By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Not all of them reached the other side. In 1988, Bernard Hudesman, 59, escaped with a broken leg when he was struck while walking across Sunrise in Rockville Centre. The next year, Danielle Bjurnstad, 15, was killed crossing in Shirley. In 1990, Candido Lopez, 27, died in Freeport, and Matthew Horan, 32, died in Lindenhurst nine months later. In 1991, Frederick Behan, 40, died after being slammed by two cars in the westbound express lanes in Bay Shore, not far from where, four years later, Robert Conway Jr., 65, was fatally struck when his car broke down and he went to look for help. Last year, Victor Marans, 76, made it less than halfway across before he was killed in Rockville Centre.
Just as Sunrise Highway in Bay Shore separates a shopping center from a school and quiet residential streets, so Route 25 in Middle Island separates neighborhoods from a park. Bicycle advocate Russell Ainbinder of Brookhaven says he's hopeful the DOT will engineer the widening in Middle Island safely, but he worries about what could happen if the agency fails and kids get killed when, inevitably, they head out to play.
"At some point in the future, you have a certain number of deaths and people will say it's dangerous and we have to take down the park," Ainbinder says. "Then you lose the park, not because of the town or the community, but because of a piece of asphalt."
DEATH BY POVERTY
The man in the knit hat stands in front of the Wyandanch train station with his arms crossed, scanning the length of Straight Path.
With four lanes, few crosswalks and a generally ignored speed limit of 35 miles per hour, the road may be the most dangerous in Suffolk. Identifying himself only as Sabu, the man watches as the people of his largely poor, African-American hometown pick their way through the tangled intersection, crossing from laundromat to fast-food place to rundown strip mall with few crosswalks and no pedestrian signals. They step gingerly between heavy trucks and pause precariously on the double yellow line in the center of the street, waiting for traffic on the other side to clear.
For the people who live near it, Straight Path has become a killing field. Donald Walker, 38, was struck as he rode a bicycle along the street in March. Last December, Dorothy Finley-Armstrong, 50, was struck and dragged 250 feet as she walked home from the store. In December 1996, Calvin Finney, 37, was hit by two cars. Two years earlier, Huesie Walker, 56, was run over while crossing Straight Path, just four months after cyclist Lorenzo Birt, 25, was killed. The line of victims extends for more than a decade, and includes Tyrone Turner, 38, who stumbled into the path of a car in 1986.
For Sabu, the deaths are a matter of social justice. Wyandanch has too many liquor stores and pawn shops and drug dealers that prey on the black community, he says, and it has too many blood stains on the pavement. "If this was a white neighborhood," he says, "you know the type of traffic precautions that would be made. It's not about human beings. It's about money."
Community leaders in Wyandanch, part of the Town of Babylon, have long tried to get something done about Straight Path. Designed like a drag strip between Sunrise Highway and the Southern State Parkway, it has become an unofficial freeway for commercial truckers and commuting drivers hoping to shave a few minutes off their journeys.
The Rev. Henry Bacon has buried nearly a dozen people killed on Straight Path. The leader of Wyandanch's Compel Community Action Church wants the street's crosswalks repainted and its lighting improved. He wants officials to crack down on speeding and hook up pedestrian signals. He estimates that fixing the street will require $3 million and the cooperation of federal, state, county and town officials. After all, the road belongs to Suffolk, but it intersects town streets, links state highways and almost reaches the federally funded Long Island Expressway.
"All of the factions must be real," Bacon says. "You must find the money when the lives of our people are at stake."
Like other minority communities on the Island, Wyandanch has suffered from governmental indifference. In the Village of Hempstead, some bus stops are situated opposite elderly or handicapped housing with no crosswalk in sight. "I don't know if they think it's a demolition derby," says Renée Baturin, who lives on Jerusalem Avenue and uses a wheelchair. "It makes it harder for the disabled, because we can't cross as fast."
In Wyandanch, homes don't even have sewer service yet, let alone a central street where people feel safe walking to the corner grocery. Suffolk's chief engineer, Richard LaValle, has been meeting with Weed and Seed, a local civic group, to talk about ways to upgrade Straight Path. LaValle says he's hopeful the county can redesign the road to have only two lanes in the village center, but he cautions that constricting traffic and removing on-street parking could discourage customers and shopkeepers from doing business there. "People say we want to slow people down, but the people in Wyandanch also want to develop a downtown area," he says. "If you want to create a downtown area, you want to make sure people can enter and leave."