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November 29, 2022

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A beautiful place to reflect’: Memorial garden springs up downtown to honor victims

Community Healing Garden in Downtown Las Vegas

Christopher DeVargas

Hundreds of people gather in Downtown Las Vegas, during First Friday, Oct. 6, 2017, for the opening ceremony of the Community Healing Garden in memory of the victims in the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival.

Community Healing Garden Ribbon Cutting

A vigil for the victims in the Route 91 Havest Festival is held during First Friday in Downtown Las Vegas, Friday OCt. 6, 2017. Launch slideshow »

Community Healing Garden Construction

Jay Pleggenkuhle (green shirt, left) and Daniel Perez (green shirt, right) talk to volunteers onsite at a community healing garden being created in response to the Oct. 1 mass shooting, Thursday evening, Oct. 6, 2017. Jay Pleggenkuhle and Daniel Perez of Stonerose Landscapes organized the effort the day after the shooting. Through volunteers and donations, the garden should open on First Friday, five days after the tragic event. Launch slideshow »

A small lot in downtown Las Vegas’ Arts District was nothing more than a barren patch of dirt just five days ago. By Friday, the half-acre plot on 1015 S. Casino Center Blvd. was a flourishing floral masterpiece, welcoming over 1,300 Las Vegans after being transformed into a permanent memorial for victims of last Sunday’s mass shooting.

“This heinous act will not deter us from who we are,” said Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman from a podium at an event to officially open the Community Memorial Garden. “This is a painful day, but also an inspirational day and an inspirational time.”

The garden includes 58 trees (one for each of the deceased), a prayer Wall of Remembrance and a massive oak Tree of Life, surrounded by a large heart-shaped outline of recently poured concrete. White balloons flew Friday from each tree.

It was assembled after Jay Pleggenkuhle and Daniel Perez of Stonerose Landscapes reached out Monday to city officials with the idea of designing a floral place of healing. Four days, over 500 volunteers and countless donations later, a crowd of hundreds gathered to continue grieving.

“We wanted to create something where people could have a beautiful place to reflect and gather,” Pleggenkuhle said. “To get people to talk, to connect and share their stories.”

Standing with hands held and gripping illuminated candles with their other hands, Las Vegas residents Ed and Gloria Avila wept as they recalled the treacherous hours they spent waiting in fear this week before finding out their niece, Denise Cohen, and her boyfriend Derrick "Bo" Taylor had been shot dead on Sunday night.

After waiting for nine hours at the American Red Cross of Southern Nevada, Gloria Cohen said she identified the body of her deceased niece, and the deaths of Cohen, 58, and Taylor, 56, were confirmed when the couple did not return to their room.

"We were able to identify her only because of her American flag clothing," said Gloria Avila, holding up a photo of Cohen smiling in a red, white and blue outfit.

On the Wall of Remembrance, the Avilas placed a framed photo of Cohen and Taylor alongside dozens of other photos, flower bouquets and homemade signs where hundreds of attendees would pay respect throughout the night.

Las Vegan Tony Hernandez, 42, spent all day on Thursday and Friday planting trees, flowers and other shrubs in the garden after hearing about the opportunity to volunteer for the project earlier in the week on Instagram. Both days, Hernandez returned to the site with his children, Roman, 8 and Gavin, 6, so they could contribute as well.

With over 300 volunteers on site through Friday afternoon, a sign on the worksite asked that no more people enter to help, because there were too many volunteers contributing already, Hernandez said.

“They’d offer a few dozen people at a time to grab some water and take a break, and their spots would literally be filled in seconds by the people waiting around,” Hernandez said. “There were a ton of people wanting to volunteer.”

The Community Memorial Garden wasn’t initially pictured to be as extravagant as it turned out, designers said. But the final product served as yet another example of the Las Vegas community producing “remarkable” results in the wake of disaster, speakers at Friday’s ribbon-cutting event said.

While Pleggenkuhle and Perez initially hoped the city would support their idea for a small pop-up garden, Las Vegas officials went “above and beyond,” Pleggenkuhle said. Stonerose was given a half-acre plot of land to create the permanent memorial, and other Las Vegas businesses, like landscaping company Sunworld, Moon Valley and Star plant nurseries, as well as S R Trucking also contributed time and resources to building the Community Memorial Garden this week. The initial design for the garden was done on a napkin Monday before volunteer crews went to work.

“It has been amazing and a lot of tears have been shed,” Pleggenkuhle said. “To think we could sketch something on the back of a napkin and thousands of people would show up to build something and heal a city, it’s a real honor. That’s what our special city stands for.”