In The News

Brooklyn rolls toward trolley revival
To draw tourists and traffic: Clang, clang, clang ...

February 3, 2002 Posted: 3:49 PM EST (2049 GMT)

NEW YORK (AP) -- Since disappearing from city streets nearly 50 years ago, the trolley car has been relegated to mere speed-bump status in the city's mass transit history.

But the rumbling trolley might make a comeback in Brooklyn, the most populous of New York City's five boroughs.

Bob Diamond and a nonprofit group of about 20 volunteer electricians, welders and construction experts at the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association (BHRA) are trying to make it happen. They have spent the last seven years stretching a light-rail line 1.7 miles from the southern tip of the Red Hook peninsula to downtown Brooklyn.

The hope is to finally connect the underdeveloped and transit-starved spit of land to the seven downtown subway lines -- and to give tourists a reason to visit the oft-ignored area.

"The trolley would become a cross between a tourist attraction and a mass-transit route," said Diamond, a transit historian and president of the association.

But financing for the project recently hit a stumbling block. The type of grant the BHRA receives requires sponsorship from a local government agency.

Up until now, that has come from the city Department of Transportation, but a dispute about a clause in the grant provision has caused the city agency to withdraw that sponsorship, leaving the future of the project up in the air.

Other trolley cars

Most people associate trolleys with San Francisco, California; New Orleans, Louisiana; and older European cities. But at its height in the early part of the 1900s, New York had the most extensive trolley system in the United States, said George Boucher, general manager of the Shoreline Trolley Museum in East Haven, Connecticut.

"Basically every main thoroughfare had a trolley line running down it," he said. Trolleys were so prevalent in Brooklyn that the name of its baseball team, the Dodgers, was an homage to residents' skill at avoiding streetcars.

In fact, the last trolley line to be demolished in New York was its first: Brooklyn's Coney Island line, taken down in 1956.

Trolleys are already making a comeback in other cities: San Diego, California, installed a line in the 1980s, as did Buffalo, New York. In the past two years, New Jersey Transit opened a line connecting Bayonne to Jersey City, with plans to extend it by 2005.

"Light-rail is pretty cost-efficient," Boucher said. "You might say it's like going back to the future."

Tunnel discovered

For Diamond, the trolley resurrection had its genesis 20 years ago, when he discovered an unused and long-forgotten Long Island Rail Road train tunnel running for nearly 2,000 feet under Atlantic Avenue, one of Brooklyn's major thoroughfares.

After several years of giving tours of the tunnel, telling tales about the days when the city was crisscrossed with trolley lines, Diamond began thinking about possible uses for the tunnel that was abandoned in the 1840s.

He settled on a trolley, putting together a plan to run a line from the tip of Red Hook north to neighboring Carroll Gardens through the abandoned tunnel, and ultimately encircling Borough Hall to connect with seven subway lines.

Diamond knew the idea was kitschy, but it seemed too good to be true -- proving a cost-effective transportation alternative to the diesel-powered buses that are currently the neighborhood's only option.

"Red Hook has no really good public transportation going in there, and I think this would be a real improvement for the neighborhood," said Angel Rodriguez, the district's city council member. Rodriguez has helped Diamond secure more than $50,000 in city money for the project.

"But equally important would be the symbolism of what this would bring to a neighborhood that has been struggling for a long time," he said.

No easy neighborhood

Red Hook has long been a tough neighborhood, even for Brooklyn.

Back when the borough was a major seaport, the industrial area was filled with the tough, bare-knuckled longshoreman made famous by gritty portrayals in Arthur Miller's play "A View from the Bridge," Hubert Selby's "Last Exit to Brooklyn" and Budd Schulberg's novel "On the Waterfront."

Although many of the surrounding neighborhoods have long been affluent, Red Hook was cut off from the rest of the borough in the late 1930s by the construction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

Once the expressway was completed, "the vicious gyre of urban decay began -- and widened," wrote historian Robert A. Caro. Red Hook spiraled into a deeper depression.

In recent years, talk of developing Red Hook has gained speed. The idea of the trolley has created considerable local buzz, but political support has been slow.

"Politicians are pragmatists, so they aren't going to truly get behind this unless they sense a groundswell of public support," Diamond said.

That could change with the arrival of Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who threw his support behind the plan within two weeks of taking office.

"We'd like to see Red Hook be connected to the rest of Brooklyn," said his spokesman, Glenn von Nostitz. "And since you might even get some tourists to go down, we'd like to encourage that."

Bucks for Brooklyn

Money is another matter. Diamond anticipates that the entire project, including laying all the track, extending the power supply and fixing up all the cars, would cost between $4 million and $5 million.

So far, the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association has gotten close to $400,000 for the project through grants from the federal Department of Transportation, and it is currently applying for more.

"This could really be done at almost no cost to the city," Diamond said.

With that money, the volunteers have been able to purchase 17 art deco-style trolley cars from Boston and Buffalo and refurbish most of them. They have also put down the first several hundred feet of track on the southern tip of the peninsula.

But with the future of the project in doubt, Diamond and his crew continue to toil away out of love for the trolleys.

"I look at it as a type of industrial sculpture, and I'm having the time of my life re-exploring industrialism," said Gregory Castillo, the project's vice president and head of construction.

"There's definitely a Zen component to this."

2002-2011 Brooklyn Historic Railway Association, Brooklyn, NY. All rights reserved.