Most of the flowers have been removed. The police cars are gone. But more than six months after a mass shooting that killed 49 people and injured dozens more, the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, remains a place of mourning.
On a recent afternoon, PEOPLE counted nearly 200 people visiting the site to pay their respects. Some brought posters and flowers. Others took photos. Still more knelt to pray.
“I went to college with [victim] Cory Connell,” says Louisa Alvarez, 21, who stood by the Pulse sign and prayed. “I come here every month or so just to talk to him. I miss him every day.”
Adds friend James Hall, who had driven Alvarez to the gay club: “Sometimes, I’m driving around Orlando and I just feel like, ‘I need to drive by Pulse.’ It’s like a magnet to me. I’ll park at the Wendy’s [across the street] and walk over. I feel like the people who died here want us here. They don’t want to be forgotten.”
‘Normal, But Not Really’
For most people in Orlando, daily life has returned to normal. Stores and restaurants — even those right next to Pulse — are open for business.
In the days and weeks after the worst mass shooting in American history, on June 12, 2016, the entire city of Orlando was plunged into heartbreak. Businesses posted #OrlandoStrong signs in their front windows. Memorials sprang up. Mourners congregated everywhere: hospitals, performing arts centers, other gay-friendly nightclubs.
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But now, the mourning is centered around the vacant building, which is surrounded by a fence decorated with brightly-colored murals.
“It’s still weird to come here,” says Anthony Ingram, who often hung out at Pulse but was not at the club on the night of the shooting.
“Life is back to normal, but not really,” he says. “There’s still this cloud over the gay community in Orlando, and it will be over us for a long time.”
Pulse’s future remains uncertain. The city of Orlando unsuccessfully tried to buy the property for a memorial. While the sale didn’t work out, plans for a memorial are still going forward.
Earlier this month, Pulse owner Barbara Poma released a statement to explain why she didn’t sell the property. “I feel a personal obligation to ensure that a permanent space at Pulse be created so that all generations to come will remember those affected by, and taken on, June 12,” the statement reads.
“I intend to create a space for everyone, a sanctuary of hope and a welcoming area to remember all those affected by the tragedy.”
For mourners, that’s welcome news.
“I don’t ever want to stop coming here,” Hall tells PEOPLE. “This is a sacred place for anyone who loved the victims. Someday, when I have kids, I want to bring them here to tell them what happened here. I want them to know what hate can do.”