The Last Seconds in the Life of Jose Alzorriz

This is a split second before Jose Alzorriz (right) was killed just waiting for a light.
This is a split second before Jose Alzorriz (right) was killed just waiting for a light.

The dashcam video is merciless. But three weeks on, I can’t stop staring at the still pic.

On the right, Jose Alzorriz, on his bicycle, waits at the light. In front of him and to the left, filling the frame, two cars veer, weirdly aslant. The nearer one, a minivan, is pitching on two wheels.

Under a blue August sky, an abyss is opening. A second from now, Jose will be erased.

Yet in the photograph, time is stopped. The puffy clouds on the horizon over Brooklyn’s Coney Island Avenue suggest endless possibilities. Across the intersection, Pomegranate, the kosher supermarket, beckons.

Jose has seen the collision. The minivan is angled forward to the right, seemingly clear of him and the crosswalk before which he waits. But the car that ran the traffic light has rammed the minivan with such force that it is lurching not just to the right but backwards as well.

Jose Alzorriz, has no chance. Seen in his last living moment, he is lean, lanky, alert, alive. Later, we learn that he was a 52-year-old translator, journalist and triathlete, an immigrant from Spain living in Park Slope. He was returning from a swim at Brighton Beach.

The event is both singular and commonplace. Singular because the confluence captured in the photograph is unique; indeed, it is surreal, almost beyond belief.

The commonplace part is the danger that is ever-present in our streets, that at any moment can erupt and swallow lives.

The costs of this danger are immense – death, disability, disfigurement for those struck; for all of us, disenfranchisement from our streets, sidewalks and neighborhoods.

There’s a growing sense that Vision Zero — New York City’s commitment to curb traffic deaths — has hit an impasse. As Aaron Naparstek pointed out in this space last week, Vision Zero has no mechanism for detecting and sequestering dangerous drivers like Mirza Baig, the 18-year-old Queens resident who blasted through the red light on Coney Island Avenue and made the minivan an instrument of death. It has no program to make over the NYPD from enablers of drivers to their governors, or failing that, to remove the police from traffic enforcement and end the charade that they are part of the safe-streets equation. And its vision for our streets is little more than as traffic sewers, with an occasional bike lane or public plaza thrown in.

Safe-streets advocates have been sketching programs and policies to counter traffic violence for years. Officials like Brooklyn Council Member Brad Lander, journalists like Naparstek and Aaron Gordon, and advocates like Families for Safe Streets are brimming with them. It is past time for their ideas to be taken off the shelf and given serious mayoral and council consideration.

Yes, New York City’s needs are vast. Our 2,600 NYCHA buildings need to be rebuilt. Our schools need to be desegregated. We need more affordable housing and reliable public transportation. Our physical city needs to be carbon-neutral and climate-resilient. Safe streets can make these tasks easier, not harder.

In his poem, “Musee des Beaux Arts,” which depicts the death of Icarus, W.H. Auden wrote of “the expensive delicate ship that must have seen / Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky / [but] Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”

Hubris killed Icarus. A broken system built on indifference and recklessness killed Jose Alzorriz.

The expensive delicate ship that is New York, Auden’s adopted home, can no longer sail calmly away from traffic carnage. Ridding our streets of vehicular danger must begin now.

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