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Critic says memorials for dead cyclists become eyesores over time

Ed Hooks his dog Nugget pose for photograph next bicycle memorial for JepsLivingstvictim hit run crash 2009 intersectiDiversey Avers Avenue

Ed Hooks and his dog Nugget pose for a photograph next to the bicycle memorial for Jepson Livingston, the victim of a hit and run crash in 2009, at the intersection of Diversey and Avers Avenue Thursday, July 7, 2011, in Chicago. Hooks said he would like to see the memorials removed after a certain time period instead of having them on display indefinitely. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 29, 2011 12:35AM

Almost every day for the last 16 months, Ed Hooks has walked his dog Nugget past a painted white bike at the entrance to the North Side’s Kosciuszko Park.

It’s a memorial for Jepson Livingston, a 32-year-old man who died in 2009. Livingston was riding his bike on Diversey when he was struck by a van involved in a high-speed chase. The driver was arrested and charged with murder.

Hooks feels for Livingston’s family — he also lost a child too young. But he also believes there should be a time limit for memorials on public property, like the so-called “ghost bikes,’’ which he considers an unnecessary eyesore after spending countless months or even years in Chicago weather.

“I grieve for them,” he said of Livingston’s family. “I grieve with them. That has nothing to do with whether or not a painted white bicycle should be chained to a light post forever in my neighborhood. At a certain point, the family needs to go to the cemetery.”

But for Livingston’s family, the bike remains a source of comfort.

“When I go by the bike, I feel more at peace compared to the cemetery,” said Henrietta Livingston, Jepson Livingston’s mother.

The urban equivalent of flower-strewn crosses along rural highways, there are about a dozen ghost bikes on sidewalks around Chicago. Painted white and bearing a sign with the name of the dead cyclist, the bikes are meant to serve as a memorial and a warning for drivers and cyclists.

Ghost bikes meet the criteria of Chicago’s code for abandoned bikes. Purposefully stripped of parts, they cannot be ridden. They have not been moved in seven days — one ghost bike has been on Western since 2006. City code says abandoned bikes can be ticketed and then disposed of.

But Brian Steele, spokesman for Chicago’s Department of Transportation, said the city doesn’t move ghost bikes because officials don’t consider them abandoned but “important memorials.”

“If they do not infringe on the public way, or take up space that would be used by bicycles or pedestrians, [they] can be an important reminder of the impact on loved ones and our society when the rules are not followed by all modes, including the cyclists,” Steele said in an e-mail.

For Hooks, a gentle-speaking 65-year-old teacher, author and former actor, the bikes are a legitimate memorial, just like those that appear outside fatal crime scenes featuring candles and stuffed animals. The difference is that the crime memorials are short-lived, he said.

“I would not object to these ghost bikes being there,” he said. “I just think they should have an expiration date.”

His request for an honest neighborhood discussion about the issue at the website Everyblock led to anonymous cyclists calling him everything from insensitive to a bigot. He said he isn’t either, and has learned the hard way what the death of a child is like. His daughter Dagny was 21 when she accidentally overdosed on drugs in 2005 in Lake View.

“There is no closure for the death of a child,” he said. “It’s a crime against nature. Yet what’s the lesson from my daughter’s death — don’t mess around with drugs. It didn’t occur to me to go over [to Lake View] and put a sign up with her pictures and cover it with drug stuff and expect it to be there forever.”

Ghost bikes started in 2002 in St. Louis by a bike shop worker. Since then, the bikes have appeared in 22 countries and, in America, 37 states.

In Chicago, the bikes are put up and maintained by concerned cyclists. Some ghost bikes are maintained more carefully than others.

In Boston, the bikes are typically taken down within days by the city, said James McBride of MassBikes, a Boston-based bicycle advocacy organization.

“Some of the shorter-term ghost bikes that stay up, I know people get upset they got moved quickly,” he said.

Not all of the Chicago bikes are permanent. One placed near a West Side church was removed by church officials, said Howard Kaplan, who has helped install many ghost bikes. Another near a Walgreen’s on the North Side also didn’t stay up long, and a ghost bike at the Lincoln, Damen and Irving Park intersection has come and gone several times.

“When I work with the family [of the dead cyclist] to get one put up I tell them there’s no guarantee for how long it’s going to stay,” he said. “If it’s up for a year it’s a good run.”

Kaplan agrees with Hooks that there is no clear way to quantify how effective ghost bikes are as safety warnings. That doesn’t mean that they are not valuable, he said.

“I think it’s outrageous that you can’t ride a bike around the city without risking your life,” he said. “I think when a bicyclists is killed it should be noticed.”

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