Thursday, January 11, 2007
By Nik Kovac
They ranged in age from ten to 60, and they lived in every corner of the city, from St. Albans to Williamsburg, but all 14 of them have this in common: during 2006 they died while riding bicycles.
“Ride with us,” announced Time’s Up, a two-decade-old advocacy group, in their description of the 2nd Annual Bicyclist Memorial Ride this past Sunday. “Please bring flowers, love, and rage.”
The flowers were to be placed on the so-called “ghost bikes,” which are spray painted white and locked to street signs near the fatal accident sites by volunteers from a group called Visual Resistance. Above each bike is a small plaque, which gives the victim’s name and age along with the date of their deaths. Since the project began two Junes ago, 27 ghost bikes have been installed, and most of them are still there.
“Even now it’s a reminder,” recalled one Canarsie resident who lives on the very block of Avenue L where 34-year-old Keith Powell was killed by a drag racer in a stolen car last August 20. “Everyday I see it and sometimes I tell people what happened.”
The love was for the families and friends of the victims, many of whom gathered at each site, and some of whom rode along to other sites. “It really tore us up, big time,” recalled W.D. Turner of his friend and neighbor, Frank Simpson, who was killed on November 9 by another hit-and-run driver in Queens on Linden Boulevard near 175th Street. “We all knew him. He was 60 years old and he biked everyday. He was in great shape.”
The rage was directed toward reckless drivers, toward police who fail to ticket them, and toward city bureaucrats who refuse to redesign safer streets, bike lanes, and sidewalks. As for the first kind of rage, it was sometimes on ugly display during Sunday’s long ride from Queens through Brooklyn to Manhattan (where it met up with another group of cyclists who started from the Bronx).
There was one cyclist who went out of his way to cause confrontations with drivers, often taking their pictures while criticizing them, and who duly ended up in shouting matches on the streets of Brownsville, New Lots and Williamsburg.
Near the site of 10-year-old Shamar Porter’s death, he yelled at a man for stopping in the crosswalk, but the man had stopped because he lived in the neighborhood, knew Porter, and wanted to pay his respects.
When the man put his blinkers on and exited his vehicle, the angry, camera-wielding cyclist ran off to the median of busy Linden Boulevard near its intersection with Williams Avenue, while the rest of the more mild-mannered cyclists – at least 70 strong – welcomed the mourner to the ghost bike site and encouraged him to share his memories.
“That’s what helps me keep his memory alive,” reassured Shawnette Porter, Shamar’s grieving mother. “The people that didn’t really know him and still care.”
She said those words to Ryan Kuonen, a cycling advocate who never met young Shamar but who broke into tears while speaking to the crowd surrounding his ghost bike in Brownsville.
“If you saw pictures of his smile,” said Kuonen, “if you got to meet his friends and his Little League teammates like I did, then you know that this 10-year-old boy was going to grow up to do great things.”
Indeed, the young Porter, who was biking home following a Little League playoff victory, was well known in the community even before his tragic death.
“A lot of people didn’t even know me,” recalled Shawnette, “but they knew my son. Not just kids, but adults, too. They’ve come up to me since this happened… My niece can’t even say his name, she’s so upset. My father, that was his little buddy. I was his mother, but everybody helped me raise him.”
Shamar Porter was killed while walking his bike across the crosswalk of the wide boulevard, and he didn’t quite make it to the other side before the light changed. One stopped driver saw him and waited, while an impatient minivan honked from behind, swerved around the stopped car, and then fatally struck Shamar, who was still wearing his baseball uniform. The driver was not charged by police with any wrongdoing.
Shamar was a happy child that was well liked by his elders, while another 2006 victim, Keith Powell, was a generous adult on his usual Sunday afternoon bike ride to buy ice cream for the kids on his block.
“It was the usual,” said his distraught wife, Susan, who attended yesterday’s ghost bike memorial. “He rode his bike and he got ice cream. He just didn’t come home this time.”
Fortunately, Susan was not at the scene to witness the graphic details taken in by a man who lived on the block. He told his gruesome story to several cyclists who had just lifted their bikes in honor of Powell during a moment of silence – a gesture that was repeated at every ghost bike site on Sunday.
“He flew all the way here,” said the man, pointing towards a spot halfway down the block, even though the collision had occurred over a hundred feet to the east.
“He was 12 feet in the air, before he ended up underneath a car, and when the fire department jacked up the car, they found his leg. It was all shredded up, and his ankle was somewhere else. The EMT picked up his ankle and just dropped it on the gurney. They said his heart still had a slight beat, so I prayed for him. He still had a little breath but you could tell he was gone. That stayed in my mind for months. That night I took my daughter home,” said the neighbor, who did not want his name used in this article, “then I wept.”
Witnesses told police from the 69th precinct that a blue Ford Probe was drag racing with another vehicle in excess of 80 miles per hour when it hit Powell’s red mountain bike from behind. The driver continued on for several more blocks, before ditching his badly damaged stolen car, and then escaping in his friend’s vehicle.
Caroline Samponaro, a Transportation Alternatives staffer, tactfully withheld recounting those details in front of Powell’s wife, but she explained some of them at the ride’s next stop at 41-year-old Donna Goodson’s ghost bike, just a mile or so north, where Avenue D meets Rockaway Parkway.
“The death of a cyclist,” rallied Samponaro, “needs to be treated like a murder.”
While Powell’s death was certainly a crime, the dump truck driver who hit and killed Goodson was not charged with one.
“This is part of the problem,” explained Kuonen from Goodson’s ghost bike in a barren, industrial neighborhood just east of Brooklyn Terminal Market. “The city takes no action. It’s just another accident to them. No summons was issued and the driver was at work the very next day while she was dead.”
As of our press time, the police department had not yet returned requests for comment.
“To the police department’s credit,” conceded Noah Budnick, also of Transportation Alternatives, “New York is the safest big city in the U.S. If that’s the case, though, then we should also have the safest streets, and that’s up to the police.”
“NYPD sets the tone for driver behavior in New York,” agreed Bill DiPaola of Time’s Up, “so it’s essential they enforce routine violations like speeding, double parking and opening doors into traffic that threaten cyclist safety and actively discourage people from using their bikes for daily transportation.”
Even though New York is a reasonably compact city, with millions of daily commuters within easy bicycle range of work, most still choose to ride in cars or subways instead of pedaling their own way. There are, of course, many social and infrastructural reasons for this, but in some cases it may also be a reasonable fear of death which is discouraging some from strapping on a helmet and braving their balance.
The riders on Sunday’s memorial ride are hoping to change all of that, eventually, but in the meantime they enjoyed a comfortable ride through several boroughs under an unusually warm January sun.
“I can’t believe I just went through Queens and Brooklyn,” smiled Turner, as the group paused at the base of the Williamsburg Bridge, around the ghost bike for “Bronx” Jonathan Neese, a well-known and well-liked 34-year-old bicycle messenger killed on his way to Manhattan last August 12. “The route we took was some of the best shortcuts through every neighborhood.”
Indeed, threading their way through South Jamaica, Ozone Park, East New York, Brownsville, Canarsie, New Lots, Crown Heights, and Bedford-Stuyvesant was a gathering crew of urban explorers, wearing helmets. The streets of this city, it’s been famously said, contain 8 million stories per day, and if you look back historically the number only gets bigger and each detail more exotic.
Certainly there are millions of ways to theme a tour of this great metropolis, and even if you went on all of those tours, still probably a story or two would go untold. For instance, as the group took New York Avenue north to Fulton Street, then jogged over to Marcy Avenue – a street co-named for Gardner Taylor, pastor of the Concord Baptist Church – the journey managed to conjure up other historical memories for Professor Turner, aka Supreme Master, who teaches anthropology at Manhattan’s Columbia University graduate school, and operates Mr. T’s Servicecenter #II in St Albans, Queens.
“Who’s ever heard of Major Taylor?” he asked the hardy pedalers, and most hadn’t.
It turns out that a century ago the fastest cyclist in the world was Major Taylor, the grandson of escaped slaves, who grew up in rural Indiana and rode his first professional race at Madison Square Garden. Millions of people pass by “The World’s Most Famous Arena” every day, and most surely don’t think of that little bit of bicycling history. Meanwhile, thanks to the artists who create the ghost bikes and the activists who go on memorial rides, the tragic stories of dead cyclists from the past two years are being remembered at busy intersections, at least so far.