Jersey City to Make Ghost Bikes Permanent Memorials

Two years ago this June, Jersey City residents were shocked to hear that Natalia Caicedo (known to locals as Natasha), the friendly restaurateur of Kraverie had been struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver while riding her bike. The community rallied around her grief-struck widower, Christian Usher, as heartfelt condolences and donations poured in for him during that difficult period.

Bike JC, our local citizen-based advocacy organization, was also saddened and concerned by the news, knowing that many of our streets were not bike-friendly at the time. The city has since laid miles of bike lanes and raised safety awareness, yet an accident like Natasha’s brings attention to the simple fact that anyone can be struck down in the blink of an eye. Later that year, in the winter of 2013, another young woman, Ayako Okabe, was struck on her bike while crossing U.S. Route 1 & 9. (That entire roadway, with its narrow lanes and heavy truck traffic, is considered extremely unsafe for cyclists.) Ayako had come to the U.S. from Japan for adventure and was commuting home from her last day at work when she was felled by a driver who did not stop at the time. To make her death even more tragic, Ayako was scheduled to return permanently to Japan and reunite with her husband the following week.

Natalia Caicedo (aka Natasha), photo Jayne Freeman

Natalia Caicedo (aka Natasha), photo Jayne Freeman

Kris Reiss, Bike JC Vice President and his friend and fellow Bike JC board member Patrick Conlon decided to create a ghost bike to memorialize each of Natasha’s and Ayako’s untimely deaths.

Ghost bikes serve as a silent and haunting way to memorialize the loss of a bicyclist who would otherwise remain just another automobile casualty. Placed as close as possible to the accident site, the bikes are always painted white and often contain a plaque with information about the victim. Sometimes they are decorated with flowers and photos. “It’s an impactful way to create a memorial to the victim as well as highlighting advocacy for pedestrians and cyclists,” explains Kris. “It’s also an extremely re-producable model.”

Ghost bike for Ayako Okabe, photo courtesy Bike JC

Ghost bike for Ayako Okabe, photo courtesy Bike JC

Ghost bikes likely date back indirectly to the 2002 work of a San Francisco artist named Jo Slota. Slota painted chained, abandoned bikes white and posted photos of them on a now-defunct website called ghostbikes.net. By 2003 residents of St. Louis had repurposed Slota’s idea from art to memorial and set up bikes in numerous places where cyclists had been struck and killed by cars. Not only would the apparition keep the victim’s memory alive, it would also sternly remind motorists to be more aware of bicyclists around them. Since 2003 over 500 ghost bikes have appeared in numerous other American cities (including New York City) and around the world in locales including Berlin, London, and Toronto.

Despite their growing number, ghost bikes remain unfamiliar to many residents of Jersey City. Someone who’s never seen them might assume they’re works of art or someone’s idea of a prank; others might figure they’re simply abandoned property. The bikes are, of course, chained to poles or other stationary objects, but the fact that they are left for weeks and sometimes months without being monitored makes them prone to removal or theft. Sadly, each of the ghost bikes put in place for Natasha and Ayako did disappear soon after being installed.

Original ghost bike for Natasha Caicedo, photo Dan Levin

Original ghost bike for Natasha Caicedo, photo Dan Levin

Shortly after Natasha’s accident on Marin Boulevard, a ghost bike in memory of her was attached to the fence of St. Peter’s Prep. Within days it was promptly removed. Kris and Patrick tracked it down and found that it had not been discarded but rather tucked away in storage. They re-chained it to a street sign close to the scene of the accident (see photo above), but after three months it disappeared again. “We don’t know who removed it,” Kris says. “It’s entirely possible that someone thought it was in the way of potential snow removal for the winter. But no one really knows.” Meanwhile, Natasha’s widower, Christian, had been regularly visiting the bike as part of his mourning process. As Natasha had been cremated and her ashes brought back to Russia, he’d had no cemetery to visit nor tombstone to grieve beside. “That bike was the main way I had to connect to Natasha’s accident,” he explains. “I would go there frequently, bring sunflowers, and just sit by it for hours, crying.” Christian notes that before the bike was removed, its commemorative plaque went missing. “Who would steal a plaque in memory of someone?” he wonders. “There is no consideration for the family or reason why!”

Unfortunately, Ayako’s ghost bike met a similar fate: It too disappeared quickly (from its location on Route 1 & 9). No one knows exactly when it was taken, but Kris concedes that the industrial nature of 1 & 9 makes a monument there particularly vulnerable.

Fundraiser benefiting Bike JC at the Kraverie reopening held on June 12, photo courtesy HDSID (left to right Christian Usher, Chuck Heo, Mayor Steven Fulop)

Fundraiser benefiting Bike JC at the Kraverie reopening held on June 12, photo courtesy HDSID (left to right Christian Usher, Chuck Heo, Mayor Steven Fulop)

Christian Usher watches for the first time a video showing the creation of the ghost bike memorializing his wife’s death by a hit and run driver, photo Jayne Freeman

Christian Usher watches for the first time a video showing the creation of the ghost bike memorializing his wife’s death by a hit and run driver, photo Jayne Freeman

On June 12, after having been closed for two years, Christian and business partner Chuck Heo officially reopened Kraverie (located on Mercer Street opposite City Hall) with a fundraiser to benefit Bike JC. They agreed that as a small business they had a social responsibility to invest in their community, in ways other than providing sustenance. “Chuck and I wanted to give back to our supporters as they gave to us during our darkest time,” Christian explains. “It made perfect sense to make that fundraising effort about Bike JC.”

Jersey City is sounding the call for bike safety as well. Mayor Steven Fulop, together with Department of Public Works Director, Mark Redfield, agreed that both ghost bikes deserve a permanent, official home. As this story went to press the replacement ghost bike for Natasha was being installed by Bike JC (see photo below), an official marker was included that lets the community know the bike is a permanent memorial for a cyclist who was killed at that spot. The newly installed replacement bike is located at Marin Boulevard just past Grand Street, where it will remain untouched by the city and (hopefully) undisturbed by the public as well. Plans to find a final spot to commemorate Ayako are also in the works; Bike JC is determined to give all fatal victims of bike accidents in Jersey City a permanent tribute.

“I know that no one in the community will ever forget Natasha,” Christian states. “But this is a message to everyone in the area to be more careful on the roads and for cyclists to take heed, too. Anything can happen when you least expect it.”

Replacement ghost bike for Natasha Caicedo, photo courtesy Bike JC

Replacement ghost bike for Natasha Caicedo, photo courtesy Bike JC

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Kris Reiss and Patrick Conlon filmed the following short video documenting their construction of Natasha Caicedo’s ghost bike:

Photo credits as marked. Top photo: Replacement ghost bike for Natasha Caicedo newly installed, courtesy Bike JC .

Jayne Freeman

is the host of the long-time public access show Mamarama as seen locally on Comcast Cable (channel 51) and on YouTube. In addition to her parenting program she is a certified childbirth educator and regularly writes about the parental experience.