The first visit Lillie Swain makes to the memorial to her 10-year-old son Tony will be to take it down.
Though he died nearly seven years ago, it has remained too painful for Swain to see the site where he became a hero, pushing his younger sister out of the way and being struck by a hit-and-run driver.
She plans to go to the site in East Akron on Friday to gather the cross and collection of stuffed animals and trinkets placed there in honor of Tony. And she isn’t happy about it.
“It bothers me because where they’ve got his memorial, to me, that was like something for him,” she said. “They did that in honor of him. I don’t know why they want to remove that.”
A city official visited Swain this week to tell her the memorial would need to be removed because of a new city rule that roadside memorials in the right-of-way can remain in place for only 45 days. When the first deadline hit, Friday, the city gave family members who could be identified the option of taking down the memorials themselves. Customer service workers are dismantling the others, storing the items for two weeks — in case someone wants to collect them — then disposing of them.
“This is a touchy situation,” said John Eaton, Akron’s head of customer service, who is in charge of cataloging complaints about memorials, trying to contact families and supervising the removals. “It must be handled with the utmost of diplomacy.”
Akron adopted the new policy at the urging of neighborhood block watch leaders who were upset about memorials being left up for months or years, with the teddy bears, T-shirts, silk flowers and other items not standing the test of time. The block watch leaders, with the support of Council President Marco Sommerville and Councilman Russel Neal Jr., were pushing for the memorials to be taken down after 30 days, while the city administration favored 90 days, thinking grieving loved ones might need the additional time.
After adopting the rule, Akron received complaints about 17 memorials. The deadline for that first group of memorials was Friday, with the clock ticking on five other memorials flagged in the interim. A new letter, explaining the policy and deadline, will be posted at these sites and any others identified in the future.
For most of the memorials, Eaton hasn’t been able either to figure out whom they are for or to find family or friends of the deceased.
The memorials might have a first name or a nickname of the person they honor, but that often isn’t enough to determine an identity. Eaton also contacts council members to see if they know the history behind the memorials.
Two customer service workers dismantled the first of these mystery memorials Monday morning, taking down tributes on Crosby Street, Rhodes Avenue and Princeton Street that had become fixtures in the neighborhoods.
The Crosby Street memorial, erected on a utility pole, included a white teddy bear with the $5.99 price tag attached, a pink bunny with “luv” and “you” handwritten on its paws, dirty silk flowers and a wooden cross with “RIP Shatora” written on it.
The city workers donned plastic gloves, opened black trash bags and began tearing off the items.
“It comes down rather quickly,” said John Valle, Akron’s new director of neighborhood assistance, who oversees the customer service department.
When everything was removed, the workers tied the trash bags and tossed them in the back of a pickup truck.
(A Beacon Journal search determined the memorial honored Shatora Higgins, a 17-year-old Akron girl who died, along with her unborn son, in 2005 when her friend drove through a red light and collided with another vehicle.)
A few blocks away, the city employees went through the same process with a memorial on Rhodes, near West Market Street, where T-shirts, stuffed animals and deflated balloons covered the utility pole.
Eaton noticed a woman across the street watching and asked if she knew who was being memorialized. She told him it was for a Christian man who played the drums at a church on Easter Avenue.
By 9 that night, new items — a white cross, red teddy bear and red heart balloon — had been placed on the same pole. By the next afternoon, two T-shirts had been added. One read, “Always Remembered. Never Forgotten.” The other contained the image of an African-American man’s photo with “AK” under it.
Eaton is still trying to find family or friends of the person. He has said any memorials put up after one is taken down will be removed immediately, if the city can ascertain they are in honor of the same person.
When Eaton contacted Ian Anderson about the city’s new memorial policy, she told him she would take down the memorial to her brother and sister-in-law herself, though reluctantly.
She felt like it was too soon to remove the memorial — Martin and Robin McClain died after a motorcycle crash in mid-April — especially when other memorials have been up for years.
“I just feel very strongly that members of council and people who support this have hardened their hearts to the need for families to express grief,” Anderson said.
Anderson said the family couldn’t afford a cemetery plot — instead opting for cremation — so they often visited and passed by the memorial at Hilbish Avenue and Triplett Boulevard to remember the McClains.
“This is a total lack of mercy,” she said, fighting tears. “We’re voters. We never miss a vote. We always have signs up for the mayor and council. I’m feeling a little betrayed.”
Anderson took one last photo of the memorial Sunday and posted it on Facebook before loading the items into her car’s trunk. She plans to divide the memorial keepsakes among her family members at a reunion next month. Some were unable to make it to Akron for the funeral and never saw the memorial.
Not everyone is sad to see the city taking down the memorials.
“We’re glad we got something going,” said Gerald Stafford, the Beechwood Block Club president who was among neighborhood leaders who pushed for the new policy.
“We don’t mean to hurt people’s feelings. Some have to come down, especially when they are not being maintained. We had to start somewhere, otherwise, it gets worse.”
Neal, who represents Ward 4, which has many memorials, emailed Valle last Friday to ask when the Crosby and Rhodes memorials would be removed.
“I’m pleased,” he said of those and other memorials being taken down. “This is one of the first things I’ve been involved with that involved a real collaboration — community dialogue.”
Neal thinks the city needs to continue to educate the public about the new policy.
City officials knew the removal of the Swain memorial would be difficult.
“We want to be sensitive to his family,” Valle said. “We do not want to say this is unique or that the others are not as important. But, he was a martyr.”
Tony Swain was killed in September 2005 as he walked his sister, Charlique, then 6, to school. A crossing guard was helping children cross the road when an older-model, maroon Ford Thunderbird or Mercury Cougar sped through the intersection. Tony was hit as he pushed Charlique out of the way. The driver didn’t stop and has never been caught.
Akron police and the American Red Cross posthumously awarded Tony hero status. His death prompted the city to use automated cameras in school zones to try to curb speeding.
Valle visited the Swain home twice, called Lillie Swain at work, then hand-delivered a letter to the house, finally catching up with her Tuesday. He told her the signs under the official crosswalk signs at the intersection, which include Tony’s name and the dates of his birth and death, will remain.
Swain understands why the city wants her to remove the memorial, though she thinks it’s a shame that this tribute no longer will be there to remind people about her son’s death — and the fact his killer was never arrested. Family members and friends held vigils at the site several times to mark the anniversary of his death.
She disagreed with a statement Sommerville made that family members can visit the person they lost at the cemetery.
“That’s where my son took his last breath,” she said of the intersection. “They struck him and killed him like an animal in the street. He was innocent. It’s very different going to a memorial and going to a graveyard.”
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705 or email@example.com.