Just over five years ago, when Leah McVeigh moved to Astoria, a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens, one of the first things she noticed about her apartment building was the dangerous intersection next to it. There were so many car crashes, she told me, that she learned to identify the sound of one: “There’s this specific crunch. And then quiet.”
There seemed to be an accident every week, and the constant honking suggested that there were dozens of near misses every day. It was so dangerous that she bought a large first aid kit to keep in the apartment. She also called the city’s 311 help line to request that a traffic light be installed, and when that didn’t work, she attended her community board meeting to see if they could help. Nothing changed, and McVeigh concluded that she’d done what she could. “I had to live my life. I had to go work. I’ve kicked the tires, and I’ve only lived here six months. Surely someone in this neighborhood has been trying to deal with this for years,” she said.
But one rainy night in September 2020, McVeigh heard that familiar, dreadful crunch and quiet. She ran down into the pouring rain in her slippers and found a delivery worker on the ground with a line of blood trickling from his mouth. “You could tell, as soon as you got there, that it was not going to go well for him,” she said.
McVeigh watched him die. She decided then that getting the intersection fixed would be her “raison d’être.” This man was deeply loved, she told me. His friends and family brought a band to play a funeral brass section at the intersection. They put up a poster at the site of his death and lit candles almost every night for the next six months.
McVeigh e-mailed every legislator at the city and state level, telling them, “I need this intersection fixed. I don’t have the emotional capacity to watch another person die in front of my house during Covid-19. This is too hard.” But every elected politician she reached out to either didn’t respond or told her that they couldn’t do anything to help.
That changed last January, when Zohran Mamdani, one of six democratic socialists to win state office in New York, became the assemblymember representing Astoria. He hosted a Covid-19 town hall meeting over Zoom, which McVeigh attended. “He said a lot of good things,” she told me, and he invited participants to volunteer with his office to help deliver constituent services to their neighbors. This work entails assisting hundreds of constituents who reach out to the assemblymember with practical needs: an unmet unemployment claim, a complaint to the city that has not been addressed, or dozens of other unique problems. McVeigh thought, “Maybe this is how I will not only get my traffic light, but I can also ensure that others don’t have the same experience that I did.”