The vanished ghost bikes of Harlem
I’m looking for ghost bikes near Harlem. I take the subway to 145th Street and St. Nicholas, in an area known as Hamilton Heights. When I leave the station, I walk east on 145th, past Edgecombe and Bradhurst. The sidewalk is crowded with people. It smells like incense and Christmas trees from the pirated CD and holiday vendors lined up along the curb. At the corner of W. 145th and Frederick Douglass, I start my search for the ghost bike of Jamel Lewis, who was hit and killed by a sanitation truck on November 30, 2006, at age 21. According to the ghost bikes website, his death was not reported in the news despite the fact that there were journalists called to the scene. A local photographer told the ghost bikes organization about Jamel Lewis, not wanting his death to be forgotten. I walk south on F.D. to 144th, cross to the west side of 145 near the cigarette shop with the old men outside, go north on F.D. to 146th, cross and head back down the intersection. On the southwest corner, there is a halal food cart with a man scraping meat off the hot cooking shelf. I ask him if he’s ever seen a spray-painted white bicycle chained up in the neighborhood–a memorial for a young man killed in an accident a few years ago. He thinks about it for a few moments and says he’s sorry but he can’t help. I do one final sweep of the area and find nothing.
I decide to move on to the second bike on my list, a Manhattanville memorial located on W. 133rd and Amsterdam, for 21 year old Juan Espinoza-Navarette, who died when his bike was pushed into traffic by a stranger who had been chasing him. I walk west on 145th and turn south on Amsterdam. The turn takes me from a bustling shopping area to more sparsely populated avenue, wide and empty. There are very few shops lining the sidewalk, and no street vendors. Elderly men sit smoking and chatting in groups on the stoops of the immense apartments on either side of the road. To my right is one of the city’s housing projects, a collection of towering red brick buildings with rows of tiny windows. The projects fill an entire city block and are completely encircled by a short, black wrought iron fence. I walk past a park, with men playing chess in the middle of a curious crowd, and a large soccer field filled with CUNY students playing football. After the parks the street becomes very still; the few people standing on the corners watch me as I pass. P.S. 161 is on the corner of 133rd and Amsterdam, along with a few parked cars and short, scrawny trees supported by stakes shoved in the dry dirt. A teenage boy with baggy pants and a sideways baseball cap has been staring at me for a while. He yells something unpleasant in my direction as he watches me circle around the block in search of the bike. Once again, there is nothing to be found.
A few days go, I read a comment left on the blog of a photographer friend of mine, A. Jesse Jiryu Davis, who had posted a bit about shrines. The commenter says, “In fact, our culture seems rife with memorials, and I often wonder if it’s not healthier to let our disasters recede into the mists of time rather than erect monuments to them.” I went in search of ghost bikes that had vanished like ghosts. I began to think about the temporality of these spontaneous shrines.
The words used to describe these shrines allude to their impermanence–they are “spontaneous” and “makeshift.” They seem to stand as the grassroots memorials within a much larger culture of memorialization that includes such monumental structures as the markers of Gettysburg and the new 9/11 Memorial. These massive, permanent, and often stone monuments honor those who died as heroes of/for their country. They are memorialized as such, which sets their deaths, the reasons for their deaths, and the way in which their deaths are remembered/placed in the national psyche, likewise in stone. These heroes died for a reason, a country, and a cause. They did not die in vain–they died necessary deaths–either on the battlefield fighting for freedom, or because they stood in the way of another who would take that freedom, so to speak.
Spontaneous shrines, as memorials erected by a community for a loved one it has lost, stand in contrast to the memorials of the state. They commemorate the unnecessary deaths–the deaths of people who should not have died. By focusing on the death of an individual, rather than a death [or several deaths] and its place within a larger national/political narrative, spontaneous shrines serve to de-heroicize the story of death, not out of disrespect, but to challenge the status quo in a way that rigid stone monoliths cannot. When a death is memorialized as not heroic, not for a cause, not for a state, and not for any reason other than drunk driver/unsafe road conditions/high gang activity, etc, it allows room for individuality, dialogue, and change. When a death is trapped and sealed by stone into an unbending narrative of heroism and purpose, the individuality of the person is overshadowed, there is no room for a different story to be told, and it is fixed firmly in a time and place. When deaths are remembered as unnecessary, they can be seen as preventable, and steps can be taken to stop the same kind of thing from happening again.
Because spontaneous shrines tend not to be so fixed, they may disappear over time, like the bikes I tried to find. By continuously disappearing and popping up across the landscape in locations they should not be and are not expected, they de-stabilize the way things normally are–thereby challenging those who see them to stop and think. Especially in cases of organized makeshift memorialization, such as the ghost bike movement, viewers are familiarized with an image (the white bicycle) that becomes easily recognizable, but they are surprised by the unpredictability of the bikes’ locations. Unlike with stone monuments in fixed positions, people do not know when or where they will pass a ghost bike–unless they frequently pass a single bike, in which case they do not know when they will stop seeing it there. The ghost bikes, while still conveying a sense of connectedness among bicycle fatalities (as a type of preventable death), the important thing is that they stand as markers for unique people and respect the need to recognize each death individually.