“It’s that spirit of partnership – that work we have a responsibility to do together,” said Council Member Brad Lander to the standing-room-only crowd last night at the Park Slope United Methodist Church. It was the inaugural meeting of the Park Slope Street Safety Partnership, a new coalition of community groups, government agencies, and elected officials focusing on safer streets in the neighborhood.
Lander, who has been a leading advocate for this cause, hatched the idea in the wake of the death of Samuel Cohen Eckstein in October. Several Park Slope organizations – Civic Council, Neighbors, Parents – embraced it, and invited the New York City DOT and the NYPD’s 78th Precinct, each of which sent high-level representatives to the meeting.
Many attendees wore yellow stickers reading VISION ZERØ, a reference to Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s platform whereby traffic fatalities will cease to exist in 10 years. Friends of the family of Lucian Merryweather, the 9-year-old Fort Greene resident killed by a reckless driver in October, brought a box of bumper stickers with the message SLOW DOWN: Save a life. Photos of Sammy flanked the projector screen in front of the altar.
The mood in the room fluctuated from angry to sympathetic to frustrated to hopeful as a series of prominent speakers came to the podium: Deputy Inspector Michael Ameri, commanding officer of the 78th Precinct; Paul Steely White, the Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives; Council Member Lander; and finally, Sammy’s mother, father, and sister, who had previously brought an entire City Council hearing to tears recounting their experience just weeks after the tragedy.
“Sammy’s death rocked the very foundation of who we are,” said Gary Eckstein, his father. And again, there was not a dry eye in the house.
As the family left the microphone, the pews creaked as the room rose in an ovation. The first on his feet was Deputy Inspector Ameri, who oversaw the aftermath of the collision. “Enforcement is my priority, and I assure you I’m on top of it,” he told the room. He failed to say, however, what changes his precinct would make to improve on a dismal record so far this year: 124 speeding violations, 67 tickets for failure to yield, and 91 illegal u-turns through October. “We base our enforcement on data,” Ameri said. “We can’t be everywhere at one time.”
The general meeting prepared to break up into discussion groups when a tall, puffy coat walked to the front of the chamber and took a seat in the choir area. “Tish James is here,” said chair Eric McClure, to a round of applause. The future Public Advocate, after warming up for a minute or two, offered a few words in support of the Partnership’s work. “We want to ensure that Brownstone Brooklyn is a slow zone across Flatbush Avenue,” said James, who is finishing her second term as the Council Member representing the other side of said thoroughfare.
The three focus groups – enforcement, education, and engineering – were each split in two, with the six sections seeing spirited discussion of how we as citizens can make our own streets safer. Facilitators shared the highlights to the general assembly; they included better-maintained streets, a push for Albany to give the city “home rule” on traffic cameras, and omnipresent visual reminders of best practices for safety.
As participants donned their scarves and coats an hour after the meeting was slated to end, smiles and laughs indicative of optimism echoed through the nave. “We would like to tell [Sammy] that momentum is building, and that people are willing to fight to ensure changes are made,” said Amy Cohen, Sammy’s mother. And even with vortex of the holiday season swirling in the air, last night’s huge turnout was a great step in that direction.