A Growing Plea in New York: Pedestrian Deaths Cannot Be Tolerated
You can see P.S. 152 from the crosswalk where 8-year-old Noshat Nahian was fatally struck by a truck driver last Friday. The boy was on his way to the school with his 11-year-old sister when he was caught under the wheels of a tractor-trailer as it made a left turn onto Northern Boulevard in Queens. The driver allegedly was operating with a suspended license and a history of reckless driving.
Noshat never made it to the other side of the street, where his classroom was waiting for him. The third-grader had been carrying a small red gift bag to present to his teacher on that last day of school before winter break. After the crash, the bag lay in the heavily trafficked four-lane street. Noshat’s home was just a couple of blocks away.
On Sunday night, members of the tight-knit Bangladeshi community that lives in the surrounding Woodside neighborhood gathered at that same crossing to hold a vigil for Noshat, to support his family, and to call for safer streets. Slumped in grief, her face wet with tears, his mother was held up by friends and relatives as she bewailed her only son’s fate.
The night was unusually balmy for December, and a light rain fell as one person after another asked why the community’s longstanding concerns about safety had been ignored, and why Noshat and his family had to pay the price.
“Look at the mother’s face,” said a woman who asked to be identified only by her first name, Shimu. “Does she deserve this? She came here for a better life.”
The truck’s driver, 51-year-old Mauricio Osorio-Palaminos, was arrested for aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle and operation of a motor vehicle in violation of safety rules, offenses that could result in, at most, a modest fine, and held on $2,000 bail. Many of those in attendance found these consequences offensively inadequate under the circumstances. “Two thousand dollars for a human life?” exclaimed Shimu in disgust.
Noshat Nahian was the 11th child under the age of 13 to be killed by a driver on the streets of New York this year. The vigil Sunday night, attended by dozens of people from the surrounding neighborhoods and beyond, was the third in the city in just the past few weeks marking the loss of a child who died because of a careless motorist’s actions. The high visibility of such events, and the growing crowds in attendance, may indicate that the people of New York are becoming unwilling to consider these deaths an inevitable cost of life in the city. The momentum is reminiscent of the Dutch “Stop the Child Murder” protests of the 1970s, which led to a radical rethinking of traffic culture in the Netherlands.
Advocates for safer streets are looking to the incoming administration of Bill de Blasio for change. In his campaign, the mayor-elect committed to “Vision Zero,” the goal of reducing traffic deaths in the city to nil. The New Yorkers who showed up on Northern Boulevard on Sunday night don’t plan on letting him forget that promise.
This most recent New York vigil was organized by a new group called Make Queens Safer, which aims to “develop a strong community-based movement that sees pedestrian and cyclist fatalities as intolerable and 100% preventable.” The group’s members are calling for better enforcement of existing traffic regulations, street design that will slow cars, and more accountability for reckless drivers.
Reflecting the diversity of this part of Queens, which is home to many immigrants, the flier announcing the event was printed in several languages: English, Bangla, Chinese, Urdu, and Spanish. Speakers of all those languages were present. Many were parents of children at Noshat’s school, who said they have long been worried about the safety of their children on the chaotic roadway. Many said they wanted to see speed bumps, more crossing guards, and limits on the hours commercial traffic can use the streets around the school.
Laura Newman, one of Make Queens Safer’s founders, said she was encouraged by the turnout and the determination of those who showed up. “You have a tragedy,” she said. “But there’s some kind of kernel of hope that you don’t anticipate.”
Northern Boulevard is like the uncontrolled id of the city’s driving culture. The wide, noisy road is lined with car dealerships and places to buy auto accessories, like blinged-out custom rims and high-powered stereo systems. Smashed cars awaiting service at body shops are parked on the sidewalk. Storefronts advertise help for those with moving violations and points on their license. Speeding is routine. Even on Sunday night, with a police car and flares blocking the site of the vigil, impatient drivers roared past the gathering aggressively.
This drag strip of a road does not exist in a vacuum. On either side of its miles-long expanse, all through such neighborhoods as Woodside and Jackson Heights and Corona and Flushing, it intersects with small residential streets. These are lined with tidy, modest houses – the homes of countless children who must contend with the traffic on Northern Boulevard every day on their way to and from school, countless adults on their way to work, countless seniors doing errands.
This is the unseen, unglamorous backbone of New York, a solidly working-class and mostly immigrant neighborhood that powers the city. Most of the families here have come from nations with less economic opportunity, in the hopes that their children will get a good education and a chance at a better life.
But some things in New York just don’t make sense to them. One Bangladeshi man told me he didn’t understand how the conditions on Northern Boulevard were allowed to persist in a democratic society.
“Our children are America’s future,” said Shimu passionately. “But we have never had a safeguard here.”
Syed Rahman, a neighborhood resident with two daughters at P.S. 152, saw Noshat as he lay in the street after being hit. “We need more safety here,” he said. “Everybody needs it. It doesn’t matter where you come from. All people bleed the same.”
Elected representatives from this part of Queens are now responding to the new calls for action to make the streets here safer. Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer, who represents the district, was in attendance. State Sen. Michael Gianaris on Monday went to the spot where Noshat died to announce his introduction of legislation in Albany that would make it a felony to kill or seriously injure someone while driving with a suspended license.
Among those who showed up to stand with Noshat Nahian’s family in the rain on Sunday night were some of the only people who can fully understand the pain they are feeling. The family of 19-year-old Luis Bravo, who was struck by a hit-and-run driver on nearby Broadway in September, was there, as were the families of 12-year-old Sammy Cohen Eckstein, killed by a van driver in Brooklyn in October, and 3-year-old Allison Liao, killed by an SUV driver while in a Flushing crosswalk with her grandmother, also in October.
Bravo’s sister and mother stood with a sign reading “We Miss You…Brother.” Liao’s mother was handing out pink rubber bracelets that said, “Pause. Ask. Is It Worth It?” the same question she and her husband asked at another emotional rally in November. Cohen Eckstein’s mother, Amy Cohen, was giving out little photo books that showed a smiling Sammy as he grew from an infant to boy just shy of his 13th birthday and on the eve of his bar mitzvah.
The note at the front of the book reads:
When there’s a will, there’s a way… We urge you to make traffic safety and enforcement a priority. Do something now. Be bold. New Yorkers die in great numbers from motor vehicle crashes – nearly one every 33 hours. Seventeen children have been killed in 2013. Please remember Sammy and these other children. Find a way to make our streets safer.
Cohen, who testified at a city council hearing about traffic safety along with Sammy’s father and sister after he was killed in October, said she and many others plan to show up at De Blasio’s inauguration January 1. “We will be there,” she told me with a weary smile. “We’re going to say, Vision Zero needs to start today.”
Inset photo by Sarah Goodyear