Around the Nation
6:02 pm
Tue August 21, 2012

Where Cyclists Once Rode, Ghost Bikes Stand Vigil

Originally published on Wed August 22, 2012 8:06 am

On a muggy summer afternoon in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a dozen people are hard at work on the patio behind a local church. They're stripping old bicycles of their brakes, cables and chains, and sanding and spray-painting them white.

But behind the lighthearted chatter, there's a more somber purpose to this gathering: They're building "ghost bikes."

Painted all white and adorned with colorful notes and flowers, ghost bikes are the cycling community's equivalent of roadside shrines dotting the highway; they mark the spot where a rider was killed in traffic.

Ryan Nuckle helped found New York City's Ghost Bike Project in 2005, after three cyclists died in a single month. "When a cyclist is killed, people feel close to that story, because you know it could be you," Nuckle says. "It could be someone you know, just as easily as it could be a stranger. So people look for a way to react and memorialize what happened. "

When the group created its first ghost bike, Nuckle says they hoped they would never have to make another one.

"And then we did, just within the span of a few weeks," Nuckle says. "Here we are, seven years later. But I think everyone here sees things changing and wants to be a part of moving that forward."

If you've never seen a ghost bike before, keep a lookout. There are more than 100 on New York City's street corners, and they've popped up in dozens of cities and 26 countries around the world.

Amanda Langworthy moved to New York City 2 1/2 years ago with her best friend, Jasmine. A few months later, Jasmine was stuck and killed while riding her bike at a busy intersection in Brooklyn.

"I mean, I guess Jasmine's funeral wasn't really very helpful for me," Langworthy says. "But we went to her bike and covered it in glitter. Someone brought a stereo and played Jasmine's favorite music, and we had this little mini-ceremony when we installed it."

Now, Langworthy is building a ghost bike for someone she's never met, but her thoughts still linger on her friend.

By late afternoon, eight bikes have been transformed, representing eight people who have died on New York's city streets.

Sully Ross and Matt Shock head out to install one, making their way through the rain from the subway stop toward the crash site on the far edge of Brooklyn.

"My understanding is that it actually took place sort of towards the middle of the road, next to that median," Ross says, pointing toward a five-way intersection sandwiched in between two cemeteries.

"The cyclist was sort of thrown off the bike, and ended up in the road, and a car hit the cyclist, and drove off," Ross says.

Ross chains the ghost bike to a stop sign, then bolts a simple plaque above it that reads, "Cyclist killed here. Rest in peace." He says he's set up ghost bikes about 20 times.

"If it's upsetting to do this, it would be so much more upsetting to not do this," Ross says. "I've witnessed crashes taking place, and I can't do anything to bring that person back. But this is a thing I can do to honor the memory of that person. So yeah, it feels like not enough, but I'd rather do this than do nothing.

Sully and Matt weave yellow and orange carnations and daisies through the bike's bare white spokes, then turn and head back toward the train.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

On some street corners, you might notice bikes painted white and adorned with colorful notes and flowers. They are ghost bikes, the cycling community's equivalent of roadside shrines that dot highways. These bikes mark the spot where a cyclist was killed in traffic.

From New York, Jordan Fletcher tells us how these memorials come to life.

JORDAN FLETCHER, BYLINE: It's a muggy summer afternoon in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and a dozen people are hard at work in the patio behind a local church.

They're stripping old bicycles of their brakes, cables and chains, and sanding and spray-painting them white.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATION)

FLETCHER: But behind the lighthearted chatter, there's a more somber purpose to this gathering: They're building ghost bikes. Ryan Nuckel helped found New York City's Ghost Bike Project back in 2005 after three cyclists died in a single month.

RYAN NUCKEL: When a cyclist is killed, people feel close to that story because you know it could be you. It could be someone you know, just as easily as it could be a stranger. So people look for a way to react and memorialize what happened.

When we put up the first ghost bike, we said we hoped we'd never have to do it again, and then we did just in the span of a few weeks. Here we are seven years later. But I think everyone here sees things changing and wants to be a part of moving that forward.

FLETCHER: If you've never seen a ghost bike before, keep a lookout. There are over a hundred on street corners around New York, and they've popped up in dozens of cities and 26 countries around the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SANDING)

AMANDA LANGWORTHY: I'm sanding the bike down to take a lot of the finish off so that it will hold the white paint.

FLETCHER: Amanda Langworthy moved to the city two and a half years ago with her best friend, Jasmine. A few months later, Jasmine was struck and killed while riding her bike at a busy intersection in Brooklyn.

LANGWORTHY: I mean, like, I guess Jasmine's funeral wasn't really very helpful for me. But we went to her bike and, like, covered it in glitter. Someone brought a stereo and played Jasmine's favorite music, and then we had this little mini ceremony when we installed it.

FLETCHER: Now, Amanda's building a ghost bike for someone she's never even met, but her thoughts still linger on her friend.

By late afternoon, eight bikes have been transformed, representing the eight people who've died in New York streets.

SULLY ROSS: I'm going to take it out to East New York, on the subway.

FLETCHER: Sully Ross and Matt Shock head out to install one.

It's raining hard as we emerge from the subway on the far edge of Brooklyn and make our way towards the crash site.

ROSS: My understanding is that it actually took place sort of towards the middle of the road, next to that median.

FLETCHER: Sully points in the direction of a five-way intersection sandwiched in between two cemeteries.

ROSS: The cyclist was sort of thrown off the bike and ended up in the road. And a car hit the cyclist and drove off.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SPEEDING VEHICLE)

FLETCHER: Sully chains the ghost bike to a stop sign, and then he bolts a simple plaque above it that reads: Cyclist killed here. Rest in peace. He says he's done this maybe 20 times.

ROSS: If it's upsetting to do this, it would be so much more upsetting to not do this. I've witnessed crashes taking place, and I can't do anything to bring that person back. But this is a thing I can do to honor the memory of that person. So, yeah, it feels like not enough, but I'd rather do this than do nothing.

That's it. We should put some flowers on it.

FLETCHER: Sully and Matt weave yellow and orange carnations and daisies through the bare white spokes, and then they turn and head back towards the train.

For NPR News, I'm Jordan Fletcher in Brooklyn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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