Then more candles came.
Now the roadside memorial to Michael Nida stretches a full 30 feet on the sidewalk along Paramount Boulevard just south of Imperial Highway.
Nida’s friends carefully maintain the display, daily scraping off any wax drippings and cleaning up dead flowers and garbage.
The stretch of curb is a tribute to the South Gate father of four, who was shot to death by a Downey Police officer Oct. 22 after he twice fled from police. He was unarmed.
Police, who were responding to a robbery at a nearby ATM, said Nida made “aggressive” move before the shooting. Officers later learned Nida was not involved in the robbery and was out with his wife.
Roadside memorials like the one dedicated to Nida present unsolvable dilemmas for municipalities, who are legally required to maintain public right of ways in the city, according to those who have studied the phenomenon.
In Downey, city workers sometimes take down memorials, which has angered friends and family members of those who died.
“I would like for the city of Downey not to mess with or even touch any part of Mike’s memorial,” said Nida’s best friend Ryan Shaw during a City Council meeting in November. “We the family and friends have been, and will continue to clean and keep up the site.”
He brought the issue up after he learned that city workers have been dismantling a roadside memorial just across Paramount Boulevard that is dedicated to Steven Bours, an Iraq War veteran who was shot to death by police Feb. 20, 2010 after he stood in the street and refused to obey officers’ commands while he held a hatchet or hatchet-like tool over his head.
At the same meeting where Shaw spoke, Bours’ sister asked the city to stop removing her brother’s memorial.
“It seems to me they keep taking my brothers’ memorial and taking it down to the city dump,” said Laura Cosentino during a City Council meeting last month. “I would like to know why this is the only memorial removed from the sidewalk.”
City officials all over the country struggle with what to do about the displays, said Melissa Villanueva, who produced a “Resting Places,” an award-winning documentary on roadside memorials.
Cities are supposed to keep sidewalks and streets free of obstacles and distractions. People have been killed after they were hit by cars while maintaining memorials, she said. In addition, the memorabilia is often placed directly in front of a home or business that is unrelated to the person who died.
“People always ask me what’s right and what’s wrong,” she said. “And I don’t know what the right answer is. I really don’t. In some ways I wonder if it’s healthy if they hold on to the memorials so long. But until you go through it, you can’t really know.”
At a recent Gangs Out Of Downey meeting, Councilman Mario Guerra said a memorial in south Downey has some residents feeling scared.
Genaro Ramirez, who died after being shot in the stomach in October, was 19 and was engaged to be married.
Rival gang members have been stopping by to destroy the memorial, Guerra said.
“The people from two houses that were there in front, they saw the other bad guys tearing down the memorial,” he said. “They caught the eyes of the bad guys. And they’re scared to death.”
Despite getting complaints about some of the memorials, city officials said they have tried to be sensitive to the families and friends of those who were killed.
In the case of Bours, the city let the memorial stand for a year before employees began removing the items from the sidewalk, said Downey Public Works Director John Oskoui.
While it is probably more common in Latino neighborhoods, the roadside memorial is a phenomenon that takes place all over the world.
Some states and cities started programs to install government-sanctioned markers, but at least one family member complained the markers caused him pain and he asked the marker be taken down, Villanueva said.
In the southwestern United States, the practice may have its roots in Spanish-style Catholic funerals, Villanueva said.
“Sometimes when the men were carrying the coffin, the cemetery would be far away from the town, so they would have to stop and set the coffin on the ground,” she said. “But the ground wasn’t hallowed. So the priest would bless it and people would leave flowers or wooden crosses and things like that.”
“It’s very much a folk tradition,” she said.
These days, the memorials almost always are put in place after a violent, unexpected death, such as a shooting or car crash, she said.
“I’m not saying it’s any harder or easier, but if someone dies from an illness or heart attack, we realize our bodies are human and they give out,” Villanueva said. “That doesn’t mean we like it, but we can understand it a little bit. In these cases, the deaths almost always catch the family off guard.”
She interviewed grief experts for “Resting Places,” but their opinions were so different, she left them out of the movie.
“One said it was unhealthy for them to be grieving so long, and the other one said that they should take as long as they need,” she said. “I ended up just letting the families tell their stories.”
And many of those families weren’t ready to let go, she said.
“The people who maintain the memorials, a lot of times they don’t ever want to them taken down,” said Villanueva. “They’re usually not like, ‘It’s been a year and I’ve had enough time to grieve and I want to move on with my life.’ A lot of them never get to that point. It’s kind of this outcry to remember their loved one.”
Meanwhile, city leaders are forced to navigate a seemingly impossible path between empathy and public good. And since many items are religious symbols placed on public land, the issue of state-sponsored religion also comes into play.
“I think it’s kind of a can’t-win for everybody,” Villanueva said.