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Popular anthropology for everyone.

The boulevard of death

Ghost bikes and spontaneous shrines in New York City

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Death came for cyclist Alexander Martinez on September 25, 2012. When he was killed by a hit-and-run driver on his birthday, he was in the middle of his daily 11-mile commute along Queens Boulevard, a massive New York City artery slicing through more than half the length of Queens.

The heavily trafficked passageway lined with subway stops and businesses is as much as 12 lanes wide in some spots, and the width of the street and the density of traffic along it has won it the grim sobriquet of 'The Boulevard of Death' for the fatalities that have occurred along the roadway for more than a half century.

Like other grieving families before them, Martinez's family and friends flocked to the scene of the accident at Hoover Avenue in Kew Gardens and left a scatter of modest things: balloons marking his birthday, flowers, and pictures.

American roadsides are home to a vast range of similar impromptu memorials: some are anonymous and modest crosses at the scene of a tragedy, some are personally idiosyncratic offerings evoking the victim immediately after their death, and others are elaborate and well-maintained commemorations.

These memorials may at least initially be impromptu expressions of individual commemoration, but they have significant public consequence in their capacity to transform how we socially experience urban space, express the ways we value our scores of anonymous neighbours and press the state to uphold its responsibility to provide safety for its citizens.

Increasingly more memorials are long-term maintained sites; many include artistic representations of tragedy; local municipalities and states are attempting to impose their own interests on roadside memorialisation; and many memorials extend from a mundane streetscape into the digital world.

One of these artistic representations of tragedy sits not far up Queen's Boulevard from the scene of Alexander Martinez's fatal accident. Near 55th Street and Queen's Boulevard sits a bright white bicycle chained to a light post.

On February 28th, 2008 Asif Rahman was riding his bike at that spot when he was hit by a truck and died instantly. The 'ghost bike' memorialising it is one of about 98 completely white 'ghost' bikes chained near the scene of a cycling fatality in New York City.

The New York Street Memorial project began marking bike fatality scenes with the bike memorials in 2007, building on the Right of Way project's inspiration to materialize a fatality by stencilling streetscapes that were the scenes of deaths.

Like the street stencils, ghost bikes aspire to rob the cityscape of its capacity to efface everyday experiences such as a bike fatality or allow such spaces of tragedy become anonymous once more. The bikes function symbolically as 'open wounds' that invest the otherwise semi-automatic cityscape with a trauma that disrupts our unquestioned and unreflective movement through that landscape.

On a typically bleak Queens street, Asif's white bike adorned with flowers and a happy picture breaks aesthetically with the surrounding cityscape and illuminates the profound consequence of the most mundane places, anonymous lives, and modest regulations.

Roadside shrines spring up when people are trying to memorialise a loved one lost in the sudden and unexpected tragedy of an auto or cycling accident. These fatalities are what might be loosely termed 'bad' deaths, commemorating someone lost in the midst of youth or without some trajectory that strikes us as 'natural.'

These shrines derive much of their power from their place at the scene of an accident, placing a concrete event in a particular place and compelling communities to acknowledge this as tragedy. Streets are inevitably forgettable aesthetic experiences, so a death on an isolated stretch of interstate or in a densely built up area like Queen's Boulevard risks effacing the loss spatially.

Most of the markers on the shoulders of American roadways spontaneously commemorate the victims of automobile accidents. While these memorials appear to have become more common in the past few decades and may illuminate some fresh apprehension of roadways, the roadside memorial tradition evokes the trail-side burials left along the arteries settlers blazed into the American West.

The phenomenon is not restricted to the US: In Australia, for instance, an astounding one in five auto accident fatalities is commemorated by a roadside memorial, and a catalogue of its roadside memorials reveals exceptionally complex markers and a diverse range of commemorations.

In the Ukraine, markers are traditionally placed at the site of tragedy and dot Ukrainian roadsides.

A French study by anthropologist Laetitia Nicolas inventoried markers and elements of roadside shrines throughout the country, with some thorough ethnographically researched studies of some shrines.

Ghost Bike, by Light and Motion
Ghost bike with a bouquet. Photo by Light and Motion

These spontaneous shrines raise compelling questions that reflect how we manage tragedy and loss and how we collectively approach public space.

Anthropologist Sylvia Grider provides perhaps one of the most systematic analyses of such roadside shrines, placing roadside memorials within a continuum of spontaneous shrines at sites of everyday tragedy including auto fatalities, ghost bikes, and gun violence as well as relatively unique events like Ground Zero and the site of the Columbine High School shootings.

While most are firmly rooted in a place of mortality, some are more 'placeless' tragedies, like the ritual offerings that began to appear at the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial as soon as the Wall opened in 1982 (all of which are collected by the Park Service).

Many roadside memorials are anonymous, simple crosses that borrow a horizontal surface—like a sign post, guardrails, or fence-line outside lawn mowers' reach. Others are exceptionally complex installations that grow over time and are well-maintained.

At least one firm manufactures crosses specifically for use as roadside memorials, but in the thousands of online pictures of roadside shrines nearly all appear to be homemade. Grider contends that roadside memorials and comparable spontaneous shrines as folk art that has no especially clear guidelines, but there are certain common material elements that the rest of us recognize as memorialisation, such as flowers, candles, and objects linked to the deceased or the event that are left at the site of the tragedy as ritual offerings.

The vast majority of roadside shrines and memorials are testaments to auto accidents. Jack Santino sees spontaneous shrines as public political statements illuminating a concrete social ill, with roadside memorials often speaking at least implicitly against drunk driving and explicitly trying to simply manage incomprehensible tragedy.

In his interviews with 309 individuals who contributed to 127 memorials, Art Jepson found that 95% of shrines are erected by family members, and 80% were erected by women. Interestingly, every single person he interviewed believed that the shrine site—the place where the commemorated drew their last breaths—was more significant than the gravesite itself.

Jack Santino approaches these shrines as commemorative mechanisms placed in the public landscape that often invoke genuine social activism. Asif Rahman's family, for instance, has become a vocal proponent for bike lanes and advocates for 'complete streets' accommodating cars and pedestrians alike.

Ghost bikes tend to advocate for cyclists' rights, since rallies are held at such sites and derive much of their power from the appeal of surviving family and the power of the stark white bike separated from the urban landscape.

It is not entirely clear how the visual appeal of these bikes moves pedestrians to political action, though, or if the white bikes do anything more than provide an aesthetic break in repetitious urban movement.

Ghost bikes and roadside memorials are consciously positioned in public space, and some communities have aspired to manage or even erase such public commemorations, but such efforts rarely meet with success or public sympathy.

An Akron, Ohio law decrees that memorials must be removed within 45 days; South Carolina erects official roadside memorial signs, as does Wyoming, and Illinois has a DUI Memorial Sign program; and various communities are debating removing these shrines entirely and joining the 15 states that outlaw them entirely (see Art Jepson's 2007 review of all American state codes on roadside memorials).

A variety of observers routinely campaign against roadside shrines, arguing that they are distractions and violations of public property law that simultaneously trigger new accidents (though there is absolutely no evidence indicating that any wrecks have been caused by roadside shrines or by pedestrians erecting them).

However, apprehensions of ghost bikes and roadside shrines are more firmly rooted in their stark public statement that the most semi-automatic of all activities—driving, walking, and cycling—can be fatal. Roadside shrines turn one of the most unacknowledged of all activities—literally moving through city space—into a potentially dangerous activity inspiring apprehension.

Photographer Lloyd Wolf complicates the same cityscape (and underscores the racialized dangers of moving through cities) with his images of spontaneous memorials at the scenes of victims of violence in Washington D.C.

Communities routinely maintain such memorials, seeing them as communal acknowledgement of the importance of even anonymous lives in metropolises like New York. For instance, a ghost bike at First Avenue and 49th Street in Manhattan commemorates Amelia Geocos, who died in a cycling accident there in 2008.

The bike is maintained by Geocos's family and sits alongside the Beekman Tower Hotel, where "the doormen have made it part of their job to stand guard over it. 'You always try to see that it's not tampered with and make sure things are not removed,' said one of the doormen, Richard Branker. 'Some things shouldn't be touched.'"

These shrines and roadside installations root tragedy in places we might normally ignore, appealing to our shared humanity to acknowledge tragedy and ideally change the conditions that allowed such accidents to occur.

Much of what we know about these shrines is relatively impressionistic, though, and we do not have particularly systematic inventories of the sorts of things that appear in shrines; the frequency of markers is not clearly mapped; their size and spatial arrangement remains undefined; the duration of the shrines varies widely; the geographic and cultural distinctions in patterns are unclear; and the ethnographic complexities of why particular people erect shrines remains only impressionistically documented.

A narrative on roadside memorials based on such rigorously analysed material patterns would certainly tell a distinctive story about society and grief.

Roadside shrines spring up when people are trying to memorialize a loved one lost in the sudden and unexpected tragedy of an auto or cycling accident

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Full Size Image
Ghost Bike by flickr user M.V. Jantzen [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
Ghost Bike by flickr user M.V. Jantzen [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]