“Change the law so that people who are sober and take lives are prosecuted like the drunks.”
Those words were the first out of Elsa Nicodemus’ mouth at the vigil held Tuesday night (December 22) for her daughter Victoria at the spot where the 30-year-old artist and art curator died after being hit by a car that jumped the curb at Fulton Street and South Portland Avenue on December 6. Her boyfriend and another female pedestrian were also injured in the crash, which led only to charges of driving without a license and without insurance for the driver.
Spoken forcefully and deliberately, Elsa’s words were echoed by her sons and her daughter’s coworkers, as well as elected officials and transportation safety advocates from across the city, who gathered here in Fort Greene with three missions: to honor Victoria’s life and spirit, to begin an effort to place a permanent art installation near the spot where she died, and to kick off/add strength to a campaign to change city law and create stiffer penalties for sober drivers who do not leave the scene of an accident where their crash led to a pedestrian fatality.
First, honoring Victoria.
The memorial outside Habana Outpost has only continued to grow with lit candles, flowers, fruit, and messages of love and friendship for the young woman who strangers describe as someone who “could have been any one of us” and who family and colleagues describe as “a beautiful spirit and a kind soul.”
“I want people to know she was as beautiful inside as she was outside,” said mom Elsa. “She had the best work ethic and she was at a point in her life when she was just ready to go for the stars. It was a horrible, traumatic, desperate type of death, but she had so much beauty. Her small hands would always reach out and say, ‘oh, this is so beautiful.'”
One of her brothers, Peter Miller, brought Victoria alive through his words, describing her as having “energy simultaneously frenetic and natural, enthusiasm boundless, and elegance and grace that she brought to every moment. She opened our eyes and broadened our horizons. She connects to people so effortlessly and taught me a lot about caring. ”
Miller’s mood turned somber and tinged with outrage, though, when he spoke of the experience of the past two weeks, post-losing Victoria.
“In the last two weeks, we have talked with a lot of people and it seems the city’s MO (modus operandi) around traffic fatalities is APATHY,” he said. “People have said sometimes an accident is just an accident. That hurts the most. This was not an accident. he driver made a choice to drive with no license, to park where he wants in school zones [in the weeks prior], to swerve to avoid an inanimate object and into a sidewalk.
“It’s not okay for 14 people to be killed on sidewalks this year,” he continued. “It’s not okay that we have cameras and will boot cars for parking tickets, but not [do anything about] no insurance or license. It should be a felony. It’s not okay. It’s not okay that taking a life is termed ‘just an accident.’ ”
Another of Victoria’s brothers, Hank Miller, added that “The driver faces a maximum $500 fine and 30 days in jail — a sentence that is rarely meted out. While our family pushes the District Attorney to prosecute, we urge people to drive safely, to work towards changing laws, and to give the DA and politicians the tools to work together.”
Elected officials, transportation advocates, and residents of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill echoed that sentiment.
“This could have been any one of us,” agreed Councilmember Laurie Cumbo, Assemblymember Laurie Cumbo, and Public Advocate Letitia James.
“She was just walking, shopping like so many of us have done,” said James. “The driver put himself above all of us, turning a peaceful walk into a nightmare. Crossing the street or walking the sidewalk on Fulton Street or any street in this city should not be a matter of life and death.
“It really is not enough to mourn, to pray, to attend vigils, to cry. We cry too much in this neighborhood,” James continued. “The person responsible needs to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
With that in mind, Mosley announced that he is co-sponsoring new legislation that would make it a Class D felony to commit bodily harm or death on someone while driving without a license or insurance. “It is a privilege to drive,” he said. “If people don’t want to adhere to slow zones and Vision Zero, they have to pay the price.”
A transportation-themed town hall will be held some time in January, hosted by Councilmember Cumbo and featuring Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg.
Several Fort Greene residents in attendance at the vigil agreed that we need to change the law to provide accountability for dangerous and reckless driving, but they also have their eye on everyday enforcement.
“Our big concern is about better enforcement of speed limits on streets in a meaningful way,” said Rachel Schwartz, who was one of several parents from the Urban Assembly Academy of Arts and Letters to attend the rally with their children. “[When talking with the kids,] we approach it from a safety perspective and from a global perspective: don’t speed as a driver, don’t cross against the light as a pedestrian, and as a biker, following street signs. If everyone followed the rules, there would be less entitlement to speed and not look.”
As for the public art installation now mounted at the corner of Fulton and South Portland, it serves as part tribute and part advocacy.
Entitled “Safe City,” the two-sided piece aims to “harness the power of art to highlight simple ways to improve this intersection and promote discussion around sidewalk safety,” Cumbo said.
One side features an image of an owl soaring in the night sky with a woman resting on its back, giving a feeling of protection and wisdom. The other side features the words “SAFE CITY” in bold yellow/gold against the same blue night sky backdrop as the owl. Between the two canvasses are lights — like the “light that Victoria gave off,” said her boss, Ravi Wolf, CEO of Indiewalls. “Victoria would want each person to interpret this in their own mind.”
“Victoria was a truly creative powerhouse, a person who took action and who would have loved to be in charge of creating this installation, instead of it being in her honor,” said Wolf, who noted that the piece was the last Victoria worked on, along with artist Mark Samsonovich, before her death. Although it was originally conceived of for a hotel commission, it was able to be repurposed and reimagined as a tribute.
Of the art tribute, Elsa said that while she thinks of the owl as “a spiritual animal that has a closeness to human souls,” and that “owls are secretive like humans.”
There is now an effort to make this a permanent public art installation. “If this cordoned off area becomes permanent, it would make it a much safer intersection and be a beautiful memorial to Victoria,” said Wolf.
The elected officials present (Cumbo, Mosley, and James) expressed their interest in seeing this proposal become a reality, although the process to make the permanence a reality would be complicated and involved many organizations and city agencies.
For his part, Phillip Kellogg, executive director of the Fulton Area Business (FAB) Alliance, noted that he and FAB would be “willing to do all we can to see how to make this happen [because] public art is important in the community.”