Grieving Sunset Park community demands change after another cyclist is killed

July 31, 2019 Editorial Staff
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A vigil for Em Samolewicz, the 18th cyclist killed in New York City traffic this year, was held on the site of her death at the corner of 36th Street and Third Avenue on Tuesday, July 30.

Samolewicz — a 30-year-old Massachusetts native, local artist and yoga instructor — was fatally struck by a truck on Monday after swerving to avoid a parked car’s open door. She was the second cyclist killed on that avenue (another fatality on the strip involved a pedestrian) and the 13th cyclist killed in Brooklyn this year.   

Councilmember Carlos Menchaca, who represents the area, organized the vigil, which was attended by Rep. Nydia Velazquez and Councilmember Brad Lander, as well as cyclist advocates, community leaders and neighbors. Those who spoke memorialized Samolewicz but also called on Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city to take greater action in ensuring cyclists’ safety.

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“As a city, we need to make a decision whether or not we are going to embrace cycling as a transportation mode,” Velazquez said. “I want to use this moment to remind the city of New York, to remind the mayor: these are lives, these are our neighbors.”

The mayor has called the 18 cyclists death, up from 10 all of last year, a crisis and accelerated his “Vision Zero” plan, as well as unveiling a almost-60 million “Green Wave” plan, which both aim to add protected bike lanes and increase cyclist safety.

With 10 of the 18 cyclists killed by trucks and given the major development plans for the area that may increase the amount of trucks on neighborhood streets, Community Board 7 Chair Cesar Zuniga said it is more important than ever to conduct a study on the impact of trucks on local traffic issues.

“When I first learned what had happened, I was horrified, but my horror quickly turned to anger,” Zuniga said, “The community board has been asking for over a year to have a truck study done in this district, and for over a year, we have been ignored. And my question to the city is, how many more people have to die before we undertake a truck study?”

Lea Bender, an instructor at Samolewicz’s yoga studio, Jaya Yoga, spoke fondly of her and read a passage from Samolewicz’s teacher-training application. 

“There’s nothing quite like coming off of a beautiful class, I’ve felt that many times,” Bender read. “I hope to continue to and I hope to be able to offer that someday. To use what I know in a healing fashion to make space for transgender and gender nonconforming people in yoga, for poor people in yoga and for self discovery. Because I have a lot to learn and I can’t actually imagine I could ask for much more.” 

Samolewicz was supposed to start her training this week. 

“Em was a very kind, soulful, sweet and brave individual,” Bender told Brooklyn Reporter. “She was very loved by our community and I think the least we can do is try to make these streets safer for other bikers in her honor.”

Lander, whose district is adjacent to Sunset Park, said, “We are not treating [cyclists’ safety] like it is a matter of life and death, we are not treating it with the urgency that it requires,” and called on de Blasio and others to accelerate efforts to improve cyclist safety.

Mirza Molberg, founder of Ghost Bikes, an organization that memorializes cyclists that have been killed on New York City streets, lost his girlfriend Lauren Davis to the same kind of accident in Clinton Hill three years ago. He said that not only elected officials but every member of the community can do something to prevent these tragedies.

Larry Jacobs, a native New Yorker from Brooklyn Heights and lifelong cyclist, expressed frustration at editorials by publications like The New York Post which have been critical of cyclists.

“All of this nonsense delays the improvements that could save New Yorkers’ lives by demonizing us,” Jacobs told Brooklyn Reporter, emphasizing the importance of acting to ensure cyclists’ safety now. “Em, who I did not know, sounds like a beautiful person. And I would like to get to know these beautiful people while they’re alive, instead of through eulogies or memorials.”

Correction (Aug. 2 at 4:50 p.m.): A previous version of this story erroneously stated that six cyclists had been killed by trucks so far this year. The correct number is 10. The story has been updated.

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