CUNY Graduate Center Advocate
by ROISIN O’CONNOR-MCGINN
A white-painted bicycle slouches against a lamppost a few steps shy of Crosby St., several feet from the busy traffic on West Houston. Withered flowers stick out of the bikeâ€™s spokes. The paint is flaking.
This quiet memorial the Village Voice called â€œTomb of the Unknown Bikerâ€ is the only thing that exists to mark the life and death of twelve cyclists killed in New York City in 2005. â€œThis spot was chosen symbolically as a marker for those people whose names could not be recovered,â€ said Ryan Knuckle of Brooklyn-based art and activist group Visual Resistance. â€œHouston Street is one of the deadliest Streets in south Manhattan.â€
Naturally, bicycles are in abundance in â€˜bohemianâ€™ downtown Manhattan, but their riders arenâ€™t just wearing cheap shirts and hair scarves â€” some are dressed in loafers and chinos too. As a microcosm of New York, the cycling community is as diverse as the city itself
Everyday cyclists in New York City take their lives into their own hands simply by making the routine journey to work or across town to visit a friend; too often they never make it to their intended destination. Some days or weeks later a white-painted bicycle, or â€œghost bike,â€ might appear at the roadside where a cyclist was killed by an auto-vehicle.
Often bearing no formal relation to similar installations elsewhere, it is usual for ghost bikes to be placed at accident spots by anonymous individuals, sometimes under cover of darkness, since the lawâ€™s attitude to this activity remains somewhat ambiguous. In this way, these ghost bikes can sometimes seem to have appeared from nowhere.
The ritual marking of a cyclistâ€™s death in this way can be traced to beginnings in Pittsburgh, but is now a collective cult effort that spans the entire globe. â€œAt this point theyâ€™ve spread to 25 cities across the world,â€ explained Knuckle.
Although not always, many of the ghost bikes visible on the streets of New York are likely to be the product of a collaboration between Virtual Resistance and the environmental and bike advocacy group Timeâ€™s Up! â€œWhat weâ€™re doing is underlining the places where people lost their lives because others donâ€™t care,â€ said Bill DiPaulo, founder member of Timeâ€™s Up! â€œWe started it, but you can do it yourself.â€
Since the project began over two years ago, an estimated 30 ghost bikes have popped up in the five boroughs of New York City; four of these are situated within a mile of each other on Houston Street â€” nicknamed the â€˜boulevard of deathâ€™ by local cyclists. Three of these bikes commemorate the deaths of Andrew Ross Morgan, who was struck and crushed by a furniture truck; Derek Lane, who fell under the wheels of an oncoming van when his bike slid on metal construction plates; and Brandie Bailey, who was mown down by a truck which continued for another 23 blocks before the driver finally realized he had hit her. â€œHouston Street is dangerous for bikes,â€ said DiPaulo. â€œA car is 4,000 pounds, bikes are much lighter. Cars can push you off the road and scare you.â€
The fourth ghost bike on Houston Street commemorates the many undocumented cyclist deaths in New York City, but also exists as symbol of protest for the under reportage of bike accidents and deaths in media coverage and in official city records. One of two plaques screwed into the lamppost above the bike reads, â€œFor all Those Whose Deaths Never Made the News.â€
A 1999 report by the New York Bicycling Coalition exposed inconsistencies in the way that bicycle and pedestrian accident data was reported, compiled and classified for official records. The report states that while motorists self-assess their injuries â€” however small â€” in a Motor Vehicle Accident Report, the equivalent Bicycle Accident Report is only ever used to document serious injuries, such as that causing risk of death or likely to demand urgent hospital treatment. Since bicycle accident reports do not account for the full range and scope of injury, the erroneous perception that they are a small subset of existing traffic safety problems is further perpetuated.
â€œBecause the bicycles are so tiny most people who kill them believe they should not be on the street,â€ said Audrey Anderson, whose 14-year-old son Andre was killed riding his bike near his home in Far Rockaway, Queens, in 2005. â€œThe New York Police Department could care less about bike accidents,â€ she said. â€œWhenever a cyclist is killed in New York City it is automatically treated as an accident.â€
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Anderson said that she has not received any retribution for the death of her son and the driver of the vehicle never received a court summons or so much as a ticket.
â€œUnless youâ€™re drunk, youâ€™ll probably get away with it,â€ said DiPaulo on the NYPDâ€™s lenient attitude towards reckless driving in the city. He also said that city officials should be doing more to protect people who endorse cycling and other environmentally friendly lifestyle choices. â€œ â€˜Share the Roadâ€™ implies motorists and bikes should have equal rights,â€ he said. â€œWe believe that cyclists should be treated better. The city should have respect for people who are doing their bit to preserve the environment.â€
Last year the Department of Transportation announced that it would add 200 miles worth of bike lanes to New York City in the coming years. While this is too little too late for the cyclists who have already lost their lives on the cityâ€™s streets, it is a victory for the Traffic and Transportation Committee of Com-munity Board 2, who have been lobbying for bike lanes on Houston Street since 2004. In a recent development, the Department of Transportation presented an alternative plan to put bike lanes on adjacent Bleeker Street and Prince Street. â€œAfter a lot of going back and forth, the community accepted that plan,â€ said Ian Dutton, who leads the Transportation Committee, adding, â€œthose bike lanes will be installed, first at Bleeker Street in October and Prince Street in November.â€
At Timeâ€™s Up! headquarters on East Houston Street a number of abandoned bikes are pushed close together and piled high in the courtyard. They are the results of a recent reconnaissance mission by the organization and students from New York University who are intent on fixing up derelict bicycles and getting them back on the road. Occasionally however, one bike will be pulled from the pile and put to a much more somber but equally honorable use. Like the others, it will probably be subjected to some repairs in the basement workshop, but in addition to these repairs a few coats of white paint will be applied â€” even to the rubber of the tires. When the paint is dry, the bike will be taken and locked down at the place of an accident. It will live a second life as a ghost bike.
The process of creating a ghost bike is sad and moving. Friends and family experience a kind of powerlessness after the death of someone close to them, particularly in the case of an accident. Sometimes creating a ghost bike is the only useful thing that can be done. It is usual for mourners to feel guilt â€” what if theyâ€™d called this morning and delayed the journey by half an hour? Would the accident still have happened? Ghost bikes are a product of that powerlessness as well as a tribute to a loved one lost.
The bikes are painted white so that they stand out and become an easily recognizable feature of an otherwise normal street. â€œThey become a stark illustration of the cyclist who isnâ€™t there,â€ said Knuckle. â€œIn the city they kind of glow.â€ Once locked in place they become a part of that particular street and its history; it is not unusual to see ribbons, flowers and candles adorning the bikes. â€œTheyâ€™re not treated as graffiti or pollution,â€ continued Knuckle. â€œPeople respect them and they really become a part of their environment.â€
Bikes are fairly mundane in artistic terms; however, the value of a ghost bike emanates not from the objects itself but is acquired in a way that mirrors Duchampian conceptual art.
As objects of fairly low value and importance, â€˜junkerâ€™ bikes, as theyâ€™re called, are intercepted on the street where they have been abandoned, whitewashed and finally secured near the roadside of an accident spot. The meaning instilled upon the otherwise worthless object by virtue of its location is subsequently dictated by the meaning that the location has for the artist; often an accompanying plaque demarks this meaning. At the new public location, the bike becomes more precious than it was at its abandoned location. They are no longer just bikes they are symbolic of a person, a loss and an event.
The Visual Resistance mission statement is in part dedicated to the use of art to transform and liberate public space, as opposed to environmental issues which is the domain of Timeâ€™s Up!
If ghost bikes must be considered as public art, or even as objet trouvÃ©, then the concept of space is important, since space contextualizes and lends meaning to modern art. Without reading the text on placards nailed above the bikes one can nonetheless infer what these iconic and highly specific memorials mean to represent.
Public spaces, so defined as places designated for public use, have long been identified with democracy. When necessary, streets, squares, and parks provide the platform whereby the First Amendment can be actively employed or interpreted. The identification of public space as the location of democratic practices further contextualizes and politicizes why ghost bikes exist in the public arena and why they are so important as displays of both grief and grievance.
As poignant reminders of the fragility of life, ghost bikes exist to warn motorists of the danger they and their cars pose to city cyclists, and prompt fellow bike users to exercise appropriate caution on the roads. â€œWe place this marker there because each and every individual life is a part of the soul of the city,â€ said Knuckle, also a keen cyclist. â€œIt could be me just as easily as anyone else.â€
As the obvious descendents of wayside memorials and shrines that can be frequently observed on highways and roadsides up and down the country, ghost bikes are in some small way ideologically indebted to them. In turn, the wayside memorials have natural ties to Roman Catholicism and an article of that faith: purgatory.
Roman Catholics believe that prayer can lessen a soulâ€™s time in purgatory; this is especially important for the souls of those who have died â€˜out of graceâ€™ as the result of an accident. The purpose of the wayside memorial then is to petition for prayers from passers-by so as to expedite the time that the soul of their loved one must suffer out of heaven. Simply by affixing a cross to a tree or hedgerow, that spot takes on a new significance; a sacred place is created where one was never intended.
The idea of petitioning for prayer bears some resemblance to the secular idea encompassed by ghost bikes, that the victims should not be forgotten or their deaths have been in vain. â€œIâ€™m very interested and inspired by the wayside memorial,â€ said Knuckle. â€œCrosses usually have Christian symbolism, but what unites all these people at the moment of their death is that they are cyclists.â€
The idea that common bonds unite people goes part way in explaining the sadness felt by the biking community when a fellow cyclist is killed and lost. Members of that group cannot help but feel personally attacked since the victim â€œcould be me just as easily as anyone else.â€ Ghost bikes are emblematic of the grief, anger and fear felt at the demise of one who shared the same interests and worldview.
Since everyone living in New York is part of the fabric of the city, such public statements of loss are important and must continue to be allowed to exist as reminders of what were and what should not be again. â€œAs people all living in New York we have to learn ways of living together and respecting each other,â€ said Knuckle. â€œWe need to figure out a way of living together if weâ€™re going to survive.â€