Should public death memorials be treated as a right or a privilege in New York?

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Photo via Christine Walczak's Facebook

A few weeks ago, in memorial to her mother who died in October, 28-year-old Christine Walczak cleaned up the plot in front of her Kent St. home and screwed a wind chime into the tree. The late Maria Mazur had been a fixture on the Greenpoint block, having lived there since moving to the neighborhood as a child, DNAinfo reported. Last week, a neighbor sent Walczak an anonymous note complaining about the chimes. Walczak was “infuriated” and tacked the note to the tree along with a rebuke of it. This unleashed a wave of tree notes which one local referred to as a “wall of passive aggression,” before ripping them all off in the name of the tree’s health, according to DNAinfo.

On a surface level, as empathetic humans, most people’s gut reactions is likely to not only sympathize with Walczak, but to consider the anonymous note to be cowardly, passive aggressive, and petty. And it is – if you live close enough to be bothered by wind chimes, you live close enough to be able to go knock on your neighbor’s door and gently pose the question. Neighbors, however – especially the kind that don’t have the guts and etiquette to tell you they have a problem with your wind chimes to your face – probably aren’t going to tolerate the shrines you erect on public property, AKA are going to remove them. Besides, Walczak’s response to the note was harsh. Per DNAinfo:

“Dear neighbor, the wind chime is in memory of my mom who recently passed away! Get over it you live in NYC! The kids on the block love it and I’ve spoken to other neighbors. They don’t mind it! Sorry ‘Not Sorry’ Your neighbor.”

There is very little you can control in regards to your surroundings in New York. That car alarm going off all night, the noises that come with the city replacing your block’s gas line, the cats having sex at 5am, the roaches in your rental – sure, 311 is available as a resource, but it’s a bureaucratic death wish that will likely leave you more frustrated than before. The truly motivated can join their community boards, refuse new liquor licenses for bars, put up a ruckus about rezoning, but even this will hardly allow you to affect change.

So then, when something, even something as small and well-intentioned as your neighbor’s shrine to her mother, is bothering you and you feel it is within your control to change, many a New Yorker will pounce. Most New Yorkers have learned to cope so small things like wind chimes are not bothersome when compared to the rest of the daily noises, but not all. Furthermore, complaining about things within your control does not inherently make you a NIMBY: that tree the chimes are hanging on is public space, after all, and living in a big city does not mean you must forfeit your preferences or pretend to like wind chimes.

In 2013, 12-year-old Sammy Cohen Eckstein was struck and killed by a van in Park Slope. His heartbroken mother lovingly maintained a memorial consisting of stuffed animals and drawings tied to a metal traffic barrier at the entrance to Prospect Park. After 18 months, per park officials’ request, she took it down. A permanent plaque on a park bench now bears his name.

The shrine was touching and deeply sad. It also, however, threw a shadow of death over the park entrance for a very long time. Street safety is nowhere close to where it should be in such a pedestrian-friendly city, but to other families who had lost children and were just trying to enjoy a day in the park, it was impossible to miss and a constant reminder.

The white “ghost bikes” tied to posts around the city near the site of a fatal accident – they too serve as a reminder of how far street safety has to come, but they also take up highly limited space that other bikers need.

Finally, why are some public shrines allowed to live so much longer than others? Groupings of memorial candles and flowers will appear and disappear overnight near the sites of fatal accidents. Yet some are aggressively treated like permanent fixtures, as though all lives are not equal and certain deaths take precedent.

If you live in New York and plan on tolerating this place much longer, you are hopefully capable of keeping your cool while limited public space is used and abused at the whim of the city, of developers, of the environment and aging infrastructure. Your 250 square-foot rat trap is all you’ve got, and you make do. Death is often hardly easier on the living than the deceased, and creating shrines to share your sadness and the memory of the dead can make for a faster route to catharsis. But then, remember: You have neighbors, and you are both equally entitled to public space, and if your neighbors really hate the wind chimes you put in that shared land, maybe you should hang them in your private window instead.

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