Village Voice blog
October 3, 2007
by Sarah Ferguson
Activists staged back-to-back street memorials Tuesday night to honor two of the latest victims in New York’s traffic wars.
On the corner of Sixth Avenue and Houston Street, anti-car campaigners with the environmental group Times Up! placed bouquets of flowers and stenciled the outline of a fallen body to mark the spot where on September 25, a reportedly drug-impaired truck driver smashed into Hope Miller, a 28-year-old aspiring actress from North Dakota who had been living in Queens.
After a few angry speeches, about a dozen activists mounted their bikes and pedaled en masse to the corner of Bowery and East 4th Street, where 24-year-old Julia Thomson was cut down by a drunken hit-and-run driver just five days after Miller’s death.
This time they were grimly silent as they spraypainted a stencil of Thomson’s name and another outline of a fallen body on the dark asphalt, then tied a bouquet of flowers on a post in the traffic meridian, near where Thomson was struck when she got out of a cab on her way to her apartment across the street.
“I feel troubled that we are stacking up memorial activities one after another,” said Peter Meitzler, one of the founders of the Street Memorial Project, which began stenciling bodies on the streets in the late 1990s to protest the carnage caused by cars. (The group has recently been relaunched with the help of volunteers from Visual Resistance, Transportation Alternatives, and Times Up!.)
“When we first started doing this, one person was getting killed a day by cars,” Meitzler noted. “Now, if you can believe it, it’s a bit lessâ€” like every other day.”
Beyond driver recklessness, activists were quick to blame the Department of Transportation’s ongoing redesign of Houston Street, which they’ve dubbed a “boulevard of death.”
“They’re turning it into an eight-lane superhighway, a Robert Moses wet dream that’s more geared to cars than people,” complained Times Up! volunteer Ellen Belcher. Concrete barrers, metal barricades, and piles of gravel and debris jut into the ripped up asphalt, creating a dusty obstacle course for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians alike.
Since the renovation began in 2005, three bicyclists have died in truck-related accidents while riding along Houston Street. The most recent occurred last summer, when the front wheel of a Brooklyn filmmaker’s bike hit a steel plate covering a construction trench, causing him to fall beneath a truck.
At the corner of Sixth Avenue where Miller was killed, pedestrians must squeeze past fenced-off islands of construction, often forcing them into traffic. After the community complained, the NYPD agreed to provide traffic agents to monitor the intersection. But according to the district’s councilmember, Alan Gerson, the traffic agent for that corner was apparently reassigned elsewhere on the morning of Miller’s death.
“Enough is enough! Why are we redoing Houston Street to make it less safe, not more safe?” demanded Gerson, who filed a lawsuit in September to halt the Houston Street redesign, terming it a “present and future” threat to both bicyclists and pedestrians. At Tuesday night’s memorial, Gerson cited a litany of problems, from the DOT’s refusal to include a protected bike lane, to the narrowing of the traffic islands at the intersections of West Broadway and Mercer Streets in order to accommodate extra turning lanes for vehicles. “To do that without increasing the crossing time for pedestriansâ€”that’s outrageous,” complained Gerson who held another press conference Wednesday to denounce the redesign.
In 2006, 166 pedestrians were killled in traffic accidents and more than 10,000 were hit, while there were at least 14 bicycle fatalities, according to the DOT and statistics compiled by Transportation Alternatives.
News of an apparent drop in fatalities was little comfort to Leo DePena, a 45-year-old bike messenger who pulled over to take in Thomson’s memorial on his way home to the Bronx. ‘I’ve been riding for over 25 years, and people don’t care any more,” DePena said. “These drivers are crazy now. They’re murderous.”