The latest in an ongoing WSR series about “secondary street names,” the people and process behind them.
By Daniel Krieger
March 10, 2014, would have been Ariel Russo’s fifth birthday. But instead of a joyous celebration with gifts and a party with friends and family, a large group of heartbroken locals gathered for a street renaming ceremony at the place where she died the year before, hit by a driver fleeing from police. In her memory, West 97th Street between Amsterdam and Broadway was christened by New York City as Ariel Russo Place.
The street naming was a cathartic event, but not enough, noted former city council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who told the group: “We need to do more than just co-name [streets].”
Clearly not enough, because just six months after Ariel was killed, another child – 9-year-old Cooper Stock – died when hit by a taxi at West 97th and West End, two blocks from where Ariel Russo was killed. That corner has now been renamed Cooper Stock Way.
Upper West Side street sign memorials honor the memory of cultural figures, such as Edgar Allan Poe and Isaac Bashevis Singer, as well as notable politicians, activists and others who lived or worked in the neighborhood. They’re usually placed where the people of note lived, rather than where they died, and they rarely honor the memory of a small child. But in the cases of Ariel Russo and Cooper Stock, the street signs mark the sites of tragedy, demanding remembrance and, in some cases, civic action to prevent more tragedy.
Ariel Russo was killed on June 4th, 2013, when Franklin Reyes, Jr., who was 17, lost control of his family’s S.U.V. at the corner of 97th and Amsterdam. The SUV crashed into Ariel and her grandmother, Katia Gutierrez, who was taking her to nursery school (and who survived). Reyes, who was not properly licensed, was fleeing the police who had pulled him over on West 89th Street for making an illegal turn.
Besides the street sign, a number of other developments followed in the wake of Ariel’s death. Six months after the accident, the City Council passed a law named after her – the Ariel Russo Response Time Reporting Act, which requires 911 response times to be more precisely measured and reported. This came about because a city investigation concluded that human error caused a four-minute delay before an ambulance was dispatched to the scene.
Another legacy of the tragedy was more vocal calls for street safety, buoyed by a stunning series of pedestrians hit by reckless drivers in the period around Ariel Russo’s death. Then-mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero policy, announced in early 2014, was intended to bring the number of traffic deaths to zero through an array of new measures. Among the changes were lowering the city speed limit to 25 miles per hour and increasing cameras that track speeding and red light violations – though the number of pedestrians hit has never come close to the “zero” target.
In 2015, Ariel Russo’s family settled a lawsuit with the city, receiving $150,000, in which they argued that the delay in sending the ambulance was the result of negligence and could have been a factor in her death. The Russos became vocal advocates for improved safety on the streets and formed an organization that lobbies for greater traffic safety laws, Families for Safe Streets, advocating for more speed bumps, reducing police chases, and other ways to make city streets safer for pedestrians.
The final chapter of this story came in 2016, when Franklin Reyes was sentenced to three to nine years in prison for involuntary manslaughter. In the years following Ariel’s death, Reyes had been arrested on other charges: stealing from an apartment in Manhattan and dragging a policeman down the street with his car when the officer stopped him for driving without a license.
At the sentencing, Ariel’s grandmother, Katia Gutierrez, said: “This was no accident.” Addressing Reyes, she said, “For me there is no time that you can ever serve that will make up for the immense damage you have caused.” Later, in front of the courthouse, Ariel’s mother and father, Sofia and Alan, said they would do all they could to make sure that Reyes served his full nine-year prison term rather than getting paroled. According to a New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision database, he was released in 2020.