Roadside memorials dot East Valley landscape - East Valley Tribune: News

Roadside memorials dot East Valley landscape

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Posted: Wednesday, January 19, 2005 5:09 am | Updated: 9:13 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Jim Polan dug into the ground where his son died nearly three years ago.

The rough, makeshift cross that marked the spot lay nearby, surrounded by faded silk flowers left by friends and family in memory of 17-year-old Bryan James Polan, killed in 2002 when he crashed into a traffic light pole on St. Patrick’s Day.

His mother, Lynn Polan, cried quietly as she watched her husband pour cement in the hole to anchor a new, shiny white cross that took hours to build, sand and paint.

About a dozen relatives laid their hands on the new cross Sunday afternoon and bowed their heads as traffic on Scottsdale Road at Thompson Peak Parkway whizzed by.

"We pray this spot will remain here forever," said Bryan’s uncle, Jeff Pavlica of Gilbert. "Let us not be distanced and recognize that it is only a matter of time until we’re together again. Amen."

The scene has played out along Valley roadsides for decades, as family and friends gather around a visual marker to help cope with the loss of a loved one.

Such memorials today are commonplace throughout the East Valley, most often marking a site where a person was killed in some type of traffic fatality. Such memorials often remain in place for many months after a crash.

The tradition of roadside crosses, called "descansas" in Spanish, comes from Latin American cultures and dates back to at least when Spain controlled this region. Many East Valley families, such as the Polans, lovingly decorate the memorials years after the death.

But with every new memorial erected, an old memorial fades from the landscape.

Some fall into disrepair, are forgotten by newer generations or are removed by city workers to make way for new developments.

"We try to be sensitive to the needs," said Dan Cleavenger, assistant traffic engineer for Mesa. "These play an important role in the grieving process for family and friends."

Of Mesa’s 30 or so fatal crash victims each year, most will have a memorial erected by a loved one, Cleavenger said.

City workers try to discourage permanent memorials, but they will usually leave them alone as long as the memorials don’t create traffic problems.

"There’s a time and a place for it," Cleavenger said. "Some kids paint on stop signs and light poles, those are the rare cases we take them down. But we try to be respectful. They kind of go away after awhile."

Cleavenger said the tragic deaths of teens usually attract the most attention.

Mesquite High School students began arriving at the northeast corner of McQueen and Warner roads in Gilbert en masse on Sept. 25, the day after 17-year-old Michael "Cory" Paige was killed in a motorcycle crash.

"There was stuff everywhere, like breakfast burritos, Mickey’s bottles because he liked to party, CDs, a blue Power Ranger, because when he had his gloves on he looked like a Power Ranger on his motorcycle," said his stepsister, Elisa Paige, 15.

The mourners spilled into the street and sidewalks. Chalk-written messages and prayers spread across light poles, electric boxes and pavement.

Gilbert town workers had to paint over the graffiti several times before the visitations tapered off.

Five months later, the memorial is a fraction of the size and neatly maintained.

There is no burial site for Cory’s ashes, making the roadside cross the only physical place to pay tribute.

The Christmas decorations and New Year’s Eve party hat that surround the cross are remnants of the family’s first holiday season without Cory.

The colorful memorial is in stark contrast to the simple white cross on the opposite corner.

It marks where Brad Downing, 19, was killed five years ago in a police pursuit gone bad. The driver of a stolen pickup led Chandler officer Dan Lovelace on a high-speed pursuit, and the truck ran a red light and slammed into the Chandler college student.

A few days after his death, friends built five crosses out of hockey sticks. Wreaths, potted cactuses, and letters from old girlfriends filled the corner.

But it was not a place that family liked to visit.

When a pharmacy was built on the corner two years later, workers replaced the mementos with the lone white cross, with Brad’s name and birth and death dates lettered across it.

"I feel rather conflicted what to do with that site. For me, that particular corner is not my favorite place to visit," said his father, Bradley Downing, who practices medicine in Mesa. "I know my son is not there. Although the cross is there, it’s a pretty painful thing for me to see."

Friends and family pay their respects on his birthday and the anniversary of his death each year, but the corner is often avoided during their daily commutes.

Employees of the Indian Creek Texaco gas station at Pima and Indian School roads are reminded every day of the crash that killed a 5-month-old girl who was not secured properly in her child-safety seat.

The statue of an angel, surrounded by toys, roses, candles and a pair of moccasins, sits in front of the gas station where family members from the Salt River community still visit two years after her death. The baby’s name is unknown.

Motorists and storms will sometimes disturb it, but employees will carefully put it back together.

"It’s one of those Arizona things that’s been around for 100 years," said Joyce Houle, manager of the station that sits on the Scottsdale border, referring to the tradition. "Who am I to take that away?"

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