UPPER WEST SIDE — On Monday, Ariel Russo would have had a ballerina-themed party, made her own Teddy bear and eaten chocolate frozen yogurt with gummy bears to celebrate her fifth birthday, her mother said.
Instead, Sofia Russo and her husband Alan stood surrounded by more than 100 people Monday afternoon to mark the naming of the southwest corner of West 97th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, where Ariel was struck and killed last June, "Ariel Russo Place."
It's a corner that Sofia, who lives nearby, said she has been unable to face until now, taking all kinds of circuitous routes to avoid it. The co-naming, with a bright green sign that also explains that Ariel was only 4 years old, "gave me the courage to go past here," she said.
On June 4, Ariel was walking to class at the Holy Name School with her grandmother when 17-year-old driver Franklin Reyes careened onto the sidewalk during a chase with police, killing Russo and severely injuring her grandmother Katia Gutierrez, 58.
"Our hearts are broken," said Sofia Russo, who spoke Monday "from the heart" without reading from notes.
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who represented the district at the time of Ariel's death, and current City Councilman Mark Levine presented a copy of the street sign to the Russo family, who are expecting a baby boy in May.
Levine called the co-naming a "somber occasion," speaking about the 911 call center's four-minute delay in dispatching emergency personnel to the scene "inexplicable" and "indefensible," noting it "may have made the different between life and death."
A probe by the city's Department of Investigation released in December found that human error was to blame in the delay. The Russos have called for a criminal investigation.
Levine praised the Russos for testifying about their daughter's death and said their advocacy helped pass the Ariel Russo Response Time Reporting Act, which requires the city to record emergency response times from the moment calls are placed, rather than from the time the call is transferred to the Fire Department or EMS.
Mark-Viverito and Levine also took the opportunity to commend the mayor's Vision Zero policy, which includes a variety of street safety changes in the hopes of bringing traffic accident deaths down to zero.
"We need to do more than just co-name [streets]," Mark-Viverito said. "The best way to avoid tragedies is to avoid traffic accidents in the first place."
The Russos will also fight for laws that limit police chases and lobby for more speed bumps in the neighborhood, Sofia Russo said.
"When she was born and I held her, the first thing that I said to her was, 'You're here to make a difference,'" she said.