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Where Cyclists Once Rode, Ghost Bikes Stand Vigil

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A ghost bike memorializes an unknown cyclist killed while riding in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Nellie Large for NPR
A ghost bike memorializes an unknown cyclist killed while riding in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

 

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