The First Pedestrian Fatality

The short Story:

On September 13, 1999, a hundred years to the day, Citystreets unveiled a historical marker at the site of the first American pedestrian fatality.

The slightly longer story:

With so much awareness and positive response  to the  Stencil Project Citystreets began to think about other ways to bring attention about pedestrian safety to the public’s attention.

Citystreets founder, Harris Silver  read in 1998 that Henry Bliss was the first pedestiran killed in North America. When Silver saw that Bliss was killed in 1899, he realized that he centennial of mister Bliss’s death was around the corner and that creating an event around the centennial was an opportunity to both memorialize Mr. Bliss but also to propel the larger idea of pedestrian safety in NYC and beyond.

Silver went to the Municipal library and researched NYC newspapers from dates near to the crash to try to find the story and see what other facts there might be.

A side note: This was before Google and the general proliferation of information online and before archives were digitized.  All of the newspapers existed on microfilm. These rolls of film had to be put in a reader which was a big box with light shining through it and manually go through. Once you found an article that you wanted you were able to photo copy it.

The following photos are a few samples of newspapers articles about Henry Bliss that was part of the initial research for the Historic Site marker, that Harris internally dubbed the Bliss Plaque. What was really interesting about the articles which you can’t tell from just reading them was their prominent placement in the newspaper. At the time a pedestrian fatality was front page news. Over the years it had become so common that pedestrian crashes weren’t treated as news, and by 1998, almost never on the front page of newspapers.

 

We then went about the process of  getting a plaque made and displayed at the site. The actual making a plaque part was easy. We found a company in Long Island that would make a casting for what seemed like a reasonable amount of money. What was a little harder–and by harder we mean impossible, was to find a place to put it. There were two buildings on the corner where Bliss was killed  (Central Park is across the street) we thought it would be pretty straightforward to put a plaque on a building, boy were we wrong. One of the COOp’s is called the San Remo, we wrote them a very nice letter. and then another, and then another, and never heard back. At the time we didn’t realize that this was the home of residents like  Steven Spielberg, Donna Karan, Tony Randall, Demi Moore, Glenn Close, Dustin Hoffman, Bono, Steve Martin, Bruce Willis, Eddie Cantor,Robert Stigwood, and Marshall Brickman. Perhaps that explains why the board never responded. Same story with the building across the street.

We then wrote to The Park’s Department and didn’t receive a response. We were undettered but still unsure what to do. Then it hit us. Stop asking for permission. Just move forward with our plans to have an event, and make the fact that the plaque didn’t have a permanent home part of the story. We wrote the copy for the plaque and made the arrangements to have it made and continued with our plans for the event.  Barry Benepe was a friend of Citystreets and made an introduction to his son Adrianne Benepe  who at the time was running Parks in Manhattan and just let him know of our plans. We had a fantastic phone call. It was hot in the city and there were “wilding” events in NYC pools that were all over the papers. So when we talked to him about a historical marker he just was so taken aback as he was really busy dealing with this issue and its aftermath, which was truly a mess for him and the city,  but to his credit he thought about it, agreed to it, and really made things happen and to this day we remain grateful to Mr. Benepe for his role. He told us to immediatly write another letter to Commissioner Stern which led to an agreement that the Sign would be under an existing historical sign program in the the Parks Department.

This is one of  the letters from us to the parks department.



July 5, 1999
Mr. Henry Stern
Commissioner City of New York Parks & Recreation
The Arsenal
Central Park
New York, NY 10021

 

Dear Commissioner Stern,
Commissioner Benepe suggested that I immediately write to you regarding a modest historical marker that Citystreets would like to erect on Parks Department property. March 13, 1999 will mark the centennial of a historic event that occurred at the corner of 74th and Central Park West–the first pedestrian fatality by automobile in the US (see attached article).

Citystreets would like to erect a modest historical marker to commemorate this event. The reason we are contacting you is that we think the best location for the plaque would be either of the below:

1. A modest bronze plaque mounted to the Central Park Retaining Wall at 74th street and Central Park West.

2. A modest stone marker inset into the East sidewalk of Central Park West at 74th street.

Of course Citystreets will pay for the plaque and the costs to set it. We are just seeking permission to affix it to city property under your jurisdiction.

Before my conversation with Commissioner Benepe, I was initially directed to write to Ed Skyler the director of Public Information by a parks department spokesperson.

My May 14th letter to him and subsequent phone calls on June, 24, 29 & 30 to his office have gone unanswered. I only mention this because this is a time sensitive issue and we need some lead time for fabrication of either a stone marker or a bronze plaque.

I think this a worthwhile project and I think anyone with an appreciation and respect for history would agree.

I look forward to a timely and positive response from you.

 

Respectfully,
Harris Silver
Founder of Citystreets

 

 

Here is the response from the Parks department.

parks department letter

 

 

There was a  back and forth with the Parks Department about the text on the sign and details for the event. So we were a bit surprised when the spokesperson for the Parks Department insisted that we present our speech to them for approval at the event. We were offended about having our words vetted, but more importantly this was our only copy of the speech and we didn’t want to give it up. Of course our speech was approved. This was the speech that we read in front of the more than 50 press and hundreds of spectators:

 

 

Bliss Centennial Speech Final Draft

 

 

Thank you for coming. Especially those of you who traveled from out of town. It really means a lot.

 

 

My name is Harris Silver. I am the founder of Citystreets. The only New York City based organization focused entirely on pedestrian safety.

 

We are here for a few different reasons.

 

The first is to remember Henry Bliss on the centennial of his tragic and untimely death.

 

We are also here to remember every other pedestrian who has been killed or injured by drivers of motor vehicles since. Of course these people-all of them live in the minds of their parents, their spouses, their children, and their friends every day. But today we are thinking of them as well.

And finally we are here because we believe that many if not most car/driver/pedestrian related fatalities are avoidable. And that makes us sad at first and then angry. Considering the definition of “accident” is that which is unavoidable. We’re not fans of the word “accident” at Citystreets.

 

Let me point out that while pretty much everything has moved forward in the hundred years since Mr. Bliss’s death in 1899,  society has moved recklessly backwards on the issue of pedestrian safety. In fact in most circles it’s not even considered an issue. That’s why a 100 years have passed and we are still at the beginning stages of dealing with this chronic problem.

 

 

But  there’s hope. Think about it. 25 Years ago the fact that people drove drunk was routinely tolerated. Today it this is no longer acceptable. In fact it’s a serious crime. The pedestrian safety movement is where the drunk driving movement was back in the 70’s.

 

This is a solvable problem. And the answer lies not with a master plan coming forth from City Hall or some technological panacea, but rather the combined result of small incremental changes after we all shift how we perceive and think about our streets.

 

A few years ago I started the effort to bring attention to this important issue and help facilitate this shift in thinking. The project required painting full size police outlines at the site of fatal crashes.  We believe that the site of a fatal crash is the best and most relevant place to start thinking about how to avoid future crashes.  So anyway when I started this project I hoped that one day I would see a sign…that there would be this sign. A sign that there was hope for those of us who are still here and have to live, walk, work and otherwise use these streets. That there would be this sign and it would symbolize the beginning of a necessary transformation in how we think about our streets in order to make them safe for those of us that are still using them. A sign from city officials that they’re with us- or are willing to acknowledge this issue… anyway- Ladies and Gentleman I am very very very happy to say there is finally a sign and here it is.

 

bliss_unvieling

 

The event was really a huge success with our message about pedestrian safety transmitted around the world to tens of millions of people. Beyond being covered extensively in print, TV and Radio in the local press. The story was picked up by the AP and in over 500 newspapers the next day. CNN did a pretty good piece on it and there were journalists from Korea, Japan and European TV stations.

That said, it really shouldn’t be this hard to get a historical sign put up. It really shouldn’t.

Some press about the event:

CNN,

NY1,

New York Times.

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  • Driver can not see kids standing in front of car.
    Driver can not see kids standing in front of car.
  • No accommodation for pedestrian during sidewalk construction
    No accommodation for pedestrian during sidewalk construction
  • Improperly placed and maintained signs sends the wrong message to drivers.
    Improperly placed and maintained signs sends the wrong message to drivers.