Memorial gardens breathe new life into communities

racer-street. Photo by Filiz Satir

For days after the Cafe Racer shooting, grief-stricken Seattleites made their way to the building with flowers, candles, and gifts. Photos by Filiz Satir

Guest post by Filiz Satir

On May 30, 2012, a disgruntled Seattle man opened fire inside Seattle’s Café Racer, eventually killing four of the five people he shot. Later that day, the gunman made his way to Seattle’s First Hill where he shot and killed a Seattle woman and stole her vehicle. Hours later, he fatally shot himself.

For days after the May 30 shooting in Seattle that took the lives of four Café Racer patrons, grieving friends, family, and strangers made pilgrimage to the lime green and gray brick building. Floral bouquets, a foot deep, blanketed the length of the building. Taped notes and letters, poems and drawings covered the windows and doors. Artists and musicians held day processions and evening vigils to remember their friends.

Racer Street front door. Photo by Filiz Satir

Friends, family, and neighbors turned Racer Cafe’s exterior and parking strips into a makeshift memorial.

Daily memorializing  and nightly rituals were a spontaneous, necessary, and natural way for a community to express its grief and pay respects to five individuals who were gunned down inside the Seattle café and performance venue.  What happened in the University District that May morning was random, brutal, and utterly senseless.  There are no words to adequately describe the shooting deaths or the depth of pain caused by this act of violence.  For the community, the healing process will be ongoing.  For those closest to the deceased, recovering will be a life-long endeavor.

How does a community and, in particular, the friends and family of Café Racer victims recover from the horror of multiple shooting deaths?  Perhaps the wisdom of conservationist and author Rachel Carson gives us a place to start.  In The Sense of Wonder, Carson writes:

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”

10Racer_Parking Strip_Memorial Signage

Mourners re-appropriated parking strips outside Cafe Racer.

If Carson’s words provide us with the wisdom, then perhaps a living memorial garden is the physical place in which to find solace.  The concept of planting “living memorials” is not new.  For centuries, people have turned to nature as a symbolic response to celebrate the cycles of life. Eastern and Western indigenous peoples have long ascribed physical and spiritual wellness to being in nature and maintaining a connection with it.  The natural world for all its colors, textures, fragrance, and sounds is a self-regulating, healing mechanism.

After armed conflicts, domestic terrorism and urban violence, numerous communities across the United States have created memorial gardens and landscapes as bastions of solace.  These places honor fallen soldiers; pay homage to innocent victims; and comfort the living by helping to heal hearts and psyches. One example is The Oklahoma City Outdoor Symbolic Memorial, featuring 164 empty chairs on lawn.  A poignant living memorial is the more than 400 swamp white oak trees planted near Ground Zero in New York City last fall to honor victims of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Another memorial landscape is Legacy Groves of Somerset County in Pennsylvania that honors passengers and crew of Flight 93 also lost on September 11, 2001.  The park-like setting is planted with a three tree groves.  One of the best examples of memorial as healing landscape is Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.  Lin’s re-envisioning of the memorial (though not a traditional garden) from representational statuary to an abstract form was ground-breaking; it was a departure from the way that we think about memorials, and what we now expect from them.

In the wake of Café Racer, how might a grieving community begin the process of visioning, designing and building a memorial garden?

The overarching goal of any healing garden, including memorials, is to make its visitors feel safe, less stressed and anxious, less aware of physical and emotional discomfort, and restored on one or more levels.  In general, the goals of a specific living memorial will require its planners to think broadly about four main elements: (1) site location; (2) visitors to the site; (3) site and program goals (what healing and/or restorative opportunities should be available to memorial visitors); and budget considerations.

Community members in New York, Pennsylvania, Nebraska and elsewhere have shown it is possible to mourn victims of violence in an enduring way, and move forward with hope. These survivors remembered what so many of us have forgotten:  Being in nature, nurturing other living things, communing in meaningful ways outdoors has the effect of restoring faith, building inner strength and engendering solace.

For those who continue to suffer after the Café Racer shooting, conceiving, planning, designing and installing a living memorial garden may be the life-affirming nourishment survivors need to begin healing

Editor’s Note: Filiz Satir was already writing this post when the July 20 shootings in Aurora, CO occurred. Our hearts go out to the family and friends of the Seattle and Aurora victims.

Read and learn more: The TLN has featured other posts related to memorials as restorative landscapes. See the TLN page on Memorials, and read these past TLN Blog posts: Veterans Day 2010 – Memorials as healing landscapes and Landscapes of Remembrance – Cemeteries and memorials as healing landscapes. In addition, listen to a podcast interview about living memorials, and gardens as memorials, with Naomi Sachs and Beth Farrell by Andrew Keys for Fine Gardening magazine: “A Garden to Remember.”

About our guest blog author: Filiz Satir is a 20-year professional communicator and former journalist who earned a post graduate certificate in Therapeutic and Healing Garden Design from the University of Washington, College of Built Environments in 2011. As her capstone project, Filiz examined the role of the built outdoor environment in young children’s lives.  Her research, The Developmental Benefits of Outdoor Play in Head Start School Yards for Preschoolers, Ages 3 to 6 is a post-occupancy evaluation of two Head Start preschoolers in Seattle’s High Point and Rainier Valley neighborhoods. She presented the research methods and findings at the Washington State Public Health Conference in October 2011. Filiz compares the sites’ design goals and early childhood developmental objectives to the preschoolers’ end experience in the yards. Her research has been captured in a multi-media presentation and will be posted in the fall on her forthcoming Web site and blog, Filiz is also the Events and Announcements editor for the TLN Blog.