GRIPE SESSION: Departing Council Member Cumbo Gives Parting Gift to Car Owners

Justice for Baby Apolline. File photo: Gersh Kuntzman
Justice for Baby Apolline. File photo: Gersh Kuntzman
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Outgoing Council Member Laurie Cumbo, who has consistently opposed street safety measures in her Fort Greene district, said that the Department of Transportation needs to face “reality” and consider the needs of drivers before the agency makes a crucial safety improvement at an intersection where a 3-month-old baby was killed by a reckless driver who could never have caused the crash if the roadway had already been redesigned.

Cumbo asked the Department of Transportation to hold a “town hall” meeting to discuss a neighborhood group’s plan to convert the westernmost half-block of Gates Avenue into a car-free plaza, even though she’ll only be in office for three more weeks — and even though the DOT is slated to present the plan to the community board within two weeks.

The Department of Transportation brought a small army of top officials to placate car owners at a town hall meeting in Fort Greene on Monday night.
The Department of Transportation brought a small army of top officials to placate car owners at a town hall meeting in Fort Greene on Monday night.

The forum was merely a pretense to allow a dozen or so car drivers to berate DOT officials about the plan, which was produced by a neighborhood urban designer working for the pre-school at the corner where Apolline Mong-Guillemin was killed in a crash on Sept. 11.

“The issue is also about parking,” Cumbo said of the design, which would remove about six to eight curbside spaces that are typically used to store private vehicles. “When we create these public plazas, parking is lost. I guess the question is how we would realize additional parking when there is so much parking taken away. The parking issue is an issue in the district. That’s reality. As a mother of a 4-year-old, I’m all for more spaces for young people to play safely because we don’t want to see [crashes] again. But can you talk about the parking?”

The proposal would bring safety to an area of great carnage. Graphic: Street Plans
The proposal would bring safety to an area of great carnage by blocking cars from using the westernmost end of Gates Avenue — and barring drivers from accessing the roadway in the wrong direction. Graphic: Street Plans

Rather than defend their decision to remove parking to create Apolline’s Garden, which has the support of more than 1,500 petition signers, DOT officials said they would try to create more parking elsewhere in the neighborhood.

But it wasn’t enough to satisfy a Zoom room full of people who claimed both to support the goals of Vision Zero and the city’s battle to stay above rising floodwaters due to global climate change, as well as the right to continue driving as if no other imperatives or the interests of the district’s carless majority are in play. Indeed, a host of lies and conspiracy theories were floated in the service of maintaining those six to eight parking spaces at the expense of a proposed neighborhood play space and safe street redesign.

“I look at it as part of a larger plan to wipe out any street or any car in Brooklyn,” said Joe Gonzalez, claiming the project, which would create a new plaza out of a lightly used, redundant one-way street, would negatively impact first responders (NYPD Transportation Bureau Chief Kim Royster, attending the meeting along with a half-dozen top DOT officials, said it would not be an issue).

A member of Community Board 2 claimed his board was not consulted, despite the already scheduled Dec. 16 presentation. He also claimed the design was put forward by an “outside outfit,” when, in fact, it is being championed by Discovery Pitstop, a child care center on the block, and drawn up by Street Plans, whose principle Mike Lydon lives in the neighborhood.

One speaker — Rev. Anthony Trufant of Emmanuel Baptist — might want to go into selling baked goods, given how he contorted himself into a pretzel to defend the rights of drivers:

The overall goal of Vision Zero makes a great deal of sense. It makes sense as a means of public safety. It makes sense in terms of reducing congestion. And it makes sense in terms of reducing the carbon footprint in New York City. [But] I am detecting a decided bias [against] cars. … You’re not talking about bikes that sometimes do not observe the rules of the road, go through lights and don’t wear helmets. … Additionally, I’ve heard little about pedestrians. They are all a part of your equation. One of the problems on Washington Avenue is low visibility … and people are wearing non-fluorescent clothing, which creates a hazard. At peak hours, between 8 and 9:30 and then 3 to 4, drivers double-park and when they double-park, traffic gets backed up, and people are on the edge and they are far less courteous. There is an increased sense of anger and impatience.

He also added that pedestrians need to take safety classes because their behavior puts them at risk of being hit by the impatient drivers. And he ignored that one of the reasons drivers double-park in Fort Greene stems from the lack of loading zones, which Cumbo opposed.

Another speaker, Nancy Samuel, complained that efforts to make streets safer for non-drivers should not inconvenience the drivers from whom other road users are being kept safe.

“Every time I hear that drivers have to make concessions, I think, ‘No one else is making concessions,'” she said. No one at DOT pointed out that so far this year in Cumbo’s district, there have been 2,003 crashes caused by drivers, or roughly six per day in a relatively small area, resulting in injuries to 141 cyclists, 138 pedestrians and 584 motorists, killing three pedestrians, including Baby Apolline. Those injuries and deaths constitute a considerable concession by non-drivers.

Another member of Community Board 2, Esther Blount, also claimed that “the community” had been cut out of the process … which continues on Dec. 12 with a presentation to the community board. (Reminder: No one ever came to any community board seeking approval when 140,000 people bought cars during the pandemic against the wishes of millions of non-car owners.)

“Every time something happens,” Blount said, referring to the death of the 3-month-old, “we lose more and more parking spaces.”

Blount also claimed that “Transportation Alternatives is running DOT because they are really demanding that people get rid of their private cars — like owning a car is illegal! I never saw anyone except colonists, like the Pilgrims, come into a community saying people have to do something. But these people don’t use guns. They use Twitter and Facebook. Because they own some property, they think they can own some politicians. It ain’t right.”

Cartoon: Bill Roundy
How our cartoonist sees the issue. Cartoon: Bill Roundy

She also said that she walked around on Saturday and talked to neighbors — and “no one on Vanderbilt Avenue knew anything about the project.”

Renee Collymore — a former district leader and head of the Vanderbilt Avenue Block Association who is spearheading the Apolline’s Garden proposal — had her hand up in the Zoom call, but was not selected by Cumbo, a political rival, to speak. Collymore is a longtime Fort Greene figure who has spent weeks since Apolline’s death collecting signatures on a petition from her neighbors. She was appalled by Blount’s comments.

“I am born on Vanderbilt Avenue and I still live on Vanderbilt Avenue,” she told Streetsblog after the town hall. “I saw the deadly crash and I have been devastated by the entire scene. I went door to door to collect supporting signatures on a petition, stood on street corners to explain to our neighborhood what happened, made videos on social media. How could anyone say there was no knowledge of plans and/or nothing of any community input? We cannot allow this to turn into a bike/car issue, but it should only be about Baby Apolline, safe streets, implementing preventive measures so this doesn’t happen again. The name ‘Apolline’s Garden’ will always remind us how she died. This small portion of Gates is a hazard, and we should all be compelled to created safe areas for our friends, neighbors and loved ones.”

At the close of the evening, Cumbo sought to present herself as merely a bridge between a diverse community of interests and the city government. But her slip was constantly showing.

“What I am hearing clearly loud and clear is need for more public engagement,” said the term-limited lawmaker, who will be succeeded by Crystal Hudson, who has expressed support for the plan. “We need to do more about the loss of parking. You heard from people who own cars who have to take a relative to a hospital for cancer treatments.”

Unfortunately for Cumbo, the car owner with the ailing relative that she referenced actually spoke in favor of the plan, proving that not every car owner can be relied upon to prioritize his personal convenience over preventing the death of more 3-month-old babies or forestalling the increasingly inevitable effects of climate change on a low-lying coastal city.

But, alas, most can.

Gersh Kuntzman is editor of Streetsblog. He occasionally writes Cycle of Rage, an opinion column that is archived here.

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