Windsor

Detroit's Belle Isle Park COVID-19 memorial garden photos gifted to mourning families

A five-year-old girl, a piano teacher, a firefighter and highly regarded community members were some of the 1,500 COVID-19 victims the City of Detroit remembered this week in a drive-thru memorial on Belle Isle. 

More than 900 large photos of COVID-19 victims were placed on the island

A procession of vehicles drive past photos of Detroit victims of COVID-19, Monday, Aug. 31, 2020 on Belle Isle in Detroit. Families have a chance to take one last public look at their lost loved ones in the nation's first citywide memorial to honor victims of the pandemic. Mourners will join 14 consecutive funeral processions to drive past nearly 900 large poster-sized photos of their loved ones staked around the island. (Carlos Osorio/The Associated Press)

A five-year-old girl, a piano teacher, a firefighter and many other beloved community members were some of the COVID-19 victims the City of Detroit remembered this week in a drive-thru memorial on Belle Isle. 

More than 900 families in Detroit submitted images of their loved ones, who died due to COVID-19, to the city. These images were then turned into large signs and staked into the ground in Belle Isle Park for a formal procession with family members Monday, and stayed up through the week. 

Janice Robleh's dapper fiance, Orville Dale, 55, died in May. He had beaten prostate cancer but couldn't overcome the virus in a hospital.

"My last conversation? I get misty-eyed," Robleh, 55, said. "I kept telling him, 'You're going to come home. I had a dream.'"

"This is wonderful," she said of the park display. "It's so great to see his smile. That's what captivated me. We were planning to get married this year. We had so many plans."

The photos on Belle Isle will be taken down Thursday and given to family members, city officials said. (Carlos Osorio/ The Associated Press)

The photos will be taken down and gifted to family members on Thursday, the city's director of arts and culture Rochelle Riley told CBC's Windsor Morning

"I know that some people like to look at Detroit as under siege where we're just a city of violence or of racial unrest or things that are always the worst but what I've seen in these past six months has been the best of Detroit, the resilience and the 'can-do' spirit," said Riley, who helped organize the event. 

'Dreams and plans and a story'

At first, Riley said she was worried the event might be too difficult for families.

Instead, she said she saw it gave "peace" to many who couldn't hold proper funerals for their loved ones.

The pictures in the Detroit park were of the victims during better times: Darrin Adams at his college graduation; Daniel Aldape catching a fish; Shirley Frank with an Elvis impersonator; and Veronica Davis crossing the finish line at a race.

A family member holds a sign during a procession of vehicles driving past photos of Detroit victims of COVID-19, Monday, Aug. 31, 2020 on Belle Isle in Detroit. Families have a chance to take one last public look at their lost loved ones in the nation's first citywide memorial to honor victims of the pandemic. Mourners will join 14 consecutive funeral processions to drive past nearly 900 large poster-sized photos of their loved ones staked around the island. (Carlos Osorio/ The Associated Press)

"The Mayor [Mike Duggan] felt that it was time to take a moment for us to reflect and put a collective embrace around our families who had lost so much as victims were snatched away," Riley said. 

An April community meeting over Zoom is what first got the city's mayor thinking about ways to honour people.

Cher Coner's mother, Joyce, had died of sepsis, not COVID-19, but she couldn't have a traditional funeral because of virus restrictions.

She appealed to Duggan for something special, knowing that his father, a retired federal judge, had died in March after chronic health problems.

"I was afraid to speak up. He took it and ran with it," said Coner, whose mother's photo is on Belle Isle. "I hope this ignites something in this country and brings healing to the nation."

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also visited the memorial and spoke about the victims. 

They had "dreams and plans and a story," Whitmer said. "They weren't finished yet."

He added that the virus revealed the inequalities that exist for people of colour in vulnerable communities. 

"The virus exposed deep inequities, from basic lack of access to health care or transportation or protections in the workplace," Whitmer said. 

As of Thursday, the city's website has reported a total of 13,734 cases and 1,513 deaths. 

Detroit's battle against COVID-19 is in stark contrast to Windsor-Essex, which has had a total of 2,541 cases and 74 deaths as of Thursday. 

With files from AP and Windsor Morning

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