Push for safety upgrades at fatal Houston St. corner

Photo by Tequila Minsky
On Tuesday morning, actor John Turturro, who lives nearby, was stopped in his tracks at the memorial to Jessica Dworkin, reading a posting about the tragic accident that took the Soho resident’s life. “I know this is a dangerous intersection,” he said. “I’ll sign a petition or whatever is needed.”

BY TEQUILA MINSKY  |  More than 70 local residents attended Community Board 2’s Traffic and Transportation Committee meeting on Tues., Sept. 11, to make their voices heard, in hopes of preventing further accidents at the deadly intersection of Sixth Ave. and Houston St. Thompson St. neighbor Jessica Dworkin was killed there on Aug. 27 by an 18-wheel, flatbed truck making a right-hand turn from Houston onto Sixth Ave.

Assemblymember Deborah Glick led off the public testimony. She said the speed limit and “Don’t Honk” prohibitions posted on signs are never enforced. Small children and older people can’t be seen by large trucks, she added. She called for changes, including 10-second delay lights and “Yield to Pedestrian” signs.

Admitting she is also guilty of standing off the curb while waiting for a light to change, Glick reminded everyone not to creep into the street.

Phillip Kassen, director of Little Red School House, at Bleecker St. and Sixth Ave., just a block north of the fatal intersection, cited seeing “four or five cars a day crossing on a red light.” He said, “There’s never a day when there aren’t red lights without cars sliding through.”

He was the first of many at the meeting to call for red-light cameras — a traffic enforcement camera that photographs vehicles that enter an intersection on a red traffic light.

“We tell our students to stand back 6 to 10 feet from the street,” Kassen said. “Everyone knows that someone else will be killed on that corner.”

It was mentioned that New York State had determined that the city already has its quota of 100 red-light cameras installed. Shirley Secunda, the Traffic and Transportation Committee’s chairperson, noted, “This issue is at the state level.”

Someone asked about the seeming camera device on a pole on the south side of Houston St. pointing toward the Sixth Ave. crossing and it was revealed that it is a mere prop, which, in fact, has never actually operated.

One of the most moving testimonies was from a crossing guard assigned to Sixth Ave. and Houston St. Esperanca Varela, a 35-year Thompson St. resident, has been working at that intersection for five years.

She crosses children going to six schools (Little Red, Cooke Academy on MacDougal St., P.S. 3, St. Luke’s, Our Lady of Pompeii and St. Joseph’s).

At the meeting she told of how she warns the children not to go near the curb while waiting.

Varela crosses children in three shifts, 7:45 a.m. to 9:15 a.m., 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., and 2:20 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. She said when she has to leave her post, “My heart is in my throat.”

The crossing guard also said her duties are under the jurisdiction of the Sixth Precinct (for which Houston St. is the southern border) and that, technically, she is not supposed to help people cross Houston St., since that would mean going into the First Precinct.

Varela has school-age children that also cross at that corner. She added, “I’ve been calling 311 for five years to put up ‘School Crossing’ signs, not one d— sign!”

Varela is equipped with a whistle.

Even for adults the crossing is difficult, but Varela explained, “I’m not a traffic agent, I’m here for the kids, not the adults.”

She readily admitted that she too is afraid of the crossing.

“I’m a cancer survivor, I have two children, I don’t want to be killed by a car,” she said.

David Gruber, chairperson of Community Board 2, said the problem is widespread.

“There are many hot spots, accidents waiting to happen,” he said.

He wants to identify these hot spots, and urged people to speak up, “if you know a terrible situation.”

He mentioned Sixth Ave. and Carmine St. as one.

“Let’s not let Jessie’s death be in vain,” he said.

Another resident mentioned the crossing at Bedford St. and Seventh Ave.

Numerous residents passionately called for a dedicated, pedestrians-only traffic light at Sixth Ave. and Houston St. to allow for safe crossing.

“We need support of elected officials,” Secunda said, “It’s good to have elected officials behind us.”

The committee will put forth two resolutions to be presented at the full C.B. 2 meeting on Thurs., Sept. 20. The first will ask the Department of Transportation to look at the problem corner, study other hot spots, and evaluate the viability of some of the suggestions that emerged at the Sept. 11 meeting. The second resolution will ask the City Council to hold a vote on five pending City Council resolutions on traffic enforcement and policy issues.

In the meantime, Charlton St. resident Richard Blodgett, who has written a history of Charlton St. for his block association, has arranged a walk-through with Colleen Chattergoon of D.O.T.

The tour’s purpose is to show Chattergoon specific problems and dangers of the intersection, Blodgett says.

“The hope is that she will take this information back to D.O.T., and D.O.T. will then develop meaningful solutions to make the intersection safer,” Blodgett said. “The Charlton St. Block Association is committed to sticking with this effort until improvements are made,” he stressed, adding that the association is open to circulating petitions, forming a coalition, working with other community groups and C.B. 2 and pressuring elected officials.

Neighbors will gather at the northeast corner of Sixth Ave. and Houston St. at 3 p.m. on Fri., Sept. 21, for the D.O.T. walk-through.

Juan Martinez, a member of Transportation Alternatives who attended the meeting, said the reasons for most traffic fatalities are speeding, distracted driving, failure to yield to pedestrians and drunk driving.

Afterward, Martinez commented, “When we try to fix a bad intersection, design is important, but just as important is law enforcement. Police have to be involved. D.O.T. and N.Y.P.D. have to work together.”

Martinez emphasized that it’s critical to have a zero-tolerance policy for failure to yield to pedestrians and speeding.