On October 27th, 2018, a racist man opened fire on innocent worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in my home city of Pittsburgh, PA. This is my small way of sharing a personal perspective and honoring that tragedy.
“I know you’re busy with the wedding today, but stay out of Squirrel Hill. There’s a gunman on the loose.”
This text interrupted me as I loaded floral arrangements into my car on an especially gloomy October Saturday. My friend and I are true crime aficionados and wannabe police scanner owners, so at first, her text felt like our normal curious exchanges, but her tone was different. Not long ago, law enforcement gunned down an innocent black teenager, and I feared a repeat incident.
I was about to bury my phone in my pocket, thinking the event was probably isolated, when another friend texted me a separate warning. There were still so few details, but superstition got the best of me. My boyfriend and dog were out and about, and what if he were suddenly inspired to stop at our favorite coffee shop? Or, what if he decided to get lunch at his favorite ramen bar (he loves to gorge on noodles when I’m not around)? I’d never forgive myself, so I sent him a message to avoid Squirrel Hill. All the while, I thought I was being overly cautious. I packed up my car, drove some wet winding roads, distracted by the beauty of the changing leaves and the tight timeline of a wedding day.
I wasn’t being overly cautious. On October 27th, a hate-filled man opened fire on a synagogue. On a synagogue. It bears repeating. He killed eleven people, elderly people, people with mental disabilities, just people. He killed eleven people who did not deserve the fear and panic he unleashed. He killed eleven people in the first neighborhood I called home. It filled the news. Houses I had long admired for their architectural character, streets I had walked thousands of times, and businesses I cherish all became the backdrops of international news stories. Photojournalists I know became the credits on major news outlets.
The city’s response was immediate and overwhelming. I regret missing the vigils and memorials, but the images of streets filled with people, of candlelight vigils, and of interfaith support filled me with hope. The Muslim community rose above the situation, responding with so much love to raise over $150,000 for the victims. The media has all too often depicted Muslims as violent and hateful, but this act showcased such integrity and compassion.
In the days after the attack, my work went on. I had to go to bakeries in Squirrel Hill to pick up beautiful pastries for a holiday photo shoot. I had shed tears with each news report over the weekend, but by Monday, I thought I had to move forward. As I drove past the barricaded streets, the piles of flowers and the hanging stars, there was a hush over the neighborhood like I’ve never experienced. It cemented the event. This happened. It happened here. I never ever imagined a “mass” shooting would happen in this city. The word didn’t feel right.
It’s all too easy to think these types of horrors won’t happen in our backyards. It’s too easy to ignore the politics behind these events, to deny racism, to deny marginalized groups, to deny mental health care to those in need. Then it happens in your backyard, and suddenly, the news stories are human stories. They are stories of your neighbors. I admit to being desensitized by media, to forgetting the names of those who were gunned down in other cities, to confusing the various mass shooting sites, and for that, I am sorry but mostly sad.
I wanted to take a moment here, on my blog, to pause for these events. I believe in inspiration, in beauty, in the notion that a shared meal does a lot to bring differences together, but with this tragedy, I couldn’t bring myself to continue life completely as normal without taking a pause to pay my respects to the victims, to the mourners, to the entire city. I wanted to pay respect to the aftermath, to those days when melted candles and rain-soaked flowers don’t make headlines. Eventually, these streets might look normal to those who don’t know about the tragedy, but for the once idyllic neighborhood, there will always be a lingering sorrow and reality.
On the day of the Tree of Life Synagogue attack, I was styling a wedding. The severity of the situation began to hit as I tied a blue swag of fabric over a chuppah. A Jewish man and a Dutch woman, and their nearest and dearest, gathered to celebrate love and the hope of a long life together. A full band smiled as they sang and played their instruments. The dance floor emitted a palpable joy. It was the most beautiful contrast to one of the city’s darkest days.
With Love and Hope,