By Elinore Longobardi
December 11, 2006
Elizabeth Padilla was crushed under a truck. It happened on a morning in early June of last year, at rush hour in Park Slope. She was on a bike. She was 28. She had been swerving to avoid the open door of a parked vehicle.
Not long after the accident, Kevin Caplicki was passing by on his way to work. He is a member of the Brooklyn artists’ collective Visual Resistance. He commutes by bike. He saw Padilla’s body lying in the road.
“It made an incredible impact on me,” Caplicki said. And it left members of Visual Resistance feeling “vulnerable.” Soon after Padilla’s death, they started the ghost bike project. “For us,” said Caplicki, “it was a productive response.”
Visual Resistance, now joined by the grassroots environmental group Time’s Up!, spray paints bikes white and installs them, with a memorial plaque, at the location of bike deaths around the city. Padilla was the first to receive a ghost bike memorial, but more than 20 ghost bikes have sprung up since then, chained to signposts at sites throughout the city.
The ghost bikes act both as memorials and as a way to make bike deaths visible, said Caplicki, noting that the bikes serve different purposes for different people. He calls the project “very subtle” politically. It’s not “didactic,” he said.
But he acknowledges that the white bikes have had a political element from the beginning. The spring and summer of 2005 brought a spate of bike deaths, including Padilla’s. It also brought arrests of cyclists participating in Critical Mass, which aims to encourage alternative transportation through mass rides that have no permit. Caplicki said that both of these occurrences contributed to the founding of the ghost bike project, because they prompted the collective “to advocate for the cycling community and for Critical Mass.”
At first Visual Resistance was not contacting family members of victims, but after the first few ghost bikes were installed, the collective started getting a response from city bike groups and families. Now, families are “being incorporated more and more,” Caplicki said.
“I just wish there were more people in this world that care like they do,” said one of those family members, Audrey Anderson. “They are now my family.” Anderson’s 14-year-old son, Andre, was in killed September 2005 when an SUV hit him from behind, on Shore Front Parkway in Far Rockaway. Twenty-three-year-old Jose Vincens was driving the black Lincoln Navigator. Andre Anderson was riding a blue Mongoose bike.
It was just after 7 p.m. on September 24. The weather was clear. The road was dry. There was no contest between the bike and the SUV.
The crash broke Andre’s bike into pieces and scattered them. It tore the front wheel from the frame, bent the right handlebar, bent and flattened both wheels, broke off the rear reflector, damaged the right handle-grip and the seat, bent the front fork, broke off the pedals.
Andre was unconscious after the crash. He died early the next morning at Peninsula Hospital.
“Andre was so special and is so special,” said Anderson. “That man didn’t just hit a stone when he hit Andre.”
Andre with the “most exuberant smile.” Andre who drew cartoon characters so well that the first time his mother saw them she thought he had used tracing paper. Andre who “didn’t know how to say no.” Andre who built bikes from parts for kids on the block.
Anderson remembers when a group of women from Times Up! came to install Andre’s ghost bike, on “maybe the coldest day of the year.” That bike sits beside a memorial Anderson herself made, with a photograph of Andre behind plexiglass. There is also the stenciled outline of a body on the street (applied by Right of Way, a group that advocates for cyclists, pedestrians and others who get around the city without a car).
Anderson visits the site. “It is so calming to my soul to go there and look at his picture,” she says. She brings flowers. Sometimes Andre’s friends go with her. They help maintain the memorial.
The portion of the memorial Anderson had constructed was vandalized in September of this year. “I was so heartbroken,” she said. She rebuilt it. A different picture of Andre is there now. When the Department of Transportation contacted her this past summer about removing the memorial, Anderson fought to keep it. “That’s all I have left of my child,” she said. “Whatever they do to it, I will put it back right there.”
Lawyer Gideon Oliver has helped Anderson keep the memorial, and says she has a right to it on free-speech grounds. He has worked on behalf of New York City cyclists since he witnessed the arrests of Critical Mass bike activists in 2004—before that year’s Republican National Convention in the city.
Most of the ghost bike memorials remain where they were installed, but a few have been removed.
One of these was for Jen Shao, 65, who was killed at the intersection of Gouverneur Lane and Water Street, in Manhattan’s Financial District, when a charter bus hit her on September 16, 2005. Visual Resistance installed the ghost bike two days later, but in a matter of days it was gone, leaving only two white screws where a small memorial plaque had been attached to the signpost.
Caplicki said he thought local property owners had removed the bike. Given the bike’s location in the Financial District, the group did not try to install a replacement, he said. “It feels like a difficult location to sustain.”
The project has received an “amazing response from family members,” said Caplicki. And from others? Caplicki first said he had not heard negative feedback on the bike project. But then he recalled walking with a companion in Park Slope, past Padilla’s memorial. He remembered that she was drunk and said, “I fucking hate those things.” People feel a graveyard is the appropriate place for death, said Caplicki. They don’t appreciate the actual site of death, he said, “how important that location is.”
The memorials consist of “people saying we are not going to forget this,” said Kenneth Foote, author of Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy. And so he is not surprised that some people object to them. “A lot of people don’t want to be reminded,” he said. “It’s very jarring.”
These kinds of memorials are “trying to just alert people to the extent of the problem,” said Foote. “It’s an important way of people advocating change.” As for the durability of the project: “If they can generate enough interest, then they can transform themselves into something more permanent.”
“I don’t think we’re stopping any time soon,” said Leah Todd, of Times Up!
Since her son’s death, Anderson has done a lot of research into bike deaths, and into proper police procedure. (She says such procedure was not followed in the case of her son, and she is currently involved in a lawsuit over the death.) And she has sent out information on investigation protocol to other families, an act that brings “a little comfort to my heart.”
Anderson is willing to accept the title of activist. “This is forever my mission,” she said. “This is what they left me with to be his legacy.”