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An empty lot full of meaning

Connie Schultz

Connie Schultz

Two and a half years ago, a house in a poor neighborhood in Cleveland made international headlines for the saddest of reasons.

For 10 years, I lived only a couple of miles from this house, but I was in Hong Kong when I heard the news. I mention this only to convey the magnitude of the story and the horror of watching it unfold so many miles from home.

Day by day, the news just got worse. First it was one body found in the two-family home on Imperial Avenue. Then it was three bodies. Soon it was six. By the time I flew home, the bodies of 11 women, all of them African-American, had been discovered at the home of Anthony Sowell.

Last December, the house was demolished. Now a task force wants to convert the vacant lot into a memorial to the women who died there.

This was no ordinary crime scene in the fall of 2009. Two of the women were buried in the basement. Five were buried in Sowell’s backyard. Four of the bodies were found in the third-floor sitting room near Sowell’s bedroom, which was strewn with clothes, a barren mattress and a half-empty can of beer.

For nearly two years, neighbors had complained about the stench. The city flushed drainpipes and replaced the sewer line, but the stink was stubborn. Some residents accused the 57-year-old sausage shop next door of producing the smell, but some of the employees there later said that they, too, were overwhelmed by the reek.

Apparently, no one ever suspected the real source. You can’t name what you don’t know, and most of us are lucky enough never to experience the distinct and unforgettable smell of decomposing human flesh.

I was in Hong Kong for a seminar with journalism students, most of them young women. I never will forget trying to answer the same question, over and over: How could these women be missing for so long and nobody knew?

Their question was America’s question. After more than two years of investigations and reports, litigation and blame, the question still eats at us, in part because we hate the answer. Plain and simple: They were easy to ignore. No number of flowers and no amount of marble will pave over this ugly truth.

Sowell’s victims were universally poor and marginalized. They were easy marks for a man promising them drugs and alcohol to numb the pain and shelter from a scary world. Some of the women had family members who reported their absences to police. All of them had someone who loved them. None of them had the presence of mind to see danger in the eyes of a stranger.

Sowell was convicted on 11 counts of murder and sentenced to death. He’s appealing his conviction.

Earlier this week, The Plain Dealer reported that a task force is considering a name change for the street and looking for a way to memorialize the victims on the vacant lot where Sowell’s home once stood.

It’ll be good for the neighborhood, spokesmen said. Good for the victims’ families, too. The word “closure” keeps popping up.

Not everyone is keen on the idea of renaming the street. Some of the victims’ families want the lot to remain empty.

“My mother (Tonia Carmichael) is resting now, and I don’t want her name on anything over there,” Donnita Carmichael told Plain Dealer reporter Leila Atassi. “Would your kids play in that park? Would you eat or plant anything that came from a community garden grown on that soil? I don’t think so.”

Some things we can’t undo. Some crimes, however, we can prevent.

To their credit, Cleveland’s leaders continue to wrestle with the lessons of these murders. Change — real change — is slow, but it’s ongoing. Their problem is America’s problem. Hundreds of women, most of them poor and suffering from addiction, remain missing in Cleveland; tens of thousands of other women just like them are missing in cities across the country.

Even if you were riveted by the story of the killings 2 1/2 years ago, I doubt you know about the talk of doing something with the empty lot. Can’t hold that against you. Most of us in Cleveland want to forget it happened, too.

I guess that’s why I keep thinking a vacant lot full of weeds might be the best memorial to those 11 women who died.

Maybe we need that barren patch of nothing to remind us what happens when a woman disappears and nobody bothers to notice.

Connie Schultz may be contacted at con.schultz@yahoo.com.