Meet Jessie Singer.
Jessie Singer, founding member of the New York City Ghost Bike project, gives us her Ratso-style lesson in urban planning, breaks down Robert Moses, redefines livability and engenders a need for activism.
Photo by Andrew Hinderaker.
I think that an open mind is really important to an eventual destination of a livable city.
I was born in Brooklyn, I live in the Clinton Hill area, which is where I was from when I was a little kid and where I’ve always lived as an adult. Almost always, I lived in Red Hook for a minute, which is lovely, very aquatic.
Robert Moses thought he was fucking everyone over in Red Hook, putting them into this corner, isolating them by the BQE. Really what happened is that Red Hook became a neighborhood into itself. It really did survive in a way that areas of the Bronx that got split by the Cross Bronx Expressway really didn’t.
In New York, a good neighbor, in a lot of scenarios, is one you never see, and in another, a good neighbor is one you see all the time.
Cities are inherently livable. Cities are the great product of human existence. We gravitate towards each other. We want to live in crowds piled on top of each other. Making that city more livable? It can probably be boiled down to making things personal over impersonal. Cars are always going to be impersonal; subways are always going to be personal. You have to look at your neighbor, or the guy who just pushed you, or people who don’t live in your neighborhood who have been on this train for an hour before you.
Streets and sidewalks are 80% of the city. It’s public space, 80% of the city is public space. Streets and sidewalks, that’s huge!
I think it’s important for people to open to reimagining. Be constantly willing to look at their home, and their street, and their commute and their leisure time as something that’s malleable, and can be better and can be whatever they want it to be. I mean, isn’t that the advantage of cities?
Be an active New Yorker. Whether that’s going to your community board and representing yourself there or being a sensible, vocal citizen that listens to your neighbors. Being active is the only way that anything ever gets done.
Don’t move to the block and not be the first person to host a barbeque and invite everyone over. That is your job: You’re new, meet your neighbors, get to know them, understand what their lives are like.
Represent your neighbors where you can. When populations are gentrifying neighborhoods, the gentrifying population has access to more resources, whether it’s wealth, or legal aid, or education. That’s not something to be embarrassed about, that’s something to use.
I helped start this small street art collective called Visual Resistance, and we started before the RNC to organize artists to resist the RNC. We were all bike riders because we were poor and it was fun, simply, and that was it. And then in 2005, one member was riding his bike and came upon a crash. A cyclist had been hit by a car. It had happened just moments before. It was a woman named Liz Padilla killed on Fifth Avenue in Park Slope. We had heard about a project going on in St. Louis that people were painting white bikes at the sites of bicyclist crashes. And we said, “Hey, let’s do it, just this one time.”
A strange thing happened when we did it. Something about taking this bike from a working, functioning bike, pulling off all of the working parts, watching the color change, watching the color of this bike disappear and just become this stark, entirely solid, white object, was jarring and emotional in a way that I don’t think any of us expected when we walked into the yard and opened a paint can that day.
What was so jarring about it was suddenly thinking about someone who was a stranger to all of us. We didn’t know Liz Padilla, but we were building this thing in her memorial and suddenly we felt this relationship with a stranger and called attention to that death. And we put up the bike, we made a plaque, we locked it to the corner nearest to where she was killed, and we all turned to each other and said, “Wow, that was so hard, let’s never ever do that again.”
And then a week passed, and on Houston Street, another young woman named Brandie Bailey was killed. We all looked at each other and said, “How could we not?” And so we made a bike for Brandie Bailey and it was even more emotional. And we installed it, and again, we said to each other, “Let’s never do this again.”
And then a week passed and a young man named Andrew Ross Morgan was killed, also on Houston Street, a block away. And we built a bike for him and then we couldn’t stop. And now its 80 bikes and 6 years later, the ghost bike project hasn’t changed much. It’s just a venue to make a death — that would otherwise disappear — be public and noticeable and present for a long time after the city’s new cycles have rolled. And that’s how the project started.
What we need are people to fight red-light running and failing to yield like they fight the subway fare going up.
The intended effect of ghost bikes is to look at a city that’s constantly moving and is full of death and horrible things are happening all the time on very small bits of pavement. And mark just one.
Houston Street is creepy. There’s three ghost bikes on Houston Street.
Audrey Anderson. Her son Andre was killed out in the Rockaways. I think he was 13. A young boy killed riding his BMX bike. And then Andre’s mom became an activist. A woman who never had anything to do with politics before — especially not the politics of how our streets work — became a vocal champion of how we can do better.
There’s no justice in the Ghost Bike project, and there’s no happy endings. And you’re never going to win, which is kind of, in a way, makes it not activism.
We can have a streetscape that doesn’t have casualties to it.
You know in Midnight Cowboy. “I’m walking here!” I think a true New Yorker considers themself as self-righteously deserving of everything they want. And that’s an important part of being a pedestrian, because pedestrians are the smallest, weakest part of how our streets function. What we need a pedestrian to do is say, “Fuck you, I’m going to walk here.” That “fuck you” aimed at a disrespectful driver or a cyclist who doesn’t yield or a cop that fails to enforce the traffic laws around them.
New Yorkers constantly feel like they're competing for the public turf. Because there’s not enough of it.
A New Yorker is the person who, when you’re waiting off the curb, comes and stands in front of you off the curb to be the first one to cross the street.
I remember the first time I rode Critical Mass. This was a long time ago, this was critical mass before the crackdowns, this was back when NYPD used to send a motorcade to marshal critical mass through. I rode then this rusty old ‘70s Ross cruiser, it was blue, it had a white seat and white grips, and it was cute. We met on the North Side of Union Square, and then we went up Park Avenue and through Grand Central Terminal. Through the car driving tunnel of Grand Central Terminal, you get this echo. And then we rode through Times Square, and in the middle of Times Square, with another 500 bikers around us, we all stopped and lifted our bikes above our heads. And what a view.
Riding down the West Side Highway with 500 bikers gives you a real understanding of how much space is there. And the inevitable conclusion after that is, “Oh, look how much space we’re giving to cars.”
“I want this to be different” is the biggest leap of faith involved in the process of change. Everything after that is paperwork.
If I wanted to tell people who care about their streets to help; find the nearest ghost bike and take care of it. Pull flowers off of it if they’ve died, decorate it anew, paint it, if parts are missing get in touch with us and let us know. I hope that communities and neighborhoods, feel it when a ghost bike gets put on their street. That they understand it as a mark on them, as a scar on them, that their street is unsafe, and to take care of that ghost bike, and to keep that marker.
The New York City Street Memorials Project is always in need of volunteers. To find out more about the project and how to volunteer, visit: http://ghostbikes.org/new-york-city. Jessie Singer can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org