October 8, 2013: the day New York woke up

Sammy Cohen EcksteinA year ago today, Sammy Cohen Eckstein was struck by a van on Prospect Park West. On his way to soccer practice, he had gone into the crosswalk to retrieve an errant ball; his cleat caught something, he fell, and a driver timing the light rumbled through as it turned green. Sammy died later that evening from his injuries.

As with countless other deaths before and since, a memorial was raised, and a family and a community were torn apart. But Sammy’s parents and sister have channeled their grief to become the leading advocates for change to our city’s backward preferential treatment of cars and their drivers.

Due in large part to the efforts of Amy, Gary, and Tamar, a sea change to the city’s approach to livable streets has occurred in the past twelve months. In November, the de Blasio administration and several legislators were elected, in part, on their embrace of Vision Zero; the City Council passed a raft of laws aimed at protecting pedestrians and cyclists; and, most notably, a usually-recalcitrant Albany approved a reduction in the city-wide speed limit, to 25 m.p.h. from 30, along with an increased allowance of speed cameras.

Victims and their relatives have long pushed for safer streets. Mathieu Lefevre’s family has made countless trips to the city from Canada, pressing the NYPD for evidence it had suppressed. Several victims’ kin spoke at a rally at City Hall last August, including the brother of Renee Thompson, the high-school senior from the Bronx who had been killed just a week earlier. The parents of Allison Liao, killed only three days before Sammy, have also become outspoken advocates.

So what made Sammy’s death different?

Amy Cohen (foreground) ensures all is in order for a rally outside Bill de Blasio's inauguration.

Amy Cohen (foreground) ensures all is in order for a rally outside Bill de Blasio’s inauguration.

Surely, his family’s willingness to fight aggressively – through pain and against politics as usual – cannot be understated. They’ve brought rooms of important people to tears, then waited outside other hearings to have difficult conversations with legislators they hadn’t yet converted. They’ve helped form a safe-streets group, and have recounted their tragic story more times than most humans could handle.

On October 8, 2013, however, countless New Yorkers came to terms with an uneasy truth: something like this could happen to them.

None of the usual tropes about pedestrian deaths – the ones that allow most people to shrug their shoulders, write the event off as an “accident,” and move on – applied to Sammy. He wasn’t a kid in some far-off outer-borough neighborhood, or a recently-arrived transplant; he lived on one of the most prestigious streets in Brooklyn, a critical member of a well-liked, well-respected family. His intelligence and good character were beyond question. He hadn’t been behaving recklessly; in fact, he’d done what most of us would have done in his shoes.

He had all of those things going for him; regardless, through a single stroke of bad luck – and a driver inured to a culture of recklessness – he lost his life.

It was so unfair. Of course, as we all know, so much of life is unfair. But when people can see a loved one in that same situation, and when those closest to the victim refuse to quit insisting that something can be done about it, the tragedy changes from a singular event to a long-term call to action.

Fortunately for our city, many have heeded that call.


October 8, 2013: here’s what I wrote that very evening, after witnessing the aftermath of the collision.

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