Photo by Adi Talwar
This story ran on August 6, 2019 in City Limits
It was an illegal parking lot. Fabiola Mendieta-Cuapio thinks about this a lot — the laundromat on the corner of Wyckoff Avenue and Hart Street and the parking spaces that hung off of it, spilling into the sidewalk.
Because maybe if someone would have noticed or cared that the towering, blue Clean City Laundry Center was missing proper permits, 4-year-old Luz Gonzalez would still be alive.
Instead, in June of last summer, JeanetteMaria pulled her black Nissan SUV out of one of those parking spaces, and rammed head-on into Luz and her mother, who was hunched over, tying her daughter’s shoelaces on the sidewalk.
The girl was crushed under the weight of Maria’s front and back tires. Maria drove away.
Police followed Maria after the crash and pulled her over a block away. But then they let her go. A police department spokesman later told the Brooklyn Paper that they would not arrest Maria because of a lack of evidence and probable cause. Another police spokeswoman told the paper that Maria couldn’t see the mother and child as she was pulling out of the parking lot,and claimed she didn’t know she had hit someone.
For weeks after Luz’s death, Mendieta-Cuapio led daily rallies calling on the mayor and borough leadership to bring Maria to justice. She said she was close with Luz’s mother, Reyna Candia, and Luz called her “tia.”
A summer later, Mayor de Blasio never fully addressed the incident, Maria was never prosecuted, and Bushwick’s streets and sidewalks remain dangerous.
In the last two and a half years, the neighborhood has seen an uptick of injuries to pedestrians and cyclists. An upcoming rezoning that could bring an additional 18,000 people to the neighborhood has some worried that more residents will clog up the roads in cars and bikes, contributing to more crashes like Maria’s.
Luz’s death, one of three cyclist and pedestrian deaths in Bushwick since 2017, was met with city-wide media coverage. It started a community call for safety in a neighborhood still lacking in biking and walking infrastructure, or a political leadership willing to fight for such changes, Mendieta-Cuapio said.
“We got the parking lot,” she says. “More importantly, the community got out of the house and said here we are. Politically, Bushwick changed so much in 2018.”
The laundromat did paint over the parking spots as directed by a Department of Buildings ruling. Owners of the laundromat were out of town and unavailable for comment.
Crashes go up, resources still lagging
The number of injuries in Bushwick jumped from 168 in 2016 to 271 in 2017, based on the city’s Crash & Interventions map , a piece of Vision Zero, de Blasio’s plan to improve street and transportation safety, which he launched back in 2014. Bike and pedestrian injuries improved slightly in 2018 but stayed higher than 2015 and 2016 at 240.
In 2018, theNYU Furman Center reported that 82.3 percent of Bushwick residents had a car-free commute, up from 73.6 percent in 2000. But the neighborhood is in an awkward growing phase of transportation and infrastructure. DOT currently has three open projects in the neighborhood, one building a broader bike lane network, one enhancing the Myrtle Wyckoff Plaza built in 2016 and one adding Citi Bike stations near L train stops to supplement the train’s lighter service. The city has already installed two rounds of bike lanes since 2015, said Brooklyn Community Board 4 District Manager Celestina León.
Although the two often get lumped together, infrastructure designed to keep cyclists safe differs from pedestrian safety features. As the city focuses on strengthening the neighborhood’s bike network, Bushwick still lags behind on many safety features meant to protect pedestrians.
There are no speed cameras in Bushwick and only one red light camera on the intersection of Flushing and Bushwick Avenues. Compared to neighboring areas like Bedford Stuyvesant, Bushwick also has fewer leading pedestrian intervals, or intersections that give pedestrians a three- to seven-second head start before cars driving the same direction are given the green light (a safety feature the National Association of City Transit Officials says reduces car and pedestrian collisions by 60 percent), according to the Vision Zero Crash & Interventions map .
“Like many communities of color, for decades Bushwick was disenfranchised and ignored: frozen in time,” León says. “Now we get extra attention because the neighborhood has changed, but you see where we’re still lacking in infrastructure.”
Throughout the city, during the first five years of Vision Zero, traffic deaths and injuries decreased significantly, but Bushwick’s uptick in injuries could be indicative of the program’s philosophical limitations, said Joe Cutrufo, spokesman for Transit Alternatives, a safe streets advocacy group.
“Mayor de Blasio has achieved the reductions in fatalities without disrupting the car dominant status quo,” Cutrufo says. “And that is only going to get us so far.”
Cutrufo, along with many transportation advocates, argues that DOT needs to get serious about taking away space for cars and redistributing it to safer and more protected bike lanes and sectioned off pedestrian plazas.
“This idea that cars should have free reign to every inch of space on our streets, that needs to die,” Cutrufo says.
DOT projects in limbo
With Myrtle Avenue running diagonally through the alternating one way streets that form Bushwick’s grid, there are a number of confusing, and poorly labeled intersections in the neighborhood. More than 140 people were injured and 14 people killed or severely injured on a one mile stretch of Myrtle Ave between 2013 and 2017, according to the city’s Department of Transportation. In the last five years the neighborhood as a whole has seen over 900 injuries.
The city’s Department of Transportation has several scheduled projects to improve some of these confusing intersections, particularly on Myrtle. In April, DOT told Queens Community Board 5, whose district is adjacent to Bushwick, that it planned to add new crosswalks and curb extensions along Myrtle all the way from St. Nicholas Avenue in Ridgewood to Central Avenue in Bushwick.
But León said she has little faith the city will be able to accomplish its goals. She said the DOT presented a similar plan to improve intersections along Myrtle Avenue between Irving Avenue and Broadway two years ago to Community Board 4. She says this serves as another example where the city is lagging in keeping pedestrians safe.
“We have not seen implementation of that,” León says.”We were told it was supposed to happen last summer, and it didn’t happen.”
DOT declined to answer questions about upcoming or previous projects. But a representative from the city’s Department of City Planning confirmed that DOT will be working on the promised plans this year, including installing eight new crosswalks and curb extensions along Myrtle and improving lighting underneath the M train stations.
Then there’s the Department of City Planning rezoning scheme. Transportation is a main pillar of that plan, which includes adding six more CitiBike stations and updating the Myrtle Wyckoff plaza, both historically controversial projects in the neighborhood.
A simple solution
Where Jefferson Street meets Knickerbocker Avenue, just two blocks from Maria Hernandez Park, there’s a cornucopia of grocery stores, bars, even a vinyl shop. The spot sees a lot of foot traffic.
It’s also the most dangerous intersection in Bushwick, at least over the last five years. Although two busy streets are merging into one, the corner is governed only by a two-way stop sign, with Knickerbocker continuing on without any stop signs or traffic lights. As a result, there have been 11 pedestrians and cyclists injured in the cross section since 2015.
There’s an easy solution for making these kinds of intersections safer, Cutrufo says. Just take them off the driving map.
“If you want to simplify an intersection, sometimes what you have to do is just take out an entire leg,” Cutrufo says.
This is exactly what the city did with Myrtle and Wyckoff Avenues. The intersection was deemed one of the most dangerous in the city for bikers and walkers after three people died there between 2009 and 2014. So the city took out the section of Wyckoff between Gates Avenue and Palmetto Street (where Myrtle crosses through) entirely and turned it into a pedestrian-only plaza.
Now, food trucks, tables, umbrellas and pigeons are scattered on the stretch of pavement, lined on both sides with entrances to the M and L trains and a host of retail shops. And since the plaza was built in 2016, no one has died there and only two people have been injured.
It’s a simple, yet effective solution, Cutrufo says.
“People get around the neighborhood on foot already, especially Myrtle-Wyckoff,” he says. “It’s what, like 100 yards long? You’re not making the street dead by taking away traffic. You’re actually making the street more alive by prioritizing people.”
But León says the community board wasn’t happy about the city’s decision to build the plaza.
“No one wanted to see a plaza there,” she says.
At first, it was a traffic concern, as drivers were unable to turn left or right onto Wyckoff from those two side streets. But she says that now, almost five years after the plaza was built, the main issue is trash. Garbage bags accumulate in the small stretch, León says.
Bushwick Councilman Antonio Reynoso says that the community has come to embrace the plaza, though.
“Now it’s a bustling place and people love it and businesses love it and the community is shown that it’s been successful,” Reynoso says. “So people got upset initially. Once they see that the impacts in many cases are positive, they are reformed.”
Despite a few quality of life concerns, even the community board has changed its tune on pedestrian plazas. León said the board is working on a potential plan to propose that the DOT build another plaza somewhere in the Myrtle Broadway intersection, another precarious spot for cyclists and walkers.
“There’s an openness to these tools but it’s about conversations,” she says. “Do we have a partner in DOT to work with?”
After Luz’s death, Mendieta-Cuapio says she squeezed her son’s hand a little tighter as they crossed the street together.
But ultimately, Mendieta-Cuapio has her sights set beyond more crosswalks, plazas or bike lanes. Luz died on the sidewalk. And the justice Mendieta-Cuapio and so many others in the neighborhood demanded never happened.
So for her, safety in Bushwick is less about infrastructure, and more about people.
Take for instance, the young woman who died riding her bike in East Williamsburg earlier in July, she says.
“If nobody sends a reporter, if no one is doing rallies, If no one is doing vigils every single day, let’s say for one or two or three weeks, eventually people forget,” she says. “They say you know ‘It’s okay, it’s not going to happen again.’”
She says Bushwick really needs leadership in City Council and in the community board who are going to pay attention. She wants to see a greater enforcement of permits, and more conversations with the families who live in the neighborhood about what would make them feel safe.
This will only become more important as more residents enter the neighborhood, she says.
“More people, more cars,” she says. “What are we going to do with the kids?” They’re not going to be able to go out and play, run around, go to the supermarket.”
Cutrufo says, though, that if the city’s DOT can step in and implement smart plans like pedestrian plazas, protected bike lanes and better intersections, the neighborhood could see a dramatic reduction in injuries.
“It’s sort of built into the American psyche that people are going to die in car crashes,” Cutrufo says. “We don’t accept that is true. And if you really believe in Vision Zero, you can’t accept that as true.”