SAN FRANCISCO — Jeff Heaton bent low and picked up the weathered white cross that had rotted at its base and tipped over. He cracked off the jagged bottom end, then carefully pounded the cross back into the dirt with a hammer.
He's done this simple ritual, repairing hundreds of crosses, at the Crosses of Lafayette war memorial for years — but that time will soon be over. America is set to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, so by the original intent of the memorial, the 4,000-plus cross-bar symbols should all come down.
But it's not that simple.
Now there's talk of a permanent memorial on the site, in full daily view of thousands of riders on BART and drivers on Highway 24. One idea is to replace the fragile wooden crosses with a rotating series of sculptures or cross figures, another is a monument of some kind, and yet another involves creating a small park.
The proposal for something longer lasting isn't coming just from the display's organizers and property owners. Even some officials in Lafayette, which was deeply split when the crosses started appearing in 2006, endorse the concept.
The Crosses of Lafayette is believed to be the biggest memorial of its kind in the nation for those killed in the two post-9/11 wars. The peace activists who created and maintained the sprawling hillside memorial overlooking the Lafayette BART Station often said it would come down when U.S. troops came home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Many of those activists, however, now say it would be wrong to erase the message that the memorial conveys through its visual dominance and the tributes attached to hundreds of the crosses.
"The whole subject of what to do with the crosses came up at a work party here a couple of months ago, and one of the guys said we should have a bonfire and burn them all up on Dec. 31," Heaton said one recent afternoon as he fixed broken crosses and pulled up weeds on the hill.
"All the volunteers' jaws dropped. People were screaming at each other. They even started arguing over the environmental effects of the smoke and paint if we burned or moved them."
He chuckled at the memory.
"But we worked it out. We always do. We had a lot of discussions, and I think we're moving in the same direction now."
Ideas for future
Heaton and the property's owners met with City Manager Steve Falk and other city leaders last month to kick around ideas for the memorial's future. Among them were holding a design competition, installing parking at the bottom of the hill and having local artists do sculptures.
All parties agreed they were open to having something permanent on the hill, said several who were in attendance. But Falk said that unlike the guerrilla process by which the memorial first appeared, his advice to organizers now was to get a lot of public input before proceeding.
"My advice ... at our meeting was that the process that gathered the most public input would be most likely to succeed," Falk said. The city's general plan, he noted, anticipates single-family homes on the 5-acre site, "but that doesn't mean a memorial can't happen."
He said he liked the idea discussed at the meeting of a design competition and was pleased with the tone of the negotiations.
The crosses sprouted at the height of the Iraq War, and the original intent was one of protest. Over the years, however, many families of the fallen recognized it as an honor for their dead, and the acrimony over the display faded away.
"At first when I saw all those crosses, I wasn't sure I liked it, but then I realized as time went by it wasn't just 10 crosses, or 100, but thousands — and that meant a lot," said Dwayne Jones, co-founder of Operation Wounded Minds, an advocacy group for veterans and others struggling with post-traumatic stress. "Now, I do not look at it as a protest at all.
"It became a symbol to remember the people who have died, and I don't believe the Crosses of Lafayette should lose its meaning."
Since the memorial's inception with a few dozen wordless white crosses, the hillside has sprouted crosses bearing symbols and odes of many kinds. Some hold Jewish Stars of David, others depict Buddhist prayer wheels, and many bear heart-rending messages from those who lost loved ones.
Planners for a memorial replacement say they intend to find a way to preserve all the personal tributes.
"Never above you, never below you, always beside you," reads one, honoring Marine Cpl. "Joey" Thomas Alvarez, who died in 2012 after serving in Iraq.
"A thousand times we needed you, a thousand times we cried. If love alone could have saved you, you never would have died," reads another, to Army Cpl. Sean Langevin, killed in Afghanistan in 2007.
At the top of the hill is a big sign listing the latest military death toll from both wars. As of Sunday, the number was 6,837.
Charles Clark, a co-owner of the property who is taking the lead on negotiations for its future, wasn't sure until this year that there should be a permanent memorial. Now he is — but it has to be done inclusively, he said.
"One of my concerns is that if we go down the road of creating a permanent memorial, it could end up glorifying those wars — and that was not the intent of the crosses," Clark said. "We have to cover every aspect if we're going to do this.
"This place should mean something to whoever goes there, and it should have no bias whatsoever. That is my intent."
Clark's parents, peace activist Louise Clark and her husband, Johnson Clark, supported Heaton and a team from the Mount Diablo Peace and Justice Center when they started the memorial. But they've since died, and the heirs' intention had been to remove the crosses and develop the land after the wars stopped.
Now, Clark says, there can be a resolution that satisfies everyone.
He is proposing a small housing development on the flat top of the hill. In return for the city's approval, he would donate the acre or so that the crosses sit on to the city for a permanent war memorial. The slope is too steep to develop easily.
Longtime Lafayette architect Carol Reif is already gathering the community together to plan for the future.
She curated an exhibit at the local library of photos of the crosses in March that drew widespread acclaim. Now, with Heaton's encouragement, she is organizing a workshop to brainstorm community ideas for a permanent replacement. Reif is planning the workshop for late June and already has five other architects enlisted.
The cross display "has been an important example of community democratic action," she said. "It's been an important element of our community. It should become permanent."