in the massacre. The brick walkway is covered in colorful chalk drawings and scribbled words, such as “Enough” and “HPStrong.”
Visitors leave what they want and take what they need. The thread engulfs artifacts: stones, trinkets, keepsakes, crocheted hearts, origami swans, glass butterflies, crosses and Stars of David. A Buddhist altar dedicated to Shiva houses incense, an orchid, a clementine and a chocolate chip cookie. The memorial inhales the voice of the community and exhales healing.
The impracticality and impermanence of it all seems to matter little. When summer storms threatened to destroy the altars, the family of one victim came to the rescue, rebuilding the seven by hand. Passers-by straighten, mend and chase away stray note cards and windblown carpet squares like parents following toddlers.
So many regulars gathered that I know my new family mostly by nickname: Harvey the Cookie Man, Lynn the Music Mama, Sam the First Responder, Ali the Healer, Jeff the Battery Guy, Allison the Doer, Lionel the Carpenter, Jill and Nina the Wonder Workers, Sholo Big Love, Bobby the Resourceful, Fred the Carpet Guy and Hank, the 88-year-old Rock Wrapper. Dozens of young people are going in and out of college, courses, camps and councils; all go through Hey Kid. Intergenerational activists, Rachel, Dana, Jordana, Stephanie, Sylvia – all go through Sister.
For more than 60 days, we have been nurturing this community expression.
Robert Frost said, “Home is where, when you have to go, they have to welcome you.” Here, everyone is in it.
Some stay for hours. Some stay longer. Some arrive before dawn, just as their working day begins. Some come at dusk to hear the artists who come from far and near to play folk, jazz and classical music in the nearby pocket park. Some come at night to find peace in anonymity.
This pavilion, built to create a community, fulfills its purpose. The diversity of victims and injured brought together mourners of all races, genders, ages, religions and socio-economic groups. Collaborative craftsmanship has overcome cultural differences, language barriers, mistrust and fear. For many of us, the memorial offered a place and a purpose – a way forward.
Undoubtedly, this path must transform our collective anguish into action. For nearly a decade, our city has fought for healthy gun control. After Sandy Hook in 2012, Highland Park City Council bravely passed an assault weapons ban, long after a federal ban had expired. After the July 4 shootings, he unanimously passed an even broader resolution calling for a nationwide ban on what can only be described as weapons of war.
Recently, we learned that the National Foundation for Gun Rights filed a federal challenge to the constitutionality of the local ban.
How many wire skates do we still need to pack? How many rolls of fabric do we still have to tear? How many more tags do we need to write to stop this madness?
Wherever readers live, we invite you to add your voice to the Highland Park Memorial. Post a photo or video of your message on Instagram or Twitter with #HPpromise. Invite five friends to do the same. Listen to this roar on HPpromise.org.
On behalf of Katherine Goldstein, Irina and Kevin McCarthy, Jacki Sundheim, Stephen Straus, Nicolas Toledo-Zaragoza, Eduardo Uvaldo, and the many souls who needlessly lost their lives to gun violence, we pledge to keep our promise. And U.S. Will be. To win.
Jacqueline von Edelberg is the artist and activist behind the interactive public art memorial in Highland Park. Harvey “Cookie Man” Blender contributed to this editorial. Blender, featuring Lynn Orman Weiss, powers the memorial song.
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