Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
A memorial park planned for New Haven, Connecticut, will be both a place to grieve and a call to action.
Just over two decades ago in New Haven, Connecticut, 20-year-old Gary Kyshon Miller lost his life when he was shot following a dispute with a friend. Afterwards, his mother, Marlene Miller Pratt, could often be found at the Marsh Botanical Garden on Yale University’s campus.
“I didn’t want to visit the cemetery, because it just reminds you of your loss,” she said. “I found an area with a small pond with fish and a waterfall, and it was so sweet. It became my place to grieve.”
That pond and the healing Pratt found in nature informed a project she recently spearheaded in New Haven: a memorial garden in honor of victims of gun violence. While towns and cities across the country have hosted temporary memorials to those killed by firearms—from displays of t-shirts and shoes symbolizing loved ones to exhibits and ceremonies—the garden will likely be the first permanent memorial of its kind in the United States.
A chance encounter several years ago spurred Pratt, a high-school science teacher, to act. As she was headed to work one day, she happened upon yellow police tape strung up by the side of the road, and asked a young woman passing by what had happened.
“She said to me, offhandedly, ‘Oh, another person got shot,’ and continued on her way,” said Pratt. “Her nonchalant attitude upset and alarmed me. We’ve become so accustomed to gun violence. Something has to be done.”
Through a New Haven Police Department group for survivors of gun violence, Pratt met other mothers in the city who had lost children. A group of them began to advocate for a garden that would provide a space for survivors to grieve, but also bring the public’s attention to the magnitude of the problem. Indeed, the number of people in the U.S. who died from guns in 2017—nearly 40,000—was the highest since 1968.
The mothers contacted the Urban Resources Initiative, a nonprofit arm of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, which put them in touch with the New Haven architecture and planning firm Svigals + Partners. The firm agreed to take on the project pro bono, and the City of New Haven provided the land—a triangular-shaped, half-acre plot in the northwest of the city that flanks a rock outcropping and the West River. The project is funded by the city, the State of Connecticut, and private donors. Work will begin this summer, and the garden could be completed as soon as Spring 2020.
At Svigals + Partners, Julia McFadden, associate principal, and Marissa Mead, director of art integration, started the project by listening to the women’s stories. “We asked the women what they thought were the most important aspects of the garden, and how they wanted to feel when they were there,” says Mead. Ideas for the design mainly stemmed from these conversations, as well as surveys of the mothers’ group.
The women agreed that they wanted a serene and secluded spot, but one that should be visible from the road, for security. They asked for planted, natural areas, and advocated for recognizing individual victims, both to honor them and to show the scale of the loss and its impact on the community.
Plans for the garden reflect their wishes. Two entrances will branch off from a well-traveled road into an open, landscaped area that leads to a quieter, more removed space. Bricks with victims’ ages and dates of death, going back to 1968, will border the paths. (The designers chose 1968 as a cutoff because it was a momentous year, and because survivors from before then would be less likely to be alive and thus involved in the project.) Curved flower beds and steps meant for sitting will give views of the rock outcropping and river.
The mothers have expressed a desire to help maintain the plantings—Pratt says she’s planning to go twice a month to weed and tend to the flowers and plants. The city’s parks department will manage the site and keep the grass trimmed and watered.
In the garden’s more secluded area, visitors will find underfoot a zone of “memory tiles” engraved with details about those who lost their lives, such as “She loved to dance” and “He was looking forward to going to college.” A sculpture of a group of people who are revealed or concealed, depending on where the viewer stands, will stand in the more central area. It represents the community, specifically those lost to it and those left behind.
“People are going to walk that sidewalk and look at the names and memories, and they’re going to think, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t realize it was this many,’” said Pratt. “It’s going to bring awareness to this city.” McFadden said the variation in the ages of those who died will also help dispel the myth that most victims of gun violence in New Haven are young people of color involved in criminal activities.
McFadden and Mead noted that, although Svigals + Partners often employs the type of participatory approach used with the New Haven mothers, regardless of the project, such a method is particularly important when creating something like a memorial garden—or the new Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut, which the firm also designed. For community members, involvement in the design process becomes a way to work through grief. “People often look for something proactive to do, to put their energy into improving on a problem that so affected their lives,” said Mead. According to McFadden, these projects can help connect community members who, as a result of their tragedies, often feel disconnected from their families, neighborhoods, and even selves.
For Pratt, the memorial garden is a crucial first step in a larger plan. She says she and her fellow mothers will soon start visiting middle schools to talk to students about the repercussions of guns, particularly the future generations that are eliminated when a gun takes a life. “I don’t think the young people who are caught up in guns understand this,” she said. “We’ll tell them to put their energy toward education instead.” She’ll also recruit members of fraternal orders and clubs to spend time with New Haven youth. “We want them to feed the children’s minds and give them direction and a goal in life,” she said.
Pratt has received inquiries about creating similar gardens in other towns in Connecticut and in Michigan, and believes the New Haven garden can serve as a model. But more than that, she wants the garden and her outreach efforts to prevent gun violence rather than react to it, and to put New Haven on a different path.
“I want residents to look back and say that this was not a good time, but that things are better now,” she said. “That’s my hope.”