Imperial Avenue rises above trauma with ‘Garden of 11 Angels’ memorial

Not only will the memorial now headed to Imperial Avenue honor and celebrate the women who lost their lives there. It will be a shining example to urban planners everywhere, a model of what to do with blighted space and helping a neighborhood move past trauma.

Garden of 11 Angels site on Imperial Avenue

Garden of 11 Angels site on Imperial Avenue

Sometimes, angels really do lead the way on Earth.

Case in point: the “Garden of 11 Angels” coming next year to Imperial Avenue, following the approval earlier this month of a funding resolution by Cleveland City Council.

Not only will the memorial now headed to a tainted spot in Cleveland honor and celebrate the women who lost their lives there. It will be a shining example to urban planners everywhere, a model of what to do with blighted space and helping a neighborhood move past trauma.

“When there’s tragedy, the action you want to take is toward healing,” said Jacqueline Gillon, community engagement specialist at the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, the nonprofit that in 2016 helped secure nearly an acre for the project in Cleveland’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood.

“To have a place where there was so much pain and suffering become a place that’s green and tranquil…The community has really responded to it.”

Much, of course, already has been done to reclaim land befouled by one of the most brutal crime sprees the city has ever known.

The property where the murders took place was razed along ago, along with the home next door. Locals and family members of the victims also did their part, planting 22 trees – eleven times two – and erecting a fence around a large lot now composed of eight city parcels.

In a video for the project, Bishop Eugene Ward, executive pastor at Greater Love Missionary Baptist Church, described the victims as “angels in the sight of people who loved them, who cared for them” and the efforts so far as a “living testimony” to their lives. 

Garden of 11 Angels Concept Plan.jpg

Locals also got the ball rolling on a memorial. David Wilson, the project manager at Cleveland’s Land Studio overseeing the “Garden of 11 Angels,” said his plans for the project largely mirror a design conceived by a local architect originally hired by the families of the victims.

“That vision was one that the families responded to from the beginning,” Wilson said. “It was my responsibility to honor that vision as much as possible…We’re really trying to be intentional about reaching out to the community every step of the way.”

That, it would appear, Wilson has done. The final design for the “Garden of 11 Angels” is true to the original in almost every respect, from the overall shape and nature of the memorial itself all the way down to the flowerbeds around it.

Visitors will enter the memorial at street level and proceed up a gentle sloped walkway lined by 11 trees to a raised area with a circular monument inscribed with the names of the victims and a poem by Maya Angelou. A low wall along the path will afford seating, and the whole path will trace an infinity loop in reference to the eternal spirits of the honorees.

The idea, Wilson said, is to create a space that is both intimate and public, a place where visitors can enjoy a moment of quiet reflection while remaining fully safe and visible, part of the environment. All that remains to be decided, Wilson said, is which variety of decorative fruiting trees to use.

“It’s a setting that feels very open and well-integrated into the surrounding neighborhood,” Wilson said.

Garden of 11 Angels (10_20_20)3_1 - site rendering.jpg

“It’s peaceful,” Gillon added, describing the property as a whole. “You don’t feel the trauma of what happened there.”

Timing of the project is flexible, and hinges on the pace of further fundraising. Wilson said he hopes to break ground in spring 2021 and complete the effort by next fall.

Some in the neighborhood said they wish the garden had materialized sooner, even as they applaud the notion of a permanent memorial and its design.

Shirley Bell, a longtime resident of Mount Pleasant whose home looks onto the site and who herself runs a community garden, said she read the long delay as a sign of low regard for the neighborhood and its residents. She said it sent a message opposite to the name and mission of the Black Lives Matter movement and slowed the healing process.

Still, Bell said she finds comfort in the knowledge that the project is at last moving forward. The paraprofessional in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District said she expects the completed garden not only to pay fitting tribute to the victims but also to have all sorts of indirect consequences, forever altering the way residents and non-residents alike, would-be criminals included, view the neighborhood. 

“To actually see it will be different,” Bell said. “I think it will change the conversation around the matter.

“Aesthetics are important,” she added. “This puts a different value on things and gives structure to the area. The more value you put into the neighborhood, the better that neighborhood gets, and having value makes us less of an easy target.”

Garden of 11 Angels (10_20_20)1.jpg

Gillon couldn’t agree more. She said adding value to Mount Pleasant in the form of much-needed green space was a priority nearly on par with reclaiming the site and honoring the victims: Crystal Dozier, Tishana Culver, Leshanda Long, Michelle Mason, Tonia Carmichael, Nancy Cobbs, Amelda Hunter, Telacia Fortson, Janice Webb, Kim Yvette Smith, and Diane Turner.

With few traditional parks or playgrounds in the area, but plenty of empty or otherwise neglected lots, Gillon said the last thing the neighborhood needed was more in the way traditional development.

 Instead, she said, her team viewed the “Garden of 11 Angles” project not only as a place of solace but also as “a chance to re-imagine what vacant spaces could look like and how they could better serve the communities they reside in.”

“Greenspace is development in itself,” Gillon explained. “That’s where we’ve been cutting ourselves short in urban environments. We have to show we care, and that’s why we’re greening it up.”

Sadly, the “Garden of 11 Angels” is not the only memorial in Mount Pleasant. Not far from the forthcoming site is another project Wilson worked on recently, Derek Owens Memorial Park, a greenspace honoring a Cleveland Police officer killed in the line of duty.

This, too, sets an example, Gillon said, in Cleveland and beyond.

Neighborhoods everywhere will continue to experience tragedy, and neglect will forever be an issue outside gated communities. But the Derek Owns Memorial and the “Garden of 11 Angels” are shining two-part solutions, projects that improve the lots of the living even as they honor the dead.

“There are pockets of blight,” Gillon said. “But there are also many, many homes that continue to be beautiful and stable. This is not a perfect world, but we have to keep trying.”

Interested in learning more or getting involved? Connect with the Western Reserve Land Conservancy.

Zachary Lewis is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.

Get The Land's free newsletter in your inbox 2-3x a week

This site uses cookies to provide you with a great user experience. By continuing to use this website, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy.

Scroll to Top