April 14, 2016

On the trail of the
Brooklyn-Queens Connector

Ask any Brooklyn commuter about Queens, or vice versa, and they will likely lament the hardship of simply getting there.

The G train, the only subway line that goes directly between Queens and Brooklyn, has been doomed to a pathetic public image it can’t seem to shed. The bus trips are long, the transfers arduous and the roundabout routes too far-flung to even consider for a night out. Perhaps it is telling that a detour into Manhattan is all too often required to get from one to the other.

Sometimes, the easiest way to travel between New York City’s two biggest boroughs – the only ones to share a land border, Marble Hill aside – is to leave them altogether.

This inter-borough division, as old as the subway system itself, is at the heart of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to build a streetcar that would stretch from Sunset Park to Astoria. If built, the 16-mile light rail line, called the Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX), would be one of the largest public infrastructure projects in decades, paid for, as the mayor argues, by the rise in property values (read: taxes) it would usher in to affected neighborhoods. (Imagine the real estate listings: “NEW LUXURY APTS! CLOSE TO BQX!”)

The times, the mayor said, demand it: “The center of gravity is shifting more and more to the outer boroughs … so we’ve got to answer that with a new kind of transportation and a new way to connect everyone.” But, like anything hotly debated in New York, the mere mention of a project this ambitious naturally evoked a question heard often in a city with seemingly a million moving parts: Can it actually work?

To find out what its residents think, we traversed Kings County, following the proposed corridor along one potential route. We started in Sunset Park, snaked through Red Hook and Brooklyn Heights, looped around the Brooklyn Navy Yard and ended in Greenpoint. And throughout, Brooklynites offered a set of opinions as diverse as the borough itself. Residents expressed optimism, skepticism, excitement and worry over Brooklyn’s rapid leap into the future, with the streetcar as the latest symbol that times are a-changin’.

Part 1

Sunset Park / Gowanus

Sunset Park

59th Street and Fourth Avenue in Sunset Park

Standing at the corner of 59th Street and Fourth Avenue in Sunset Park, where the streetcar is set to start and end, the first question that comes to mind is, frankly, “How?” The streets here are that New York City type of narrow, especially on 59th Street, where the streetcar will head toward Second Avenue. When we arrived, a bus was stopped in the middle of the road, holding cars back as it dropped students off to a school on the block. And parking is already a hassle.

But the location does offer pluses: The intersection is lined with great eateries and businesses that define this teeming immigrant community, and is home to the 59th Street N/R subway stop – an ideal connection for streetcar passengers. This is where photographer Jake and I first followed the line’s early forays, passing the sprawling Brooklyn Army Terminal and other, more desolate, industrial areas underneath the Gowanus Expressway. There, residents’ and business owners’ top concern was something all New Yorkers can grumble about: traffic.

Sunset Park

The intersection at 59th Street and Fourth Avenue in Sunset Park.

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Alfred Sanchez

Alfred Sanchez
Transit worker (retired)
Age: 70
Location: 59th Street and Second Avenue

“They brought up the streetcar at our last community board meeting, and we were worried about parking, because there’s already not much. It seems like it’s always clogged here, and traffic isn’t limited to rush hour. When I moved here, in 1978, there were barely any cars on the streets. But things are changing – Sunset Park is starting to look like the next Park Slope, and property taxes have been going up for a while. What are you gonna do? That’s progress, I guess. It needs to happen. It’s good for me, too, because I’m gonna sell my house soon, and move to a place where there are no cars.”

Jose Vincente

Jose Vincente
Locksmith
Age: 54
Location: 47th Street and Third Avenue, underneath Gowanus Expressway

“I think it’ll mess up a lot of neighborhoods. With all of these buildings and roads here, there will be a lot of discomfort before comfort. It’s like when they built highways, like the Cross-Bronx Expressway – they had to raze houses first, and those people eventually had to move. I think we have better things to spend money on, honestly. There’s already a ton of buses, a subway, and a highway between Queens and Brooklyn. Unless it’s just for the upper class. ... I have a 71-story building near me that’s being built, and you know that it’s not for the poor. I think this will promote the same, and it’ll bring disruption. Either way, somebody’s gonna have to move.”

Part 2

Gowanus / Red Hook

It’s no surprise that the mayor chose Pioneer Works, a startup in Red Hook, for his BQX press conference; the neighborhood quite possibly has the most to gain from the streetcar. Public transit to this Brooklyn edge is minimal, as subway access is subject to your proximity from the Smith Street F/G stop, which can be a 20- to 30-minute walk from some reaches of the neighborhood, such as the waterfront IKEA. Buses come, but sometimes infrequently, residents say, and this can lead to drawn-out wait times, especially if you’re coming from other neighborhoods.

Some said that because Red Hook plays hard-to-get-to, it has an exclusive charm – untouched by the rest of the city, and therefore a haven from it all. Others disagreed. So, when Jake and I crossed the Gowanus Canal Bridge, we found residents who were more a bit enthusiastic about the streetcar. But like the rest of their borough brethren, they still held their reservations about what it means for the neighborhood at large.

Lorraine Street and Court Street

Lorraine Street and Court Street in Red Hook

Red Hook

The intersection at Lorraine Street and Court Street in Red Hook.

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Phil G.

Phil G.
Electrician (retired)
Age: 57
Location: Lorraine Street and Court Street

“It’s more about whether the community wants it – not the city. If the community is down, then I’m down. If it creates jobs and doesn’t speed up gentrification, then I’m for it. I just don’t want people to leave their homes.”

Maria Esquilin

Maria Esquilin
Disabled
Age: 58
Location: Lorraine Street and Court Street

“Every day, I take the B61 and the B57 from Fort Greene to here. It takes about 45 minutes altogether, and when I’m here, it comes every 10 minutes. This (streetcar) would most likely be faster than the bus, but then neighbors would be like, ‘Where can I park?’ And the bus stops wherever I like – this wouldn’t. It sounds like a nice idea, but I think I’ll keep my bus.”

Part 3

Brooklyn Heights / Dumbo

Brooklyn Heights

Hicks Street and Montague Street

We made it to bustling Brooklyn Heights around lunchtime, and the streets were packed with people: tourists snapping photos in front of the Promenade, lawyers grabbing a bite to eat in between court dates, the sidewalks filled with everyone else enjoying the balmy Tuesday afternoon, with the bright Brooklyn Bridge looming in the not-so-far distance.

Once again, it was hard to envision a streetcar maneuvering through this chaos, while somehow not adding to it, as Hicks Street, one potential route through the proposed corridor, is no wider than any other street in the neighborhood. And residents felt the same. This is also a neighborhood that has long been commercialized, branded as Brooklyn, so skeptics of the change a new line of transportation could bring were less vocal. The same goes for Dumbo, as the streetcar curves around Front Street and heads east, to the Brooklyn Navy Yard and beyond.

Brooklyn Heights

The intersection at Hicks Street and Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights.

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David Ehrenberg

David Ehrenberg
President of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation
Age: 39
Location: Brooklyn Navy Yard

"With the yard’s workforce set to double in the next five years, one of our top priorities is connecting where our employees live with where they work, and enhancing employment and transportation opportunities for the surrounding Navy Yard community. Our newly announced shuttle system, along with the planned BQX, will continue to enable major growth of outer borough commercial hubs and by extension the continued growth of the new New York economy at the yard."

Victoria Topoleski

Victoria Topoleski
Medical Assistant
Age: 28
Location: Hicks Street and Montague Street

“I think the idea is poo. The traffic here is already crap, and the new Citi Bikes have been a major problem. It’d also bring more tourists, too, because I can’t imagine any New Yorker would actually ride this thing. Also, I don’t want my taxes going up! Put it somewhere where there’s nothing going on – just not here. Not this neighborhood, or anywhere where I live or work. Do it somewhere else.”

Greg Markman

Greg Markman
Owner of Heights Cafe
Age: 47
Location: Hicks Street and Montague Street

“I’m sure I’m speaking on behalf of all business owners in this neighborhood by saying that we’d love to see it happen. But I don’t think it’s realistic, due to the high costs and the time it’d take to build it. It sounds like something that can be done right now: like, if the city ran test trolley cars or shuttles instead, to see how traffic would respond. The trolleys could be done up real well, too; something that’s futuristic, efficient, and on the cutting edge. I think that should be done first, before anything. Also, my property taxes are already too high here. Unless I see some profit sharing, then maybe we should switch to Plan B.”

Part 4

Williamsburg / Greenpoint

Williamsburg

Kent Avenue and North Seventh Street in Williamsburg.

The final stretch of our expedition took us along Kent Avenue, which is, arguably, the best example of the desired effect the mayor may have in mind: an all-out push to develop the shoreline, in an effort to drive up property values, commerce, and everything else that rides the coattails of hyper-development. Honestly, this neighborhood is why the BQX proposal exists in the first place: The waterfront here has morphed into the most significant corridor to happen in New York since Broadway, with projects in the works all the way up the shore to Astoria.

With clear-as-day views of Manhattan’s skyline, the shiny new BQX would fit in perfectly here, matching the modernist condos and gleaming high-rises that seem to be in a constant state of construction. Not to mention this overwhelming feeling in the air that the end is nigh: The entire neighborhood is bracing for a temporarily L-train-less future, when North Brooklyn will be effectively cut off from easy access to Manhattan for months – or years – on end.

A streetcar could be salvation here. Whether residents buy that, though, is a different story.

Greenpoint

The intersection at Franklin Street and Green Street in Greenpoint.

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Adam Baca

Adam Baca
Bartender
Age: 33
Location: Kent Avenue and Division Avenue

“If this streetcar is completed, it will symbolize the full completion of the suburb of Portland, or San Francisco. I’m moving next month – my building owner sold my place, so I’m out of here. This neighborhood is already too expensive to live in, and only the ultra-rich will be able to afford it soon. But Williamsburg needs something to sustain its growth. There’s just no way it can support this many people moving here. Especially without the L.”

John True

John True
Bar Manager of Alameda Restaurant
Age: 33
Location: Franklin Street and Green Street

“I came from Boston, so I’m used to a streetcar. And I think it’d be great for business here. I understand the apprehension – not everyone wants to live in Williamsburg, and it might depreciate value to businesses when it’s being built, like the Second Avenue Subway has in the Upper East Side. I don’t see the city paying back those losses either. But I think, overall, it’d be great for people to be able to easily get between Queens and Brooklyn. It’s something that’s good for the city, and good for Brooklyn.”