PARK SLOPE – A crowd of hundreds gathered in Brooklyn to march for safer streets last night following a rally by local politicians in remembrance of the children killed by a driver last week at 5th Avenue and 9th Street in Park Slope.
Local families turned out in force, from small children and teens to concerned adults, all bundled against the cold March evening. Along with transportation activists, the crowd of concerned neighbors gathered at Prospect Park West and 9th Street to listen to local politicians speak about improving the safety of streets in Brooklyn.
Spurred by the tragic deaths of 1-year old Joshua Lew and 4-year old Abigal Blumenstein, the memorial also included 13-year old Kevin Flores, who was killed by a truck while riding his bike in Bed-Stuy this January. The starting location was also near where 12-year-old Sammy Cohen Eckstein was struck by a car and killed in October 2013.
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, Councilmembers Brad Lander, Carlos Menchaca, Antonio Reynoso and Stephen Levin, Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Public Advocate Letitia James and Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez all turned up in support of the march, speaking from a podium in front of the Lafayette Memorial, wreathed in yellow flowers and surrounded by a line of young children holding signs calling for safer streets and stricter laws.
Last week, a demonstration outside the Prospect Park YMCA—where Mayor De Blasio works out—called on the mayor for a commitment to redesign 9th Street and make it safer for pedestrians.
Transportation Alternatives, a New York transit activist group, helped organize the event. Executive Director Paul White spoke first, addressing the feelings of the crowd gathered, stating, “Our hearts are breaking.” White cited the number of children killed on New York streets in the last 4 years—which he put at 40—and demanded that the city do more to make streets safe for pedestrians.
Margarita Flores, the mother of Kevin Flores, spoke at the rally, with Councilmember Menchaca translating from Spanish.
“Mr. De Blasio, I’m telling you, we have to change the law—we need a law that has deeper consequences,” she said, to applause from the crowd. “With this, we will have less children dying. Today it is our kids, but tomorrow it could be yours.”
Council Speaker Corey Johnson addressed the crowd as well. “We know what to do—this isn’t rocket science,” he said, citing improvements made to Queens Boulevard to curb traffic fatalities. “We recommit ourselves in the wake of this tragedy to push this administration to do more,” he said, speaking for himself and the gathered Councilmembers.
Johnson also promised the crowd that he would head to Albany with nearly two dozen Councilmembers to lobby the State Assembly for funds to improve road safety and to adopt speed cameras.
“Vision Zero isn’t about numbers,” said Borough President Adams, “It’s about families.” Adams encouraged those gathered not to think of fatalities as statistics, but to remember the lives lost—Joshua, Abigail and Kevin—and the damage done to families and communities in the wake of what he called a preventable tragedy.
“It’s so easy to do better—that’s what’s alarming,” he said, condemning the “vehicle-use only” mindset and encouraging an open view of the streets that included bikes and pedestrians as well.
Many of those who spoke demanded stricter punishment for reckless drivers, and advocated for suspending the licenses of those with unsafe driving histories. Dorothy Bruns, the driver who killed Joshua and Abigail last week, had her license suspended after the accident. Bruns had a history of dangerous driving, and an alleged medical condition, leading many to question why she was allowed on the road at all.
Public Advocate Letitia James read from a roster of the children killed in accidents over the years, decrying the length of the list and the danger posed to the community. Comptroller Scott String said it was time to “put the Governor and the Mayor in the room” and demand change. “We can pave a pothole, but we can’t make a street safe—it’s outrageous!”
Linking the recent traffic deaths to the larger national conversation about gun control and the dangers posed to children, Stringer said it was high time to have “the Year of the Child in New York City.”
“I’ve said it before,” said Borough President Adams, “So goes Brooklyn, goes New York. And so goes New York, goes America.”
After the politicians wrapped up their remarks, three children—some classmates of those killed—addressed the crowd in remembrance of their lost friends before the march set off towards 5th Street and the site of the accident.
Spilling out across Prospect Park West on onto 9th, chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!” the protestors were quickly corralled onto the sidewalk by the NYPD. Still, they marched down the hill as bicyclists rode alongside, blocking intersections along the route to allow marchers to pass in front of the waiting cars.
At 5th and 9th, the crowd surged as the march came to a halt, spilling into the streets past the blockade of bicycles and police vans, briefly trapping drivers at the light and shutting down westbound traffic between 5th and 4th.
Gathered on the corner, marchers laid flowers at a memorial near the Chase Bank, piling up signs and flowers and lighting candles in memory of the children who had died. Councilmember Brad Lander addressed those gathered, giving a kind of benediction for Joshua, Abigail and Kevin, leading the crowd in repeating their names before observing a moment of silence. A young girl climbed onto a lightpost covered in flowers to attach a teddy bear as a small remembrance. In the back, bicyclists and policemen stood watch around the group, bathed in the silent red-and-blue strobing of a police van’s lights.
Around 7:30, the march and the ceremony concluded, the crowd began to break up. Parents took small children home for bed, while teenagers caught up with classmates who had attended the march, calling parents to give updates or bargain for a few more hours out on a school night. Down the block, St. Thomas Aquinas Church opened its doors for prayer, and a few drifted down to take seats in the quiet pews.
Eventually, it was just the memorial on the corner, bathed in the light of the nearby bank, candles flickerings in the cold breeze, surrounded by posterboard signs and piles of boquets, as traffic picked back up on 9th, with cars and buses charging through the intersection behind bright lights once again.