At 8:30 a.m. on a mild and sunny Tuesday, a crowd of roughly a hundred people gathered outside the YMCA in Park Slope. They were mostly from the neighborhood: young and old, men and women, and children, some with dogs; many of the adults holding cups of coffee, pushing strollers, or both. Others held signs. They were waiting for Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Most of them seemed to be parents, partly because it was Park Slope, but also because every parent who heard the news yesterday lost their breath, if only just for a second, but likely for much longer. Around noon Monday, on the corner of Ninth Street and Fifth Avenue, half a block from the YMCA, a driver burst through a red light and drove into a crowd of people, killing two small children and injuring their mothers. A local resident later discovered that the driver has been cited for running red lights four times and speeding in school zones four times in the past two years.
The details of the crash — the words the mothers reportedly cried out as they lay on the pavement, the photos of a Brooklyn street in broad daylight covered in blood — only furthered the community’s sense that this could not go down as just another “accident.”
Doug Gordon, a safe streets advocate who lives in Park Slope (and no relation to this reporter), took to Twitter immediately after the news of the crash to point out that this exact intersection has long been a source of danger. He called for the rally outside the YMCA, where de Blasio exercises most mornings, to demand an immediate redesign of Ninth Street to improve intersection safety.
9th Street needs a top-to-bottom redesign or it's all just thoughts and prayers.
— Brooklyn Spoke (@BrooklynSpoke) March 5, 2018
As the crowd gathered behind the barricades set up by the NYPD, Gordon rattled off a list of crashes in the neighborhood. September 2016, Sixth Avenue and Ninth Street. He swung around and pointed to the nearby intersection. December 2016, Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street. His arm moved slightly. April 2013, Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street. Same place. Same intersection as yesterday. February 2004, Third Avenue and Ninth Street, an intersection called “dangerous” in a city study: children killed, nothing done. He went on. His arm kept swiveling.
It’s easy — easier, perhaps — to say this was different. Nothing could have prevented this. Street design cannot save anyone from a driver like that. It was just an accident. Thoughts and prayers to the families of this horrible tragedy.
But they weren’t thoughts or prayers: They were children with names — Abigail Blumenstein and Josh Lew — and they had futures beyond that crosswalk. Futures that were taken and will remain taken, even after the crowd outside the YMCA goes on with its day and the photographers scuttle off to the next tragedy that couldn’t have been avoided.
Gordon and the neighborhood parents who showed up at the YMCA conceded it was an accident that was hard to predict, to a degree. “We don’t know what could have prevented it,” he announced to the gathered crowd. They’re not sure a safer intersection design, with center pedestrian islands, protected bike lanes, and small bollards would have saved those children.
“But that’s just an excuse,” Gordon continued. “We’re not doing anything.” Last year, the Department of Transportation told Gordon that protected bike lanes could not be installed along Ninth Street from Third Avenue to Prospect Park West because of the “necessity of maintaining turning lanes” and a lack of “sufficient width,” even though Ninth Street, a two-lane road with existing bike and parking lanes, is one of the widest streets in the neighborhood.
While bike lanes don’t obviously have anything to do with a car ignoring a red light and plowing through a crosswalk, Gordon and other advocates argue that wide streets like Ninth Street and Fifth Avenue allow cars to go much too fast for a neighborhood with lots of foot traffic and busy crosswalks. Giving cars less space will force drivers to go slower, as they do on adjacent streets. As one sign read: “Can’t Stop Human Error, But We Can Make Streets Safer.”
Heather Boyer, a 48-year-old mother of two who lives around the corner from the accident site, echoed these points and wants to see de Blasio take “real initiative” in redesigning city intersections for people, not cars. She also called for Albany to suspend licenses of drivers who get multiple violations in a short period of time.
At about 8:45 a.m., de Blasio rounded the corner in a gray hoodie. The NYPD had been keeping a sidewalk path open between the protesters and the media. De Blasio walked down the concrete aisle, nodding to a few people on either side. The crowd, previously buzzing from Gordon’s speech, grew suddenly quiet. The TV camerapeople ran and photographers snapped, but the gathered protesters remained still.
Then came a male voice, directed at de Blasio: “DO SOMETHING.”
“We need you to do something, mayor!” came another.
These first few cries were demands, but they also registered distinctive notes of anguish, of immense pain. A few feet away stood women holding portraits of their own children who had been killed by reckless drivers in previous accidents. Now, the neighborhood had two more mothers who might one day also hold portraits, maybe at a rally just like this one, lamenting the creation of more mothers with portraits.
Then, partly to create order but also to unify the message, three men started a “Safe streets now!” chant, and the rest of the crowd joined in.
De Blasio then approached Gordon, who had organized the rally via Facebook and Twitter. Camera crews flooded around them. Reporters craned their necks and held out microphones as far as their arms could reach. De Blasio and Gordon were not projecting their voices for the crowd. They were not giving speeches. For the moment, they were visibly, deeply shaken parents, absorbing what some might call an unspeakable tragedy, except it is very much being spoken about.
The two spoke for approximately ten minutes, Gordon making clear why he was there — to call on the Department of Transportation to move quickly on street redesigns without drawn-out community board hearings, to advocate with Albany for more license suspensions for drivers with repeated violations, and to install more speed cameras — while de Blasio vowed to step up traffic enforcement. After about ten minutes, they shook hands.
Later, Gordon gave de Blasio “a lot of credit” for coming to face the community. He could have, Gordon noted, simply not gone to the gym today, or merely waved on his way in. Nevertheless, Gordon didn’t get the guarantee of safer streets that he wanted from the mayor.
“I don’t want the cops to arrest my children’s killer,” Gordon said. “I want my children to not be killed.”