A memorial garden for a 12-year-old victim of police violence becomes a springboard for serving generations of children.
By Anjulie Rao / Photography by Sahar Coston-Hardy, Affiliate ASLA
I arrived at the Marion C. Seltzer Elementary School playground around 11:00 a.m., just before the day’s heat peaked. It was a Friday, and students were making the short commute between the elementary school and the Cudell Recreation Center, located just a stone’s throw northwest. A group of toddlers had gathered with their teachers—likely a preschool daycare—along a bench that bordered a butterfly garden.
One small child stood quietly over the garden’s reflective black plaque laid flush with the ground; he gazed into his own reflection. The summer light overhead made the plaque appear as a pool of water. He took a step onto its surface and was stopped by a teacher.
“Be careful!” she called, pointing to the glinting marble. “Don’t step on the photo! Está muerto.”
“He is dead?” the boy inquired. “Why?”
“He got hurt,” she replied.
Though it appears like water, the plaque’s physicality is quite the opposite: solid, permanent, and unflinching to forces nearby. The face engraved upon it, the one that looked back to the child, also emanates a sense of permanence—a portrait of a young boy, smiling in a white T-shirt. Tamir Rice, captured in stone, shines in the afternoon sun.
Just a few months after 12-year-old Tamir Rice was brutally shot and killed by Cleveland police officers, the community came together to build a butterfly garden on the site of his murder. Samaria Rice, Tamir’s mother, had been in touch with local resident Shelly Gracon, who suggested that the site that marked Tamir’s violent death could become a place of healing and proposed the idea of a butterfly garden.
Gracon brought in Molly Nagin, a Cleveland native and organizer who had been studying permaculture design and got involved with the Tamir Rice Justice Committee along with her longtime-activist parents. Collaborating with local artists and volunteers, they assembled the Butterfly Project.
“We built it with the kids. And we brought in some plant experts, experts on how to put a wall together to teach kids and Ms. Rice how to do mortaring,” Nagin says. Residents of the Cudell neighborhood and teachers from Seltzer Elementary, alongside fellow Clevelanders, planted flowers and laid stone pathways. Wood bollards and retaining wall stones surrounding the garden were painted bright orange—a nod to the plastic tip placed on toy guns, like the one Tamir Rice had when he was shot. Artists created stencils used to decorate the bollards with “Young Black King Tamir.”
Between 2015 and 2020, the garden served as a quiet memorial. But there was still an opportunity to formalize the space, sealing into the ground Tamir’s memory and his death as a catalyst for movements to protect Black lives. “I just realized it was very homegrown. And that was beautiful,” Nagin says. “There was a lot of heart there. But I just knew [Samaria] deserved better and more, as did the family and the community.”
In the summer of 2022, marking what would have been Tamir’s 20th birthday, the new Rice Butterfly Memorial garden opened to the public. Designed by Diane Jones Allen, FASLA, the founder of DesignJones LLC and the director of the landscape architecture program at the University of Texas, Arlington, with the local firm DERU Landscape Architecture, the new garden provides a refreshed space to hold Tamir’s memory. Its completion is also a literal and symbolic gesture of permanence: In a country that prefers to forget its sins against humanity, the thriving garden—and its message—stands strong through deep freezes and spring awakenings.
In September 2019, Nagin reached out to the team at DERU Landscape Architecture, a Cleveland-based firm founded by Jayme Schwartzberg, ASLA, to ask if they might design the new memorial garden. “I was like, ‘I would totally do it. I’d be absolutely honored. But I don’t know if you want two white ladies designing the memorial; it doesn’t feel right,’” Schwartzberg says. She remembered Austin Allen, ASLA, a Black, Cleveland-born landscape architect whom she met when she first moved to the city in 2006. Allen and his partner, Diane Jones Allen, now run DesignJones out of their Arlington, Texas, office. DesignJones had also worked on the Mr. Fred Rouse Memorial in Fort Worth, Texas; Rouse was lynched by a white mob in 1921.
A month later, “Jayme called Austin. And we said we were honored; we’d be glad to work with her on it. So, I flew out here and I met Ms. Rice,” Jones Allen says. DERU remained involved as the landscape architect of record.
In 2020, when Rice, Nagin, and Jones Allen were pondering what could be done next to rebuild the butterfly garden, they sought a multifaceted solution. Rice had lived through the death of a child and the subsequent media torrent and knew that the garden had to be as much a political statement as it was a place for healing.
“I wanted [it] to be peaceful in a sense, where people can reflect on what happened in that space with my daughter and my son. And just have a sense of peace,” Rice says.
Rice and Nagin had some early conversations with the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. The National Lynching Memorial structure—with massive pillars suspended from its ceiling—held some interest for Rice and Nagin, but ultimately they decided the size of the coffin-like monoliths felt unsuited to the space.
“When I came here, I said it is not what we really want. I understand the idea of lynching,” Jones Allen says. “But the butterfly garden was here; it’s a place for kids. And I just felt like you had to do both: You had to show resilience. And at the same time, yes, you have to show something horrible.”
Jones created two schemes for the memorial butterfly garden. “We [wanted] to make a landscape to claim the whole space. Because it was about what happened in this landscape, right in this space,” Jones Allen says. The first scheme consisted of pavers with impressions of butterflies that, she says, “morphed” into a boy. A final piece of Cor-Ten steel would then cut the boy’s image in half.
But it was the second scheme that was selected by Rice and completed in July 2022. The design is a series of four planted pollinator spaces that reused many of the original plantings from the garden’s first iteration. Flowers including showy stonecrop, irises, and peonies were removed, stored on-site and cared for, and then replanted. Schwartzberg said they only needed to supplement the garden with some bee balm and Hypericum. The quarter-acre garden is, once again, surrounded by wood bollards, though Jones Allen says the original orange bollards had decayed and needed to be replaced.
Winding throughout the four garden plots is a main path of Belden brick pavers, with handmade stone butterfly mosaics created by the local artist Angelica Pozo dispersed along the main path. When entering the garden from the northwest edge, visitors encounter the first plaque embedded in the brick path, with text by Rice that introduces the garden’s purpose: It “represents the injustice of the death of my son, Tamir Rice.” But it also marks the spot where her daughter, Tajai, then 14 years old, who was playing with her brother the night he was shot, was shoved to the ground by police.
“Tajai will forever be traumatized by having experienced the horrific events of that day. This plaque will be a constant reminder of the injustices of our country,” it reads.
The plaque was important, Jones Allen says, to acknowledge Tajai’s experience. “I, like everybody else, had seen the video. It just looks like [Tamir] is all by himself,” she says. “She went to that school. She was a little kid.”
Gentle grading alterations drive water downslope and back toward the western planting bed. “There’s a culvert underneath the pathway to create the rain garden,” Jones Allen says. At the west end, small white stones coated in a permeable resin allow rainwater to enter the culvert. The white stones continue to another narrow pathway leading east toward the part of the site where Tamir was killed. Following the curve, the brick pathway intersects it twice. At the second intersection, the white pathway turns to black stone: a symbol for a life cut short.
“The other design would have kind of hit you over the head. This design was meant to be, Oh, it’s just this beautiful thing,” Jones Allen says. “Once you start reading and kind of really looking at that stone as it turns black, it’s really like a grave. But the reason why to have it like this is so that kids and [older] people can come up and have the discussion that they need to have without being turned off.”
The black path leads to the garden’s head: a large, square patch of the black stone placed between two newly planted white-flowering redbud trees. Within the box is Tamir’s landmark plaque. “It’s the idea of how young Black men are put in a box,” Jones Allen says. “You’re put into a box as a 12-year-old, even when somebody calls and says it could be a kid with a toy gun. Immediately, they put you in a box; you’re immediately a criminal.” The plaque features a photo of Tamir that was hand-chiseled by Milano Monuments into charcoal-colored marble—a method that protects the image from harsh winters and road salt. The text was written by Samaria Rice.
“I think I just wrote it from my heart and really wanted to express the pain and the hurt that this country has put on us as Black people and children,” Rice says.
The garden’s striking contrast between lightness—flowers, congregating bees and butterflies, newly planted saplings—and the heaviness of the material palette that includes brick, stone, resin, and marble—is also symbolic. It carries the weight of a community’s grief, with the promise of new beginnings through change and reform: the violence inherent in a young life ended too soon, but the enduring presence of his memory.
Samaria Rice recalls not just the trauma of losing her child, but also of the intense politicization of the killing that thrust her into the public spotlight. She watched “vultures” arrive to co-opt Tamir’s story. “I had to share him. And I don’t want to continue to share him…. I love the support that the world gives me. But when it comes to my story, I’m the only one that can tell it,” she says. Conflicts arose in 2016 as she began to address the site of Tamir’s death: Though the earlier butterfly garden was thriving, the public gazebo where Tamir was playing when he was killed was still present, and she wanted it gone.
The gazebo, an unremarkable shelter, had sat next to the Seltzer Elementary School playground for decades. “What was told to me is that some of the parents…wait for their children [at the gazebo] after they [get] out of school,” Rice says. But after Tamir’s death, it became the site for mourning: Visitors left stuffed toys and candles on the cast-concrete benches in the weeks following. Rice saw the gazebo both as a nuisance to the community and as an unwelcome reminder of her loss. She campaigned heavily for it to be removed and the city planned the gazebo’s demolition, but it was delayed by a coalition of activists who wanted the gazebo preserved on the site.
“She took a lot of heat from activists who said ‘That’s not the right move; you can’t erase that history,’” Schwartzberg says.
Rice heard their pleas and agreed to preserve the structure, so long as it was moved off the site. The Rice family had received a $6 million settlement from a lawsuit against the city and the police department, and she used those funds to create the Tamir Rice Foundation—an organization that would provide after-school programs for Cleveland youth and advocate for police reform. The foundation obtained ownership of the gazebo and took responsibility for its relocation. In September 2016, it was dismantled and reassembled in 2019 at the Stony Island Arts Bank on Chicago’s South Side by the artist Theaster Gates.
Rice says that the city, as part of her settlement, agreed to give her access to the site in Cudell where Tamir was killed to place a memorial. The city’s then-commissioner of real estate (and now the commissioner of capital projects), James DeRosa, ensured that the site would remain under the guardianship of Rice. (Attempts to reach DeRosa’s office for comment were unsuccessful.)
“You can get a use permit, which is what I expected, or you can get an adoption agreement—what we very frequently see when people do things on public property—where citizens agree to take care of it,” Schwartzberg says. “This is not that.” The agreement grants Rice access to the site in perpetuity, and it can’t be revoked without a legislative act.
Though the garden is permanent, the larger Cudell Recreation Center site is currently in flux: Seltzer Elementary will soon be demolished and relocated north, across the existing sports field that sits on the park’s northern edge. The city agreed in 2021 to a land swap that would exchange 2.2 acres of sports fields next to the Cudell Recreation Center with land currently occupied by Seltzer Elementary. Once the demolition and construction of the new school are complete, the memorial garden will no longer be adjacent to the school; the large, old-growth trees shading the garden’s northeast corner will be removed.
Whatever the outcome of these shifts, the area surrounding the memorial will look nothing like it did in 2022. Contextually, the garden’s proximity to the elementary school reinforces the violence of Tamir’s death. While it’s likely a necessary upgrade, the broader landscape change felt relevant to Rice’s sentiments about the city. “They wanted to erase the memory of what happened right there, and I did not let them,” she says. “So, the city is upset with me. Because I talked back, and I fight back.”
The city, she explains, did not expect her to use her settlement funds to reinvest in her community. “They wanted me to take the money and just be quiet. But I showed them something different when I purchased the commercial building.”
In 2018, in honor of what would have been Tamir’s 16th birthday, the Tamir Rice Foundation announced the Tamir Rice Afrocentric Cultural Center, and raised more than $30,000 to renovate a two-story red brick structure on Cleveland’s East Side. The project, designed by the local architect Sandra Madison and her firm, Robert P. Madison International, Inc., broke ground in late 2020 and will provide arts-specific programming to Cleveland youth. Fine art, music, and theater will be offered, programs that Rice sees as low priorities in the city’s public schools. The center, she hopes, will help children find their passions and purpose, but also keep them safe.
The Tamir Rice Foundation, the Afrocentric Cultural Center, and the Rice Butterfly Memorial will work together to address children’s safety and welfare—fundamentals that allow children to be children. The foundation has also created the Tamir Rice Safety Handbook with the ACLU of Ohio, a publication available online for free that provides young people with important information about navigating encounters with the police. The Afrocentric Cultural Center will provide them with safe spaces for creative expression, and the garden, Jones Allen says, can serve as a physical space that sparks community conversations about justice and safety for generations to come.
“[The garden] allows the opportunity for teaching, because there is a school here,” Jones Allen says. For older kids, the conversation will be honest about the violence that occurred there. Younger kids can read the plaque and ask questions. “It’s pretty blunt and powerful,” Jones Allen says.
Rice is providing access to tools, resources, and spaces that she never had—giving parents the chance to talk to children about police safety. “You have to have those hard conversations with [children] because of the society that we live in now. I never thought I had to talk to my son about the police, because I was not aware of so much of what was going on.”
Labor of Love
The Rice Butterfly Memorial has been a labor of love and grief. It is a lesson in how we might collectively grow and establish memorials that can generate meaning and transformation from loss: memorials that can make overt and permanent connections between movements for racial justice and the anguish felt by a family and a community. While this is present across the garden’s features—the stones coated in resin, the hand-chiseled plaque placed in the black box—it feels most resolute where the design team and Rice placed two new cast-concrete benches. One was placed underneath an old-growth tree overlooking the garden; the second was placed slightly off-site, between the plaque and the school playground.
Rice picked the spot for the second bench. She says she wanted visitors to have a view, from a small distance, of the plaque, but also a comfortable spot from which they could watch their children swing and scurry. Loss is present, but we keep a watchful gaze on those we must protect.
Anjulie Rao is a journalist and critic covering the built environment.
CLIENT TAMIR RICE FOUNDATION, CLEVELAND. LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT/DESIGNER DESIGNJONES LLC, ARLINGTON, TEXAS. LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT OF RECORD DERU LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE, CLEVELAND. GENERAL CONTRACTOR F. BUDDIE CONTRACTING, CLEVELAND. GRANITE ENGRAVING ALECIA MILANO, MILANO MONUMENTS, CLEVELAND. BUTTERFLY TILE ARTIST ANGELICA POZO, CLEVELAND.
CORRECTION: The original version of this article, published in the April 2023 issue of LAM, mischaracterized Shelly Gracon as a resident and a collaborator on the Butterfly Project. Gracon originated the idea for the butterfly garden and brought Molly Nagin on board. The error has been corrected here.