Shrines of Bicycles and Booze

Oakland has long tradition of makeshift roadside memorials featuring idiosyncratic symbols that honor the person who died.


On a recent afternoon, a gleaming white bike attracted the attention of motorists and passers by.

Milah Gammon

When a loved one dies, mourners often undertake a series of rituals and customs: writing an obituary, arranging the funeral, and perhaps creating a makeshift roadside memorial.

Oakland has long tradition of such memorials. Many times they appear on street corners or sidewalks after a violent homicide, a drunken driving crash, or some other unexpected tragedy. The memorials often feature symbols that reflect the Oaklander who died and what was important to him or her.

In recent months, friends and relatives of Robert Russell, who was killed in a collision with a motorcyclist in November, erected a roadside memorial on the 51st Street median near Shafter Avenue in North Oakland. The shrine included a white bicycle, succulent plants, and letters left for the 70-year-old Russell. On a recent afternoon, the gleaming white bike attracted the attention of motorists and passers by.

When a child dies, mourners often leave teddy bears to mark the site. In African-American, Cuban, and some Latino communities, it’s not uncommon to see bottles of the deceased’s favorite liquor left to note their passing.

“Research shows that many of the items placed in shrines are idiosyncratic to that particular shrine; in other words, people place items in shrines which reflect a primary characteristic of that particular shrine,” said Sylvia Grider, professor emerita of anthropology at Texas A&M. Grider wrote Spontaneous Shrines: A Modern Response to Tragedy and Disaster about the variety of memorials created after 9/11. “The incredible number of toys left at the shrines for the children shot and killed at Sandy Hook School in Connecticut a few years ago demonstrates this principle.”

Typically, no one person takes charge of a roadside memorial, and research indicates that the mourners who leave items are not concerned with what others may think, Grider added. Their “audience” is the deceased person, not observers. Since there are no rules, no memorial is exactly the same. As a result, she said, “memorials can be controversial and frequently misunderstood.”

Sometimes, bottles of Moet champagne, Corona beer, or expensive liquor adorn a roadside memorial—a sight that is common in certain cultures. So when Willie Morris Clay was fatally shot in January 2006 at 22nd Avenue and East 28th Street in the city’s Highland Terrace neighborhood, the people who came to mourn the 19-year-old’s life brought with them a bunch of Hennessy Cognac.

Photo by D. Ross Cameron

“It’s just part of our culture,” explained Pendarvis Harshaw, 24, who was a friend of Clay’s and is also a freelance writer and blogger. “We always pour out a bit of spirits, whether it’s at a memorial site or a conscious-raising circle. We will even pour libations, or a glass of water, into a plant. We’re trying to channel the good spirits so that our ancestors can see.”

Harshaw said there are really no rules regarding the liquor. Sometimes people take a sip and pour some out at the death site, or sometimes they just leave a full or half-full bottle at the memorial. He’s seen this ritual occur within black, Latino, and Filipino communities at Oakland sites he has visited.

Last fall, a massive makeshift memorial, featuring hundreds of beer bottles cropped up next to Lake Merritt, just off Lakeshore Avenue. While the artifacts at the memorials may range from a bicycle to bottles of alcohol, the symbols mourners bring remind that community who was lost.

Delency Parham, who graduated from Berkeley High and is also a writer for the news website Berkeleyside, lost his friend Terrence McCrary Jr., or TMack, last year. The 22-year-old was shot and killed along with another young man while attending a birthday party at Prime Development art gallery in downtown Oakland.

Mourners decorated McCrary’s memorial with skateboards, Vans sneakers, and graffiti. “We all went to the spot where he was killed by gun violence,” Parham said. “And we talked about the good times.” 


Published online on April 19, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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