Clouds of dust fill the air as volunteers shovel dirt to make room for flowers. Across the lot, a forklift whirrs and beeps, its metal teeth scooping up dirt. Scattered throughout the plot of land at 1015 S. Casino Center are women, men and children planting trees, paving walkways and setting irrigation lines for the new Healing Garden across from the Artifice in Downtown Las Vegas.
Two days before this transformation began, this area, now energized by the giving heart of a community, was an empty, sandy lot. On Friday night at 7:30 p.m., it will open as the Healing Garden, a memorial park to commemorate the victims who lost their lives in Sunday's Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting.
The idea for the garden came to Jay Pleggenkuhle, owner of Stonerose Landscapes, a few days ago, and he drafted the first blueprint for it on a dinner napkin. Pleggenkuhle was given the quarter-acre plot of land by the City of Las Vegas and immediately began making calls for volunteers.
“This is a community garden created by the community, for the community, to heal the community," Pleggenkuhle said. It includes 58 trees, one for each person who died in the shooting. Everything in the garden has been donated.
“[Pleggenkuhle] called me at 8:30 p.m. two nights ago and asked me if I could get my resources [together], and I said, 'absolutely,'” says Mark Hamelmann of Sunworld Construction and Landscape. The two friends have been working on the garden since, starting as early as 4:30 in the morning staying as late as 10 p.m. each night.
“Jay is pretty creative, and he’s always had that kind of heart,” Hamelmann says. “It was such a tragedy, so as soon as he asked, I didn’t hesitate.”
Star Nursery and Moon Valley donated plants and trees, while other Vegas-based companies like Ewing Irrigation and Landscape, Pavestone and Capriati Construction donated equipment and labor. The tall oak tree that stands inside the garden’s heart-shaped bench, named the Tree of Life, was donated by magicians Siegfried and Roy.
Behind the heart, a wooden “Remembrance Wall” has been constructed, decorated with cowboy boots, horseshoes, stars and hand-written notes for victims. Early on Friday, that wall was already filled with pictures of the deceased and messages to their families.
“The community has to come together,” said Juan Torrez of Artistic Concrete, whose crew agreed to volunteer after already putting in a full day’s work at their main job. “There’s a lot of people suffering, and we [will] help in any way we can. That’s why we’re here.”
Jean Green, a volunteer at the site on Thursday evening, said she heard about the garden through the City of Las Vegas’ Twitter account. This week she has also donated blood, and helped to organize a silent demonstration in support of gun regulation at Sunset Park. “I hope that it does something to show everyone that we do our best to make this a home away from home when they’re here,” she says.
Another volunteer, Springs Preserve irrigation specialist Brenda Rodriguez, had also been at the site since the early hours of the morning, with her daughter. “This is an on-the-fly challenge to our expertise,” she said. “We need some place like this that will last and endure.”
Like Green and Rodriguez, many of Thursday's volunteers had been at the grounds since 8 a.m. and planned to return the following morning to finish the job. On Friday, more than 200 volunteers—including a team of high school students from West Career and Technical Academy—gathered to finish the garden in time for the ribbon cutting ceremony.
The Arts District garden will certainly serve as a place for Las Vegans to grieve and pay their respects, but for many, the act of volunteering has been the first step to healing.
“The people here are just amazing,” said Lyle Hoffman, a Las Vegas native and construction worker who came to the site early Thursday morning after hearing about it on the radio. “It’s terrible we had to be here for this,” he said, choking back tears, his voice trembling. “I’ve just been in my house feeling so bad … This is a labor of love for me, and I’m pouring my heart into it. We’ve had the 'Sin City' name for a long time, and I just hope that people see we are a city of love.”
Healing Garden Ribbon Cutting Ceremony Friday, October 6, 7: 30 p.m., 1015 S. Casino Center Blvd.