Nestled between West Rock and the West River, a plot of land on Valley Street is being transformed from nondescript park land into a memorial garden that will be the first of its kind in the United States. The Memorial Garden for Victims of Gun Violence in New Haven — set to open late this summer — will be the first space to serve explicitly as a memorial garden for victims of gun violence, as a space to mourn, reflect and heal.

The cohort of mothers in New Haven who spearheaded this project wanted more than a cemetery to memorialize and honor their children who were taken by gun violence. They believe that this garden will be a gift not only for their children’s legacy, but to a city badly beaten by decades of bloodshed. They hope that it may even force people to lay down guns for good.

“As a mother, when you get the phone call that says your child has been shot and is on the way to the hospital, or if you make it to the hospital and they walk out and say, ‘We lost him,’ you’re hopeless,” Marlene Pratt, one of the women behind the memorial, said in an interview with the News.

Pratt teaches science at Career High School on Legion Ave., one block from Yale’s Medical Campus. Pratt’s son met a similar fate to nearly 800 other New Haveners since the 1970s when he was shot and killed in 1998 at the age of 20. Pratt has since connected with other New Haven women who, like herself, have had to confront life without their child as a result of gun violence. Pratt and her sisterhood of bereaved mothers begin planning the memorial in 2017.  Now, they are a few months away from the opening of the New Haven Memorial Garden to Victims of Gun Violence.

The Nucleus

This past week, Pratt and two other mothers mourned the loss of Winnifred Phillips-Cue after a yearlong fight with pancreatic cancer. “Winnie,” as she was known, had been friends with another core group mother, Pam Jaynez, since they were eight years old. Both women grew to share the same fate — become mothers of children taken from them — and have fought  diligently for a better future. This diligence is characteristic of what a representative from the architectural firm Svigals and Partners — which designed the memorial garden in collaboration with the nucleus — called “truly remarkable women.” 

Pratt, borrowing from the vocabulary of a science teacher, called the core group of mothers “The Nucleus.”

“So, it’s the three of us now but it was four of us,” Pratt said. “I came up with ‘nucleus’ because we were the center of the project as far as getting it together. The fact that the nucleus controls the cell, we were more like that, working with the body.”

This nucleus of women formed in 2017 when Pratt first engaged with a support group for bereaved parents of gun violence victims organized by the New Haven Police Department. Since then, Pratt, Jaynez, Cue-Phillips and Celeste Fulcher have worked to put an end to the problem that has caused them so much pain. 

Pratt recalled a memory of driving past a scene marked by yellow police tape. A bystander commented that “another person got shot,” unfazed by the public carnage before them. This indifference to suffering prompted Pratt to reimagine how people look at gun violence in her hometown. 

It’s not a park, it’s a garden

More than once, the mothers encountered obstacles that made them question whether their garden would ever come to life. 

As they searched for a site, Pratt recounted that some neighbors feared that the garden would be used for public drinking or barbecues. Pratt recalled that Cue-Phillips often responded to misinterpretations of the nucleus’ vision by saying “it’s not a park, it’s a garden.”

The difference between a park — a public place where one might drink in public or anticipate a barbecue — and a garden, Pratt explained, was that the garden was a site for purpose and reflection. 

Architectural firm Svigals and Partners, which designed the revamped Sandy Hook Elementary School, partnered with the nucleus to develop the memorial garden. 

“I think [the Sandy Hook community] actually chose our firm because of our reputation of being able to involve people in the process,” the firm’s associate principal Julia McFadden said. “I think they rightly recognized that their whole community was going to need a process that was going to be very sensitive and respectful to a whole range of emotions and feelings that they might be experiencing.”

McFadden said that the Sandy Hook project involved incorporating narratives from the community such as photos and knowledge about the personal story of a place. The firm’s experience in incorporating narratives of trauma and hope informed their approach to the gun violence memorial project. 

Svigals Director of Art Integration Marissa Mead said that her involvement began with a sketch pitched by Pratt. Pratt said that the sketch came from a student of hers who had heard about the nucleus’ vision for the garden and then rendered it in a drawing. That drawing served as the foundation for the spatial landscape of the garden, Mead said. Features such as a “magnitude walk” and the “tree of life” anchor the garden persisted until the final design that is currently under construction. 

In an interview, New Haven’s Chief Landscape Architect Katherine Jacobs  reflected on the narrative arc of the memorial garden as it relates to the Elm City. 

“I really think that there is something to just the spirit of everyone having a collective sense of care for our shared space and our shared community,” Jacobs told the News. “And also a sense of investment and empowerment and that this is a place that is loved and that we think, by as a corollary we care about each other, and having spaces that are neglected and broken down, kind of adds to a sense of disinvestment, and disempowerment, and lack of care. So my hope and my vision for landscapes is that we can get to a place where we have amazing parks and public spaces, and we just want them to represent how much we care about this place.”

This care for New Haven’s public spaces aims to bridge not only intertwining family narratives, but also the divide between town and gown. 

From Hillhouse Avenue to Valley Street

A common preconceived notion about Yale University is that its host city’s violent reputation undermines its students’ safety. Yalies, lifelong New Haveners and those well acquainted with the Elm City know that New Haven is acutely affected by gun violence — a problem the city shares with countless other urban areas in the United States. While the number of violent crimes in the city has vastly decreased in recent years, decades marked by deadly violence still cast a shadow on the city’s future. 

Violence, like many of the city’s urban realities, has a less prevalent, but not immaterial, effect on the Yale campus. Gun violence is no exception to that rule. The New Haven Register quoted then police spokesman David Hartman in 2011 saying that there were 36 murders in New Haven in 1991, one of the 36 being Christian Haley Prince, a 19-year-old Yale student fatally shot on the steps of St. Mary’s Church on Hillhouse Ave. This murder brought national attention to New Haven, even prompting a book in 1995 profiling the opportunity gap between Prince — who was white — and his killer. It located the Yale community in a problem that has abated but is ongoing, and linked Christian Prince’s legacy to a community of New Haven mothers committed to planting the seeds of a nonviolent future in the Elm City.

Prince’s legacy lives on in institutional memory and in the everyday life of Pierson College where his niece Haley Prince ’22 is now a sophomore. 

Haley Prince’s grandmother — Christian’s mother — owns a collection of boutiques in the Washington, D.C. area where she preferentially hires women who have lost children, Prince said. Haley Prince reflected on an anecdotal family history surrounding Christian. Then President George H.W. Bush ’48 called the Prince family to offer his condolences and then University President Benno Schmidt ’63, LAW ’66 resigned within a year.

“I see a systematic issue in the stark contrast between the coverage and tribute my uncle received versus other men, and sons, in New Haven who have suffered the same fate,” Prince told the News.

Prince said that her uncle’s murder has influenced much of her activism surrounding gun violence. She hopes that Yale students elect to form a relationship with the memorial garden and the city so that all New Haveners can heal.

Seven hundred-sixty names  — including Christian Prince’s — will be featured in the memorial garden, according to Pratt.

John Besche | john.besche@yale.edu