Posts about Ghost Bike
(All the buzz over the ghost bikes at Dupont Circle made me wonder: who are the people caught up in this controversy anyway? I used a recent assignment for a feature writing class I'm enrolled in as an excuse to tackle the question.)
Ruth E. Rowan and Legba Carrefour aren't the likeliest of pairs.
Rowan, 59, a part-time finance professor at Clark University in Massachusetts, describes herself as a pragmatist. She graduated from MIT's Sloan School of Business in 1977, and worked in corporate finance for more than 25 years. Though semi-retired now, she remains a member of the Boston Security Analysts Society, a networking organization for financial analysts.
She attends church services regularly, along with her husband, Brian Swanson, at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Northborough, MA, the small suburban town in Eastern Massachusetts where she lives. Brian, a mechanical engineer who has a number of patents to his name--including one for a resuscitation device for use during medical emergencies--served as the church's vice president for finances.
Phillip Blair, Rowan's brother-in-law and an information officer for the World Bank, put it this way: "Ruth's certainly not some wild hippy."
Legba, in contrast, would likely welcome some variation of such a title. Carrefour, 27, a life-long resident of Washington, DC and a graduate of the University of District of Columbia, has described himself, at times, as an artist, an activist, and an anarchist.
He's not the sort of person who prefers to hold down a nine-to-five job, though he never seems to be short of a gig. One of Legba's friends, Jesse Hinson, a bicycle messenger from Washington, ticks off a few of them to me: DJ, comic book retailer, bike mechanic.
Unlike Rowan, who has only a sparse presence online, Legba leaves a heavy footprint in cyberspace. He comments frequently on articles and blogs, sharing fringe but articulate thoughts on topics ranging from political philosophy, to graffiti, to whether the participatory Burning Man Arts Festival is welcoming enough to minorities. While many online commentors hide behind pseudonyms, Legba has no qualms about signing his name to his contributions.
At one point, Legba was kicked out of Virginia Tech and sent to jail for two months--for making anti-racism and anti-rape graffiti. He was arrested in 2000 for laying in the middle of the street during a rally to free Abu-Jamal, a former black panther convicted of killing a police officer. He's been arrested during IMF protests. "I get really pumped up [by the confrontational stuff]," he once told the Washington Post.
Legba lists Grant Morrison, a comic book illustrator known for non-linear narratives, as somebody he admires. He's a fan of Playground Anarchism--an informal group of activists who encourage each other to embrace their inner child and savor the "surge of adrenaline that comes from almost getting caught doing/being some form of 'naughty.' "
Like his work history, Legba's appearance is such that many in the button-down city of Washington--brimming with its lobbyists, hill staffers, and bureaucrats--surely dismiss him as a loser and a freak. On his Facebook page, Legba's profile photo shows him wearing white makeup and what appears to be a black vinyl bra and a dog collar. He has a lip ring. He looks like he'd fit in during a Marilyn Manson concert. And he rides a bicycle.
Indeed, it is bicycles that made this unlikely pair--so many years and states apart--aware of each other's existence. Legba, who doesn't own a car, bicycles everywhere just to get around the city. Decades ago, when she was an analyst working in Washington, Ruth did the same.
Ruth use to ride every day from her apartment in Washington Circle, where she lived then, to Capitol Hill, where she worked. "Cyclists were such a rare occurrence back then, especially women, that I remember the police officers use to cheer for me when I was coming up the hill next to the Capitol," she recalls.
As time went on, she bicycled less frequently, but she passed the habit on to her daughter, Alice Swanson, who also used to ride to work regularly when she was an associate at IREX, a non-profit headquartered on K Street, in Washington in 2008. Alice who graduated from Amherst College in 2007 with a degree in history, loved Washington, according to her mother. "She was so full of life there," she said.
Her stay in Washington, however, was brief. Alice, then 22, was struck and killed by a man driving a garbage truck while she was bicycling to work on July 8 , 2008. At the time of the collision, which occurred near Dupont Circle at the corner of Connecticut and R Street in broad daylight, Alice, a novice rider, was riding in a bike lane and wearing a helmet. Neither of those facts, however, stopped the massive truck--which weighed tens of thousands of pounds--from laying waste to her small frame.
Her mother hasn't ridden her bike since. Her father, too, has stopped bicycle commuting, which he used to do frequently and was doing the moment Alice died. "We just can't bring ourselves to ride anymore," she says to me over the phone, her voice cracking.
The day after Alice's death, stunned by the unusual circumstances of the collision, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA), with the full support and encouragement of the Swanson family, installed a ghost bike--an old bicycle painted completely white with flowers on it--near the intersection Alice had been struck. At a dedication ceremony WABA's Executive Director, Eric Gilliland, called it: "a quiet statement in support of cyclist' right to safe travel."
Alice's ghost bike was part of a trend, which has spread through many cities in recent years, to install the white bikes in the wake of fatal automobile-cycling accidents. The bikes, advocates say, serve dual purposes: to honor the memory of fallen cyclists but also to remind both motorists and cyclists to tread carefully when sharing crowded streets.
For fifteen months, Alice's ghost bike sat on one of the most prominent corners in Washington. Some thirty people, according to Alice's uncle Phillip Blair, an anthropologist and information officer for the World Bank, cared for the bike, including family members, friends, and other cyclists from DC. Alice's aunt, a landscape architect in the Washington area, often used to put fresh flowers in the bike's front basket.
"It was really remarkable--so many people came together to do this," recalled Blair.
But the bike didn't last. This summer, the city received a complaint from Ed Grandis, the executive director of the Dupont Circle Merchant and Professional Association about Alice's ghost bike. It was in an "eye sore"; it was in "significant disrepair"; it was "not a memorial"; it should come down.
The Mayor's office reached out to the District Department of Transportation, which reached out to WABA. "We got a message on Thursday that they were going to take it down the next day," said Gilliland. WABA asked the Mayor's office for some more time, so that they might notify the family before the bike was removed. The Mayor's Office, Gilliland says, agreed to wait until the following Monday.
By the next day, however, the bike was gone. It's not clear why, though Gilliland suspects it may have been an administrative snafu. By filing a FOIA request, DC blogger Dave Stroup obtained internal emails from the city suggesting that officials indeed believed the family would retrieve the bicycle on Friday.
Nonetheless, WABA wasn't able to reach the Swanson family before the bike came down, though they had tried. The DC branch of the Swanson family, meanwhile, had heard absolutely nothing from the city, says Blair. Nor had Ruth in Massachusetts.
As a result, Alice Swanson's family was furious. Blair, part of a neighborhood advisory committee in DC, already had a long list of complaints about the Mayor and the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) and this was the last straw. The family returned fire against the city on August 29 by planting flowers where Alice's bike used to stand and a small sign that read: "Why has the mayor taken the bike?"
Eleven days later, however, the story took a twist that only somebody like Legba could provide. Legba's been hit by cars before, and he isn't impressed with the city's efforts to make the city's roads safer for cyclists and pedestrians. Though he didn't know Alice, or anybody in the Swanson family, as part protest, part public art project, he rounded up some friends, and, in the early morning hours of September 10th, arrayed twenty-two replacement ghost bikes--one for every year of Alice Swanson's life--around the intersection.
Twenty-one of these ghost bikes were unlocked. He didn't expect those to stick around very long. One, intended to be the permanent replacement for Alice's original ghost bike, was locked.
Legba created a website using Wordpress blog software called Alice Swanson Rides Again. On the site, he teased the Mayor's office, implying that perhaps they'd mistaken Alice's bike for an "escaped white lion." He explained that he hoped that his action would inspire the city to see public space as something for public use; that he hoped that this would focus the mayor's attention on improving the situation for cyclists; and that he hoped that the bikes would bring some warmth to the family and friends of Alice Swanson.
But he made one thing abundantly clear: "What we're not hoping for is for the Mayor's office to put the bike back. We put it back. And if it leaves again, we'll put it back again. And again. And again. And this time, the ghost bike stays," Legba wrote.
Local media picked up the story and ran with it. The Post, the Examiner, City Paper, and local blogs such as DCist, Greater Greater Washington, Why I Hate DC, and WashCycle followed developments closely. Vitriolic squabbling quickly broke out on discussion boards
A number of commentors on the DCist blog, in particular, didn't appreciate Legba's ghost bike installation. "He's indulging his own 'anarchist art' while hiding behind a tragic death," said one. Another compared Legba's ghost bikes to "taking a dump on the sidewalk, putting a tiny American flag on it, and calling it 'a bold statement about cultural hegemony.' One saw Legba's Facebook profile, concluded he had to be worse than Hitler given his looks, and insisted on referring to him as a "her" from then on. Another expressed a sustained interest in physically harming him.
A few days later the commenter got his wish. Legba, presumably by coincidence, was struck by a motorist in Adams Morgan. Unlike Alice, Legba's injuries were minor.
Within 17 days, the city had rounded up and removed all twenty-two of the ghost bikes, despite the fact that they had put notes on them prior stating that the official policy was to leave abandoned bikes, such as these, in place for 30 days. Perhaps that's because, at one point, Legba called the city to inform them that, no, these weren't abandoned bikes.
Legba vowed to add more. He told reporters that he already had bikes painted and ready to go, but that because of the accident--irony of ironies, as he noted in an email to DCist--he was still laid up and wouldn't be able to install them just yet.
At this point, I emailed Legba asking for an interview. I'd wanted to hear his take on recent events and, if possible, witness him install the next ghost bike. He responds, yeah, sure, great idea. He sends me his cell phone number. Call him anytime, he says. So, I do; he doesn't answer for a few days. Finally, many calls later, I get him. He tells me his cell phone fell in the toilet, so I'm on speaker-phone on the landline.
We can't hear each other well, but he says there's a problem. He needs to check with the Alice's family, make sure it's ok with them before we talk. People have been saying on the blogs that he just did it for attention, he says, and that seems to bother him. He assures me he'll call be back in two hours. Ok, I say. Sounds good.
He actually calls, but after a few seconds we get cut off. It sounds like he's on the Metro. Or did he hang up on me? I call and email him numerous times over the next few days. Nothing. "That's typical Legba," his friend tells me.
So I call Alice's mom in Massachusetts to check in with her. Unlike Legba, I get her immediately. She sounds like the sweetest lady--and assures me that's she's completely supportive and deeply touched by Legba's ghost bikes. She doesn't mind that his past is a bit checkered; she's just glad that somebody did something. "The city should have given us notice," she said.
I email and call Legba to tell him Alice's mother is on board. Still nothing. My deadline comes--and goes. Still nothing from Legba. Perhaps his phone is still in the toilet. Or maybe, like the Twitter account he has with only five tweets, he's simply moved on to other things, other causes.
Eventually, I come out and ask both Ruth and Blair the questions that are really on my mind. What are we to make of this guy and his ghost bike stunt? Ought the media be holding Legba
"Look," Blair says. "The thing is that Legba actually did something. This is an analogy, since I don't know Legba well, and analogy is never really fair, but I know other people like Legba, and I treasure them. They're the people you count on to say, wait a minute, when the emperor's parading around with no clothes," he says, in reference to what he considers Mayor Fenty's and DDOT's long history of bungling not only Alice's ghost bike, but a whole array of pedestrian and cycling issues.
Ruth, though less preoccupied with DC politics, agrees. She'd love to see Alice's ghost bike resurrected, or perhaps some other more permanent ghost bike memorial, and whether it's Legba, or the Mayor, or other DC cyclists who resurrect it isn't a major concern to her. "I'm just so grateful," she said, that "Legba was so touched by Alice, and that she had such an impact on him, even though they had never met."
In fact, she said, she'd like to get in touch with Legba to send him some coffee. She orders bulk batches from a specialty provider, she says, and packages it as "Alice's Blend." It's a type of fair trade coffee from Nicaragua, she explained, where Alice spent some time during college. She likes to give it away to friends as a way of remembering Alice and sharing her story.
And, in her book at least, Legba definitely qualifies.
Crossposted at Bicycle Transportation Examiner.
Dave Stroup of why.i.hate.dc has tracked down the gory details of the ghost bike removal.
In a nutshell, the request originated with Ed Grandis, who runs a Dupont Circle based group called DC MAP with significant overlap with Historic Dupont Circle Main Streets. The next week, the Mayor's Ward 2 specialist Andrew Huff asked DPW to cut the bike down within 24 hours, calling it a "mayoral request." DDOT's Jim Sebastian tried to give WABA a chance to remove the bike, getting Huff to agree to wait until Monday; however, DPW didn't get Huff's note in time and cut it anyway.
Following the outcry, Mayoral, DPW, and DDOT officials debated what to do. Some of the Mayor's people were willing to set up a permanent memorial, but DPW opposed the idea, as did other mayoral staff, and they collectively decided to refuse to give a better answer to inquiries.
From our previous discussions on this topic, I know commenters' opinions are divided on a permanent memorial, and I'm not sure if I'd endorse it either. The bigger question, as Stroup notes, is why a request from one local organization turned into an urgent priority on the part of the Mayor. Had the Mayor's office simply contacted Sebastian without such a short deadline, he would have talked to WABA, they would probably have taken the bike down, and that would have been it.
Stroup had to pay $65 in copying fees to get all of this. This is a good example of why it's important for bloggers to be considered news media and given the exemption to FOIA fees that journalists are entitled to. In this case, Stroup is digging up important information about the workings of the government that are interesting to the public, and publishing it. That's called journalism.
There are two unrelated pieces of news involving bicycles and public art this morning. First, despite DDOT's signs that said the ghost bikes at Connecticut and R would be removed in 10 days, DC workers hauled them away yesterday. Was this another miscommunciation between DDOT and DPW? DDOT seemed to be making an effort to at least handle the issue in a less haphazard way, but then whoever did the hauling and whoever made the decision to order it fell back into the same pattern that triggered the controversy in the first place. It's disappointing.
Left: DC workers haul away the ghost bikes. Photo by Eric Gilliland.
Right: Proposal for the "Bicycle Musician" public art at 18th and Columbia.
Second, the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities has picked the "Bicycle Musician" (above right) as the piece of public art for the corner of 18th and Columbia in Adams Morgan. Many residents dislike the piece, and KCA President Denis James editorialized against it. It was my least favorite of the three, as well, and doesn't provide seating while the other two do. In our poll, it came in last.
While there's no way people can agree on art, this does seem like one area where decisionmakers should lean toward deferring to community wishes. The Adams Morgan listserv thread alludes to some kind of poll taken to choose a finalist, but the DCCAH Web site has no information about the results. Or perhaps people are confusing our poll with being something official, as at least one poster did. There's also no announcement of the decision or any other information on the DCCAH site, their Twitter feed, or their blog.
22 white "ghost bikes" appeared this morning around the intersection of 20th and R where Alice Swanson was killed last year. DC officials removed the bike last week without notice to the family. In response, some folks put 22 ghost bikes back, one for each year of Alice's life. They say they will continue to replace the bikes over and over as long as the city cuts them down.
As for the serious improvements to the intersection, WashCycle noted yesterday that the "yield to bikes" sign may be in the wrong place: it looks like it ought to appear before the intersection of 20th and R, not after. The sign says "begin right turn lane," but the right turn lane begins farther back than the sign. You can see the sign in the above picture.
Stephen led this morning with a summary of Friday's ghost bike outrage, where city employees callously cut off the ghost bike memorial to Alice Swanson at 20th and R, NW without notifying the family. In fact, they'd told WABA they were planning to do it, but promised to wait a few days for the family to be able to come get the bike, then reversed course and cut it off before the deadline.
Some of the debate has revolved around whether it's reasonable to expect these ghost bikes to remain in perpetuity. Monkeyrotica pointed out that memorials to shooting victims don't remain forever, either. And obviously, if all roadside memorials lasted forever, the city would eventually fill up with them. The memorial didn't need to stay forever. WABA suggested that the city replace it with a small sign or plaque.
The real issue is not the memorial, but the city's callous treatment of the entire issue. Over a year after the crash, the city has not made any improvements to the intersection except for painting dashed lines across the intersection. The police have still not released their report of the incident. After ignoring the safety issue for a year, the Mayor's office only took action when a few businesses complained, and then couldn't be bothered to treat the issue with the respect due Swanson's family.
According to WABA's Eric Gilliland, WABA asked for three safety improvements:
- Extend the bike lane with dashed lines all the way through the intersection as a visual reminder to drivers that, if turning right, they'd be potentially crossing cyclists' paths.
- Add a bike box, so that bicycles can pull ahead of the cars when waiting. That would ensure the cars can see the bikes, and won't turn into them.
- Make the light at 20th and R no right turn on red.
- Add a sign saying "Yield to Bikes."
Swanson's family and bicycle advocates have also been trying to get a copy of the police report. Thus far, the police have refused. WashCycle got an informal look at a redacted version, where the police seem to go out of their way to blame the cyclist for getting hit. The investigating officer concludes that the truck driver didn't violate any laws, but, according to WashCycle, implies that Swanson violated the law against moving faster than is "reasonable and prudent."
That's right, the MPD investigating officer thinks Alice SwansonMeanwhile, the truck apparently did break the law, whether or not the police particularly care about said law. If you're turning right in a car, and there is a bicycle lane, you are supposed to move into the bicycle lane before making the turn. You should signal and look over your shoulder to move into the lane, just as if there were a regular car lane to the right. Turning from the car lane is the same as making a right turn from the left-hand lane when there are two regular lanes. It's illegal.
— who was biking a half mile to work in flip flops and light clothing on a 10 speed Huffy Free Spirit that is no longer manufactured — died because she was biking too fast. Read that again, they think she died because she was biking too fast.
According to the report, the truck driver didn't see Swanson. There's no reason to disbelieve that. But that doesn't mean the driver bears no blame whatsoever. Too often, however, police assume that cyclists are the ones responsible for not getting themselves hit, and if a car or truck driver doesn't see a cyclist, that's just too bad for the cyclist. Yes, driving is tricky and mistakes happen, but that doesn't excuse drivers from being careful. But since more people drive than bike, especially police officers, many people imagine themselves in the position of being the driver who inadvertently kills a cyclist than the cyclist who gets killed because a driver was inattentive and didn't follow proper procedure.
As for the memorial, the Mayor's office told WABA they were going to cut it down. WABA asked for time to notify the family, and the city told WABA they had until Monday. Instead, DPW simply cut it off Friday. This could be no more than a case of bureaucratic miscoordination. But the city had many opportunities to show greater concern for bicycle safety. They could have done more to improve the intersection. They could be forthright about the police report, and train officers on the correct application of laws to bicycle crashes. And they could come up with an appropriate, long-term way to memorialize Alice Swanson. They didn't.
Gilliland said, "[The memorial] was very personal and very meaningful, not just to the family and Alice's friends but to the cycling community as a whole. The event was absolutely tragic and hit the whole bike community very hard. This ghost bike was a symbol of that And monkeyrotica wrote, "Having a simple removal ceremony or mounting a small plaque would have cost almost nothing and generated a lot of goodwill. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem a major concern of the Mayor's office." Despite being a triathlete and bicycling for exercise, improving bicycle safety hasn't been a priority for the Mayor. Montgomery's Ike Leggett said he was getting serious about traffic safety after witnessing a pedestrian killed in East County. What will it take for Adrian Fenty to get similarly serious?
And monkeyrotica wrote, "Having a simple removal ceremony or mounting a small plaque would have cost almost nothing and generated a lot of goodwill. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem a major concern of the Mayor's office." Despite being a triathlete and bicycling for exercise, improving bicycle safety hasn't been a priority for the Mayor. Montgomery's Ike Leggett said he was getting serious about traffic safety after witnessing a pedestrian killed in East County. What will it take for Adrian Fenty to get similarly serious?
killed just over a year ago after being run over by a garbage truck at 20th and R streets, NW. City Paper has the most complete account of what happened to the ghost bike; it seems DPW removed it after receiving complaints from unidentified local business owners, without first informing WABA or Swanson's family or friends. DCist's Aaron Morrissey explains why it's important to keep the memorial in place. Ghost bikes exist around the world without controversy. Why does DPW feel that DC should be different? In lieu of a ghost bike, Swanson's aunt has placed flowers at the site with a simple posted question: "Why has the mayor taken the bike?"
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