From left, Judith Proctor, Spencer Early and Dimitris Koutoumbas place a memorial to Matthew Balga on a light pole. / Photos by Thane Grauel
From left, Judith Proctor, Spencer Early and Dimitris Koutoumbas place a tribute to Matthew Balga on a light pole. / Photos by Thane Grauel
Matthew Balga, Whelk chef who died after being struck by a car on Riverside Avenue March 4, 2023
Matthew Balga / Contributed photo

By Thane Grauel

WESTPORT — Four weeks after chef Matthew Balga was fatally struck by a car on Riverside Avenue, a pedestrian safety advocacy group paid tribute to him.

A small group from Connecticut Urbanists on Sunday morning walked from a train station parking lot to the area where Balga was struck, near The Whelk restaurant. Balga had just left work there late on a Saturday night.

With two Westport police cruisers idling nearby, the group taped a flier about the death to a pole that holds a flashing light for the nearby firehouse. They also affixed a pair of “ghost shoes,” footwear painted white, and a bouquet of flowers.

The flier reads:

“A driver killed our neighbor here

“On March 4, 2023 around 11:30 pm, a driver struck a Norwalk resident crossing Riverside Avenue near Ketchum Street who died from injuries the next day in the hospital.

“This was no accident. Both the driver and the design of the built environment contributed to this crash.

“News reports are unclear whether the driver was speeding or was using headlights. This is a dense area with several restaurants that are open late, and yet street lighting is inadequate. The Connecticut Crash Data Repository described this area as being dark with unknown lighting conditions.

“Deaths and injuries from car violence in our streets are predictable, as the current design is inherently dangerous for all users of the street, drivers included. How many more lives will be sacrificed before the Town of Westport acts?

“Help us fight back. Contact local elected officials and demand action. Connecticut Urbanists”

“We don’t ask permission,” Dimitris Koutoumbas of Connecticut Urbanists said while zip-tying the shoes and flowers to the pole. “We’re activists.”

Balga, 54, of Norwalk, was struck late March 4 and died from the injuries the next day at Norwalk Hospital. He was born in Bridgeport and graduated Bunnell High School in Stratford, and Southern Connecticut State University with a computer science degree.

It appears cooking was his calling.

“Matt was a loving and caring soul that touched the lives of many,” his obituary read. “He had such a passion with food and believed in farm to table cuisine. He was always so proud of making new dishes and trying new things. He loved to watch the reactions of the customers.”

Connecticut Urbanists has been placing memorials around the state, to honor those killed by vehicles since early January.

“Ghost Shoes are dignified and somber memorials for people lost to car violence …” the group said on its Facebook page, “meant to be a reminder of an avoidable tragedy and a quiet statement in support of people’s right to safe travel.”

When scouting Riverside for the best place for the tribute, where the most people could see it, the group quickly noted that the pedestrian crosswalk was not from one side of the Saugatuck Center development to the other, but a half-block away.

One of those on hand was Judith Proctor of Fairfield. She lost her 27-year-old son, Charlie, to a cycling incident in Massachusetts.

An older memorial on Riverside Avenue.
An older tribute to Balga on Riverside Avenue.

She is now a citizen activist and member of the state’s Vision Zero Council. That’s an inter-agency work group tasked with developing statewide policy to eliminate transportation-related fatalities and severe injuries involving pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users, motorists and passengers, according to the state’s website.

She said there were some 375 deaths from such crashes statewide last year.

“Traffic violence,” Koutoumbas noted, in apparent response to the word “crashes.”

“Of those, there were at least 75 who were vulnerable road users,” Proctor said. “Cyclists and pedestrians.”

“We care about safe streets, we care about our communities,” Koutoumbas said. “We want a better Connecticut.”

‘We want to bring exposure to injustices of the built environment that does not help people who travel on foot, by bike or public transit’

Dimitris Koutoumbas of Connecticut Urbanists

‘We want to bring exposure to injustices of the built environment that does not help people who travel on foot, by bike or public transit,” he said.

Three other tributes were placed by the group around the state Sunday.

They were for:

Jaemar Dillard of Waterbury

Donna Berry of Greenwich

John Gursky of Hamden.

Thane Grauel, executive editor, grew up in Westport and has been a journalist in Fairfield County and beyond for 35 years. Reach him at editor@westportjournal.com. Learn more about us here.