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A Decrepit, Stirring Memorial

COLUMN ONE

An abandoned building is now the Wall of Sorrows, a memorial to young victims of violence. A struggling Ohio city wants it razed.

August 13, 2005|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

EAST CLEVELAND, Ohio — Before her shift at McDonald's, Cathy Thomas makes her regular visit to a decaying building.

The sidewalk out front crumbles under her feet. The two-story building, stuck between a liquor store and a weed-choked church, sags from neglect. Shards of glass frame the back upstairs windows, revealing rooms with burnt floral wallpaper and rusted pipes. Most of the first floor has been covered in whitewashed plywood.

The empty structure once was home to vandals and drug dealers. Now it offers solace to Thomas, whose daughter's name -- Janette L. Willis -- is written on the front of the building in 3-inch-high black letters.

Willis is among about 1,000 children and young adults who have died violently in Cuyahoga County since 1990 and whose names have been posted across the building's exterior.

The bereaved call this the Wall of Sorrows, a gathering place for mothers and fathers, aunts and cousins, school pals and other loved ones of the dead. When community activists first came here about three years ago, they had the names printed onto vinyl sheets that they nailed to the plywood.

Then, Thomas and hundreds of others came to leave their handwritten marks on the plywood boards. Over time, the names, along with messages of longing and hope, have covered nearly all of the building's first floor -- about half a block long and more than a story high.

Today the building, on Euclid Avenue less than a mile from City Hall and police headquarters, is considered by many to be hallowed ground.

"The soldiers have their Vietnam wall," said Thomas, 45, who added her daughter's name in 2002. "The Jews have their Wailing Wall. This is ours."

But the wall may not be around much longer. Last month, the council voted to tear down the building as part of an effort to raze condemned properties and sell the land to developers. City officials believe an empty lot will help the community far more than a wall of names. A demolition date has not been set.

Thomas and others like her, members of a group called Survivors/Victims of Tragedy Inc., are petitioning to hold a vote to rescind the City Council's decision. They said they had gathered several hundred signatures.

"We've just started," said Judy Martin, whose 23-year-old son was fatally shot by a carjacker in 1994. "We're not going away. If we have to chain ourselves to the wall, we will."

The fight to save the wall, members of the group said, is a battle to preserve memories of their children.

Standing in front of the wall, Thomas reaches out and touches the hodgepodge of scribbling, where names and benedictions bleed into one another. Some names are spray-painted in black, curly letters. Others, written in ballpoint in a shaky hand, have faded with weather and age.

Scattered around the names are mementos that loved ones have left to honor the dead.

Plastic flowers surround painted portraits of young men and women in graduation caps. Thumbtacks and tape hold up photocopies of prom pictures. Faint lines of eulogy have been squeezed into every spare inch, reminding the world that "Uncle Bones" rests in peace and "Wild Bill" feels no pain.

People have left pleas to help uncover leads in unsolved crimes or for witnesses to come forward. Community activists and families of missing children took over the building's northeast corner, covering it with about 100 fliers. Some cases date back more than 10 years.

"Please help us find Kim," one reads. "She might still be alive."

Thomas gently brushes a smudge of dirt off her daughter's name and fluffs the plastic nosegays that are taped near her picture. The fingertips of her left hand caress the letters.

Keeping one hand on the picture, Thomas bends her head, closes her eyes and begins to pray.

*

At the turn of the century, industrialists and financiers flocked to this suburb's lush parks, building so many Romanesque mansions in one part of town that it became known as Millionaires Row.

Today -- decades after many white residents fled and manufacturing jobs headed overseas -- East Cleveland (pop. 27,000) is largely filled with hollowed-out buildings that the city can't demolish fast enough. It has the highest crime rate per capita in the greater Cleveland area. Education officials have called its school system one of the worst in Ohio. The median household income is about $20,500, according to the 2000 census, and 55% of its residents age 16 and older have a job.

Its city budget is so lean, officials don't have the staff to collect back taxes.

"The city is broke," Mayor Saratha Goggins said. "We can sell an empty lot. We can't sell the wall."

The wall evolved out of community outreach programs in the 1980s, run by the nonprofit group Black on Black Crime Inc., to decry violence in East Cleveland.

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