Mourners placed two bottles of Kendall Floyd's favorite tequila on the ground, tied red and white balloons to a chain-link fence and scribbled rest-in-peace messages on posters set up in his honor.
A night earlier, on May 17, the 20-year-old had been fatally shot just steps away on Madison Street, about 2 miles west of the United Center.
Floyd's cousin, Shakirra Hilliard, wailed as she gazed at a photo of him taped to a poster, his middle finger playfully extended.
"I wanna stay right here. I wanna look at my cousin," she told a woman trying to console her. "… He didn't do nothing!"
It is a scene that plays out often on Chicago's toughest streets. Friends and loved ones erect a makeshift memorial on or near the spot of a violent death. It is a place to remember, honor and grieve a sudden, tragic, sometimes inevitable loss. The crude memorials can survive hours, days, weeks, months — even more than a year amid harsh weather conditions.
The memorials can be touchy subjects for police, who fear they glorify violence in gang-related killings, but the displays of liquor bottles, teddy bears and candles serve as gathering spots for unofficial urban wakes. Neighbors, friends and relatives pray, cry or just laugh at the memory of someone they have lost.
The makeshift shrines have become a testament to the violence that plagues the city.
"It's a way that people pay homage to the fallen," said James Pate, an artist who used depictions of street memorials to complement his charcoal drawings in the "Kin Killin' Kin" exhibit last year at the DuSable Museum of African American History on the South Side. "Once they're weathered, they even take on another kind of appearance, the teddy bears drenched in rain. ... When they're first put up, they almost look festive."
These impromptu memorials could not be found 20 years ago, according to DePaul University sociologist William Sampson, yet now they are part of the landscape in big cities across the country.
"I thought this was a little gaudy and out of control, but the purpose of gaudy is to get noticed," Sampson, who heads the school's Department of Public Policy, recalled when he first noticed memorials years ago on TV news. Mourners, he said, are "trying to bring attention to not only the victims but to themselves as well."
Floyd's uncle Cleodis Hilliard, a lifelong West Sider, understands too well the human toll represented by the memorials.
"A lot of my friends, they gone. They're not here no more, so I've signed a lot of them," Hilliard, 35, said last month while sipping a cup of Remy Martin cognac near his nephew's memorial. "That's the way we pay our respects. I don't like funerals. I like to remember people the way they were."
'He was loved'
Three young women emerged from a side street about 10:30 p.m. and walked up to a tree at the corner of Fulton Street and Pine Avenue in the South Austin neighborhood on the West Side. They wondered aloud if there were enough posters. If enough candles were lit on the ground. If the blue crescent moon stuffed toy taped to the tree was the right touch.
"It's not even enough," one woman said. "Not for his big heart it ain't."
They were talking about Charles Lee, 32, who was fatally shot the day before — May 17 — while driving near Austin Polytechnical Academy High School. Wounded, Lee crashed into a wrought-iron fence at the corner. The impact bent some of the iron bars. Police say Lee was affiliated with the Four Corner Hustlers street gang.
Dozens of messages already filled three posters taped around a tree. "GONE TOO SOON," said a message written by Ciera Wilson, one of the three friends visiting the tree the next night.
Hours earlier, Wilson and a friend went to a CVS pharmacy and a dollar store to print up photos of Lee and buy posters and candles. Close friends of Lee's since childhood, they also bought red and white balloons, tying them around the tree.
"We wanted people to know that he was loved and there are people who ... are hurting over this," Wilson said.
More people walked over to the tree as the roar of a Green Line "L" train sounded a block away. They laid more candles down. The approximately 15 mourners attracted the attention of Louise Coleman, an older woman whom youths in the neighborhood call "Grandma."
"Are you all OK?" she asked the visitors before offering to lead them in prayer. Everyone joined hands and circled the tree.
"We know that there is power in unity," said Coleman, drawing an occasional "Yes" and "Thanks Lord" from the group. " ... We pray, oh father in heaven, that our beloved brother who has come to join you, we hope that his soul is rested."
The crowd swelled to about 50 people as it drew closer to midnight. Mourners lit candles on the grass beside the tree, positioning them to spell "CHUCK."
By the next morning, candle wax smeared the dirt. A few candles remained lit. One poster flapped back and forth in the wind.
Three Peoples Gas workers wearing construction helmets walked over from their work site to look at the display.
As the week progressed, a bouquet of roses was taped to the tree. An empty bottle of Seagram's gin appeared beside the candles. One poster laid against the tree. Rainfall had smeared the ink on that poster and another still taped to the tree.
A few days later, red string from one of the balloons and a piece of fluorescent green poster were all that remained.
'Rest in peace!'
It's 2 p.m., a little more than 14 hours since a young man in a hoodie walked up and fatally shot Kendall Floyd as he stood outside the apartment building on Madison Street where he lived. The killer sped off in a white van. Police say Floyd, on house arrest for a drug conviction, belonged to the Unknown Vice Lords street gang.
Three posters taped to the wrought-iron fencing outside the apartment building included dozens of messages scrawled in blue and red marker.
The sun beat down on about 50 people hanging out by the memorial. Some sat in lawn chairs. Some walked about with plastic cups of booze. Others smoked pot.
A police squadrol pulled up, double-parking down the block. A uniformed officer drew the crowd's attention as he grabbed one of the mourners, placed him in handcuffs and drove him away.
"They said he was throwing dice," Floyd's cousin, Shakirra Hilliard, said with frustration.
Later, plainclothes officers cruised by. The name "DALEGANG" scrawled on the memorial led them to ask relatives what it meant. They said they didn't know. It turned out to be a reference to a rap group, a relative said later.
A gust of wind pushed the memorial's star-shaped balloons from side to side as Cleodis Hilliard explained how his nephew lost his mother to cancer when he was young, leaving him and a younger brother with little guidance on steering clear of the dangers of the streets.
"I wish ... I could've made it to the NBA. I could've gotten everybody out," Hilliard said in a somber tone. "But it is what it is."
The crowd thinned as the afternoon progressed but swelled again by sunset. By now the posters had been moved down the block on orders of police who said they had been mounted on private property, an uncle of Floyd's said. The memorial had grown to seven posters, red and white balloons tied to the fence and two bottles of Floyd's favorite tequila, Patron, placed on the sidewalk.
Floyd's friends and family members huddled around the posters to write a few words. Rap music blared loudly from a Chrysler parked along Madison. The crowd had grown to more than 100 people. Mourners crouched and lit candles that were carefully arranged along the sidewalk to spell out Floyd's name. One woman read a poem aloud from her cellphone as the crowd listened in silence.
Moments later, mourners released about 10 balloons, watching them rise above Garfield Park.
"Rest in peace, Kendall! Rest in peace!" one woman shouted.
By morning, only remnants of the memorial remained. A few dozen candles were scattered about. One empty bottle of Patron was left beside the chain-link fence. A long piece of tape dangled from the fence.
Emanuel Cowley, a janitor from Floyd's apartment building, swept up debris with a broom and dustpan and placed the leftover candles and empty bottle into a nearby trash can.
Overgrown weeds. Vacant land. A shuttered convenience store. An unoccupied apartment building. The 5900 block of South Normal Boulevard looks like so many other blocks in the Englewood neighborhood.
But two trees on opposite sides of the block stand out. Each contains a memorial for a man who lost his life in the South Side neighborhood crippled by gun violence and rampant crime — Keith "Keke" Bonds and Anthony Martise Hopkins.
Hopkins, 27, was fatally shot in May 2009 on the east side of Normal. Messages are scrawled in blue marker across a T-shirt and another cloth. "DEAR LORD, YOU DONE TOOK SO MANY OF MY PEOPLE, I'M JUST WONDERING WHY" read one. Carnations were planted among the unkempt grass below.
Hopkins' mother, Debra, said her son graduated from Corliss High School in 2000 and attended college briefly in Mississippi, but he struggled with sickle cell anemia and lived at home with her in the West Pullman neighborhood. On the day he died, she had told her son she didn't want him hanging out with gang-affiliated nephews in Englewood, but he told her not to worry, gave her a hug and left. She never saw him again.
She had no idea that the memorial to her son at the scene of his slaying still existed until a reporter told her.
"I'm kind of happy about it and kind of sad at the same time," she said during an interview in her Far South Side home. "I'm happy that people are still thinking about him, remembering him. But I'm also sad because ... it happens so often. So many young men are getting killed and ... everywhere you go you see some kind of memorial out there."
Near a tree on the west side of the street, Bonds, 26, was fatally shot in September 2012. It is now known by friends and loved ones as "Keke's tree." Two pieces of cardboard are stapled to the tree, one with his photo and the dates of his birth and death.
The other cardboard piece displays a photo of Bonds' young son. Among the messages scrawled in ink was "Rest up Lil Bro See u when I get there" in a drawing of a heart.
Chicago police have theorized that Bonds, reputedly affiliated with a Black Disciples street gang faction, may have been killed in retaliation after appearing in a rap video taunting rapper Lil Jojo shortly after the rapper was killed. Jasmine Curry, a close friend of Bonds', said the city periodically cleans up the memorial site, discarding everything but what's stapled to the tree. But Bonds' friends and relatives would then buy more balloons, glow-in-the-dark reflectors and booze to set by the tree, Curry said.
A spokeswoman for the city's Streets and Sanitation Department said memorials are removed only at the request of community members or if memorials have become unkempt, interfere with the public way or cause a nuisance.
On what would have been Bonds' 28th birthday last month, Curry and others gathered in front of the tree to remember him. Some drank Remy Martin cognac, Bonds' favorite liquor.
"We know he's in a better place than being out here, looking behind your back," Curry said during a recent interview at the site.
Curry grew nervous for a moment when a white BMW drove past twice while she spoke with a reporter.
She remembered how goofy and funny Bonds could be.
"People that lose their lives are easy to forget," Curry said. "And we want people to ride past and see like, that's somebody that people loved."