Twenty one years after her son had been shot and killed in New Haven, Connecticut, Marlene Pratt was driving around the city. In neighborhoods rife with gun violence she looked for kids and young men standing on the corner. She would pull her car to the curb when she spotted them. From her trunk, she would retrieve a white poster board covered with columns of names and she would hail the group. “Excuse me! Can you help me with something?” she would call.
Weeks before, Pratt had attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the New Haven Botanical Garden of Healing Dedicated to Victims of Gun Violence, the country’s first general memorial to victims of a single city. Pratt had been the prime mover behind the garden. She had spent years meeting with city personnel, elected officials, designers, engineers, community members — “too many meetings.” She had pushed to get blueprints and permissions in place.
On a spring morning in 2019, shovels were entering the ground. Dozens of families that had lost a child to gun violence were invited to visit the site. They signed a book and looked over Pratt’s poster to confirm the name and date of death.
The poster listed more than 600 names stretching back to 1976. Wanting to check as many as she could, Pratt took the board on tour, neighborhood to neighborhood, asking groups on corners to scan the columns and indicate victims they had known. Pratt wanted their help: Could they point her to the families left behind so she could verify the information?
At one corner, she approached four men who appeared to her to be gang members. She showed them the names and asked if they recognized anyone. A young man she assumed to be the leader nodded. “That’s my soldier,” he said, pointing to a name. “He served the organization well.” He continued to read the list, acknowledging other fallen associates. “This one represents him,” the man said, pointing to one of the tears tattooed by his eyes, and then indicating another name on the board.
When this exchange ended, Pratt asked the man if he would consider visiting the garden once it opened. Perhaps he could bring some of his soldiers? He, in turn, asked where the garden was located, and when she told him along Valley Street, bordered by the West River, under the tall sanguine buttress of West Rock, he nodded and told her she had chosen a good spot.
“You think so?”
“That’s neutral ground,” he said.
“I was scared to death of that man,” Pratt admitted later, “but I wouldn’t let him know it.” She got a number where she could reach him.
Pratt was home in North Carolina in May of 1998 when she received a phone call informing her that her son was hospitalized with a gunshot wound. He had moved back to New Haven, the city of his birth, a year earlier. Pratt fell to her knees to pray. A half hour later the phone rang again. Gary Kyshon Miller, 20 years old, had died.
For nearly two weeks, Pratt waited for updates from the New Haven Police Department. With no leads forthcoming, she got in her car and drove to Connecticut. She distributed posters pleading for help identifying the gunman. She stopped cars at intersections to hand out cards. She did this for a week. Nobody stepped forward to give a name until a serendipitous encounter.
Pratt was talking with a man who, she noticed, was wearing a bulletproof vest. She asked if he knew what had happened to her son. The man gave away nothing and walked off. She turned to a young woman at her side, looked at the woman’s daughter playing nearby, and wondered aloud about the challenge of raising a daughter in a neighborhood where residents feel compelled to wear bulletproof vests. Pratt left New Haven after the offhand exchange, but three days later the police called to tell her they had a tip. The woman had walked into a station and explained that the evening of the shooting, someone she knew had asked her to be an alibi: If it ever came up, the man had asked her to say that he had been with her that night. And then she gave a name. Two weeks later the man was arrested for the murder of Pratt’s son.
New Haven became a haunted city for Pratt, a dreadful place. She swore she would never return outside of family visits. But, given time to explore, people often walk unforeseen avenues. In 2014, Pratt moved back to New Haven and took a job as a high school science teacher. Driving home from work one day, she saw yellow police tape along the road. She slowed to ask a girl on the sidewalk what happened and was stunned by the indifference with which the girl explained that it was just another person shot and killed. “This is the mentality we have in New Haven?” says Pratt. “Just another person. I had to process that. Is that how people felt when my son died?”
Upon her return to New Haven, Pratt found a space to reflect in the Marsh Botanical Garden, an eight-acre plot of land owned by Yale University. There, she met Eric Larson, a Yale employee who managed the garden. When Larson heard the story of her son, he directed her to the Urban Resources Initiative, a local nonprofit affiliated with the Yale School of the Environment where Pratt was offered the opportunity to plant a tree in Gary’s honor. “A tree?” Pratt recalls thinking. “I don’t want something small. I want something for every mother that has lost a child in this city — a place that is beautiful, where they can grieve.” At a support group for survivors of homicide, she met three other mothers: Pamela Jaynes, Celeste Robinson-Fulcher, and Winifred Phillips-Cue. Each of them had lost a child to gun violence, and each jumped at the opportunity to get involved in Pratt’s effort to build something beautiful.
Over the course of two years, city approvals fell slowly into place and an idea became manifest. The city committed in-kind resources and raised funds from the state. Gifts from a graduate of the Yale School of the Environment, Jackie Fouse, and Dalio Philanthropies provided Urban Resources Initiative matching funds needed to carry out the project. Architectural firm Svigals + Partners designed the garden. Volunteers lent time and labor. Ground was broken on May 20 of 2019, on the 21st anniversary of the day Pratt learned her son had been killed.
Though unfinished, the garden opened to families this past November. Mothers and fathers and siblings and relatives who had lost someone to gun violence were given tours led by Pratt, Jaynes, and Robinson-Fulcher. (Phillips-Cue died during the garden’s construction.) A father who had not attended his son’s funeral, the emotion too raw at the time, came through and opened himself to grief. A sister whose brother’s ashes had been scattered into the waters of Long Island Sound visited and said her brother no longer felt forgotten.
The garden rolls out from a low, grassy berm. At its entrance, a series of chimes ring in the wind. A pathway of engraved bricks, segmented by year and starting in 1976, catalogs the names and ages of those killed by gun violence in the city. Centered in the garden is a statue of a family, composed of metal slats. The image separates and dissolves as you walk past, then again takes shape as the walkway ends at a Tree of Life planted in the center of a circular plaza. There is a set of benches, too, envisioned as an outdoor classroom.
Pratt dreams about bringing young students to the garden, says Jaynes. “She wants to strike a chord that will turn them around if someone is trying to lead them in the wrong direction.” To this end, Pratt has been developing a curriculum and mentorship program that targets middle schoolers.
More broadly, the garden, which opened last week, is designed to spark conversation and action around the crisis of gun violence afflicting cities across the United States. Pratt wants visitors to enjoy the garden’s tranquility, but she also wants visitors, especially those who have not lost a child to gun violence, to be deeply unsettled by the walkway of names, most of them young men. She wants people to join the search for solutions.
Robinson-Fulcher, too, spoke to the role of the garden in creating change. She hopes that the garden will force communities across New Haven to confront the magnitude of the crisis. “This is a huge problem — I know from personal experience — and people really need to start talking about it,” she says. “I want to be heard. I hope somebody hears.”
Justin Elicker, the mayor of New Haven and father of two, described work on gun violence as the issue he has “struggled most with despite everything we faced in the past year and a half.” Because it is intertwined with larger, systemic problems of poverty, generational disinvestment, and racial inequities, it is going to take time. The urgent question is how much time. “How are we going to make this walkway, covered in names, as short as possible?”
As of the publication of this article, New Haven has recorded 15 homicides since January 1, 2021 — 15 more bricks engraved with names and dates and set into the soil at the walkway’s far end.