By Dylan Deprey
The number of names inked into the stack of loose-leaf paper in Camille Mays folder has grown steadily over the last week. Thirty families have requested that a deceased loved ones’ curbside memorial be replaced by Peace Garden Project MKE.
“It’s more about respecting the family. It’s not just about the victim,”said Camille Mays, head organizer of Peace Garden Project MKE.
After one of the most violent summers in Milwaukee’s history, street memorials consisting of empty liquor bottles, deflated balloons, and cigar wrappers are scattered throughout the streets. Peace Garden Project MKE is an organization that strives to change the landscape of Milwaukee.
When driving down Locust St. at the intersection of 39th St., the purple ribbon wrapped around the tree makes for an unusual sight compared to the normal ragged teddy bear hanging from a tree. The white rocks accent the dark mulch and purple flowers that hug the tree’s base.
This was the first peace garden constructed by the organization for the memorial of Shavonta Johnson and his family.
Johnson, 28, died from injuries he sustained after a shooting on Sept. 18.
“I paid for almost all of it, with some donations,” Camille Mays said.
Camille Mays has been an active member in the community. She organized monthly cleanups in neighborhoods, but never saw results or a response from the community.
“We needed to grab people’s attention,” Mays said. “I wanted to beautify the landscape.”
Unlike some in her community, Camille Mays has traveled around the country.
She noticed that throughout her travels, artwork and gardens covered neighborhood streets.
“Why is it that the McDonald’s and gas stations are cleaner than the streets,” Mays said.
In an all-hands-on-deck approach, Camille Mays has received support from elected officials, the Sherman Park Community Association, the Healthy Neighborhood Initiative, and the community in her movement to replace bottles with beauty.
Mays mentioned that not all of the memorials that occupy the street corners are solely gun-related homicide victims. Rising car crashes from drunk driving have plagued the streets of Milwaukee.
Camille Mays has talked to many families of victims who are remembered through roadside memorials. Liquor bottles and cigar wrappers surround the wilting flowers near street signs and trees where someone has died. Sometimes, the victim remembered has never drank or smoked in their life.
“We can do better. We’re not animals,” Camille Mays said. “I want to change the way of thinking. We have a different mindset.”
Although the grieving process is different for every person, Mays has stipulations for families that request a peace garden for their deceased loved one.
“Families agree to maintenance the garden,” Camille Mays said.
Mays advises some families to have the memorial in front of their residence, if the actual memorial is farther away to be able to maintain it.
The City of Milwaukee has an ordinance that curbside memorials be removed within 30 days of a complaint. If no complaint is called in, some stay up to a multitude of years. Mays has heard stories from city workers that request police escorts when removing some of these curbside memorials because of the emotional attachment from the community. One memorial was even burned because of the street profession of the deceased.
Camille Mays has also met backlash to the Peace Garden Project MKE. Some have said that these memorials represent the killing of thugs and drug dealers.
Although Camille Mays’ three sons have stayed away from activities in the streets, she understands that it is hard to comprehend the extent of a loved one’s reputation.
“It’s about respect for the family,” Mays said. “Some people are clueless of what their family has done, and they can’t be held accountable.”
The makeshift memorials in the streets of Milwaukee lower the property value. Camille Mays’ goal is to improve curbside appeal to increase the value of neighborhoods.
“Maybe somebody will invest in an abandoned house that would usually go overlooked,” Mays said.
Camille Mays made it clear that her goal was not to reach out to the families of deceased victims in the street of Milwaukee. Her goal is to have the community band together to create a beautiful landscape that transforms the view of the city.
“If somebody who wasn’t from here saw the peace garden, they would just think it was a nice tree,” Mays said.
“It’s so much more than just the peace garden,” Camille Mays said. “It’s about what’s best for the city overall.”