Four years ago this weekend, at 4:13 a.m. on a foggy March morning, a young woman driver died after crashing her car into a light pole ten feet away from the intersection of two streets in my neighborhood.
By the end of the day, friends of the woman had tied a wide black sash around a tree that stood on the parkway midway between the intersection and the destroyed light pole. They nailed a wreath, a stuffed teddy bear, and pictures of the woman to the tree bark, along with written messages to the deceased. At the foot of the tree they left fresh flowers.
Over the following summer months, weather destroyed most of the objects left at the site. No one removed the withered flowers, the bedraggled-looking stuffed bear, or the crumpled pictures and blurred bits of inked paper. Instead, new objects occasionally appeared at the site: fresh bouquets of flowers, a candle in a tall glass container, more photos.
Fall arrived, then winter, and in early 2011, someone cleared the tree of all the objects placed there. Within days, either friends or relatives of the woman returned and tied a new black sash around the tree. They nailed new plastic flowers and other memorabilia to the bark, all of which stayed -- and was added to -- over the year.
Then in 2012, someone -- I suspect it was someone who lived near the site and was tired of viewing what now looked like garbage nailed to the tree -- once again removed the objects. Like before, it took less than a week before the black sash was back in place along with more plastic flowers. A pot of live flowers was also left at the base of the tree. Over time, the live flowers died, and the plastic ones faded in the summer sun while also turning black with dirt from wind and rain and winter snow.
Fast forward to late summer, 2013. It was now over three years since the car crash, and a variety of plastic and paper items still sprouted on the black-sashed tree. I was driving down the main street, preparing to turn toward home at the intersection near the 2010 accident site, when the driver in front of me slammed on his breaks. I watched him crane his neck to get a better view of the memorial tree as I pressed pedal-to-the-metal to avoid rear-ending him. Using my car horn, I let him know what I thought of his stupidity, and he pulled away in a burst of speed.
I made my turn, drove the few blocks to my house, and on entering, immediately picked up the phone and called my alderman's office. I told my story to the alderman's receptionist (you can never actually reach the alderman, who's only available to the average joe during election time) and she tsk-tsked over the actions of the other driver before agreeing that the memorial tree could be a distraction to drivers on what's a major thoroughfare in our area. She promised to look into the city's laws regarding such makeshift memorials, and I hung up, not totally satisfied, but willing to wait and see what happened next.
And what did happen next was that, two weeks later, everything but the black sash was removed from the tree. The sash stayed in place over the fall and winter, and now it's March, 2014 and one day away from the fourth anniversary of the crash. This past week a wreath was nailed to the sash on the tree. I expect more items will be added before tomorrow. When will they be taken down? It's anyone's guess.
In the past decade, roadside memorial tributes have become commonplace sites across the country. I've seen them on many a highway and byway during my travels, and I understand why some people feel a need to memorialize their loved ones in such a way. But I question their appropriateness in certain places and under certain circumstances.
124 people died in traffic accidents in Chicago in 2013. That's ten less than the 134 who died here in accidents in 2012. There are over 4000 miles of streets in Chicago. If every one of those 258 people had been memorialized by a roadside tribute, you'd find one tribute site every 15.5 miles in the city.
Now add up the number of traffic fatalities in Chicago over the past ten years and you'll find that, during that time, over 1500 people died in auto accidents. If, over the span of that decade, you'd placed one roadside memorial for every death on one of the 4000 miles of Chicago roads, today you'd have one roadside tribute site every 2.6 miles in the city.
Does that sound ridiculous? Yes. You'd hardly be able to drive anywhere without seeing a reminder of a deadly auto accident. As I said before, I can understand the desire of some people to make a statement about their loved ones by marking the place of their death, and I certainly wouldn't complain about flowers or other items left at an accident scene for a few days. But the numbers alone convince me that roadside memorials that remain in place for months or years should not be allowed in large cities.
I'm not happy about our local four-year-old roadside memorial. I believe if you truly care about someone who died, you'll take the time to travel to the cemetery where you can place your flowers on your loved one's grave and remember that person in a dignified and private manner. Tacking a wreath to a tree is just too damn easy.
What do you think of roadside memorials like this one? Do you agree with me, or do you think I'm entirely wrong?