Chelsea Now: West Siders call for end to 9th Ave. pedestrian deaths

Thomas K. Duane

June 18, 2009

A group of West Side advocates staged a funeral procession down Ninth Ave. in Hell’s Kitchen over the weekend to memorialize the pedestrians killed by vehicles on the high-traffic street in recent years.

Led by a New Orleans-style brass band playing mournful tunes, about 75 people holding white balloons marched down the avenue on Sat., June 13, to help draw attention to the deaths caused by reckless driving. The procession paused at five intersections between 45th and 37th Sts. during the march to recall six people struck down by drivers since 2001, all of whom faced little or no consequences for their actions.

“Let’s remember the human faces behind the statistics,” said City Councilmember John Liu, who is chairperson of the Council’s Transportation Committee. “That’s why we’re here—to demand change.”

The event was organized by the Hell’s Kitchen Neighborhood Association and the Clinton/Hell’s Kitchen Coalition for Pedestrian Safety (CHEKPEDS) in conjunction with the advocacy organization Transportation Alternatives.

Group members were joined by Assemblymembers Richard Gottfried and Linda Rosenthal, State Sen. Thomas Duane and two candidates for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, Richard Aborn and Cyrus Vance, Jr.

“Today’s effort has been building for a long time,” Gottfried said, calling for stepped-up enforcement by police to help avoid tragedies like these. Passing over spray-painted chalk outlines at the intersections where pedestrians had been killed—most while legally crossing the street in crosswalks—the marchers planned to install memorial plaques at each corner in memory of the victims.

CHEKPEDS co-founders Christine Berthet and Martine Treat, who have been advocating for West Side traffic safety for years, insisted that the deaths could have been prevented.

“We want the NYPD to come forward to enforce vehicular law,” said Berthet, who also co-chairs Community Board 4’s Transportation Planning Committee. While pushing for the city to treat crash scenes as crime scenes, she also asked that drivers “treat Ninth Avenue as a street—not a highway.”

In Clinton and Hell’s Kitchen, the thoroughfare experiences heavy bus and car traffic because of its proximity to the Port Authority Bus Terminal and Lincoln Tunnel. In November, a 23-year-old pregnant woman, Fabiola Grande-Coyotl, was struck and killed by a truck at 38th St. just steps from her home. Then in April, a 61-year-old art restorer and local resident, Susanne Schnitzer, was killed at 40th St. after being hit by a garbage truck. The driver was later caught in the Bronx but not charged.

“This is not news, because it happens all the time,” said Rosenthal, adding that vehicles had already hit two people that day elsewhere in the city. “Pedestrians are the important ones, not the cars.” Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, noted that a New Yorker is killed in traffic every 36 hours.

“These tragedies are not accidents. They are, in fact, preventable,” he said, calling on both the city and state to take further measures to ensure pedestrian safety. “We can drive fatalities and injuries to near zero if we can get with the program.”

Making a rare appearance at a public event considering his involvement in the current situation in Albany, Duane said he was glad to be back in his district—but upset over the reason why. “Everyone who gets behind the wheel of any vehicle absolutely has to be held responsible for the safety of every pedestrian in our city,” he said as the group stopped at 40th St. to remember Schnitzer. “We are all precious.”