Brooklyn Heights

As both transit hub and retreat, historic Brooklyn Heights held prominence

Celebrating Brooklyn Heights Press 75th Year: Transit Museum's "Betsy" Displayed With Other Historic Buses On Boerum Pl.

September 30, 2014 By Linda Laban Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Betsy, a double decker bus dating from 1931, was on display at the New York Transit Museum’s 21st Annual Bus Festival this past Sunday.
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Once again, the sun shone on Betsy as she sat on Boerum Place. A double decker bus dating from 1931, Betsy was part of this year’s display at the New York Transit Museum’s 21st Annual Bus Festival this past Sunday. She’s a regular at this show of New York City buses and transit utility vehicles — Betsy’s a favorite with staff and visitors and is quite special.

“She’s our oldest bus, and she’s our only double decker. A lot of the buses look like the ones we ride today, whereas Betsy stands out,” said the Transit Museum’s press aide Eli Rumpf, a Brooklyn resident who grew up in Seattle.

Betsy, the Bus Festival’s grande dame, was a mere eight years old and already hard at work when the Brooklyn Heights Press first went to print 75 years ago. On Sunday, she was among 17 buses and mass transit utility vehicles parked on Boerum Place. Adjacent streets were closed to traffic, allowing visitors a chance to relax and let their kids clamber aboard the vehicles excitedly, just as they would fairground attractions.

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For the past few years, the festival has tagged onto the annual Atlantic Antic Street Festival, which hit its 40th year last Sunday: “This is the sixth or seventh year we’ve worked with them. It works out really well for both of us. It brings a big crowd to both events,” said Rumpf. Besides children, the Bus Festival attracts bus enthusiasts from all over and, also, New Yorkers taking a “ride” down memory lane. “For older folks, they recognize the buses they once rode; some of the buses they rode as kids,” Rumpf said. “It’s very special.”

Judging by the success of the Bus Festival and the museum, New Yorkers like to celebrate and honor their mass transit system. One particular bus wheeled out this year was absent for a couple of years. She dutifully served Lower Manhattan until 2001 and she’s now referred to as the 9/11 Bus. “It was parked across the street on Church Street on Sept. 11 and caught a lot of debris and damage. Rather than scrapping it, the MTA decided to restore it as a show of the city’s resolve after the attacks. It’s painted with the American flag all along the side. It’s exciting to have her back,” Rumpf said.

“The museum is underground so we can’t have the buses on display year round, even though we’d like to,” Rumpf added. “The museum has a lot of subway cars on our lower level and people can go inside. This is the only time we can offer that interaction with the buses.”

Inside the Transit Museum, which is the country’s largest facility dedicated to urban transport history, one exhibition “Steel, Stone & Backbone: Building New York’s Subways 1900-25”  documents the building of Subway tunnels connecting America’s “First Suburb,” Brooklyn Heights, and other parts of the city to Manhattan. “It focuses on those tunnels and the workers working deep underground in dangerous conditions,” Rumpf explained.

As a mass transit hub, genteel Brooklyn Heights is hardly Grand Central Terminal, but deep in its subterranean bowels, most major subway lines converge within the neighborhood’s borders. “The neighborhood developed in tandem with the subway, and it’s such a crucial nexus for so many Brooklyn trains,” Rumpf said.

The Bus Festival invites visitors to celebrate something you’d think most people bemoan: the daily commute. Complaints about smelly dirty stations, buses and trains are not unusual, especially during summer when it seems like the entire city’s AC is pouring its discarded heat into the airless tunnels. Yet the New York subway and bus system is more essential now than ever.  

“It’s a necessary service and a part of city life,” says Katherine S. Bartholomaus, a retired banker and a board member of the Heights and Hill Community Council, which promotes successful aging in the community. “With New York City making an effort with fossil fuel emissions and combatting climate change, mass transit plays a huge part in the city becoming greener.”

Bartholomaus has lived in Brooklyn Heights for more than 40 years. “When I was working, I used the subway all the time. Now, I still use it all the time for leisure. It’s extremely convenient; I can get from Wall Street to Lincoln Center very easily. As a family, we all use mass transit. We recently did a family trip to the Rockaways to check out the progress after Sandy and check out the surfers — and that was all done on mass transit.”

Will Carlin, a communications and process specialist and managing partner of VShift, was born and raised in the Heights. Apart from some stints living elsewhere, he’s spent most of his 51 years here.

“My theory of why New York City’s so different from the rest of the country largely has to do with mass transit. I’d travel around the world and see so much racism, prejudice and homophobia. I thought there’s so much less in the United States. Then I realized what I was talking about was New York — not America, where those things are alive and well,” Carlin said.

“Because we are a mass transit society and a walking city, you can have all the prejudices you want, but when you’re on the train or the bus and your butt is rubbing up against somebody you hate — you hate their race, religion, sexual orientation or the way they are dressed — you can’t get in a fight about it, else you’d be fighting every day. You have to get along and you realize the person to get mad at is the person who’s a jerk. It becomes less about whether the person is different to you, and whether or not they are nice and polite,” explained Carlin.

Still, he feels this unity might soon be shattered: “I worry about the immediate future when all the tunnels are wired. I love the idea of being connected to the Internet, but I’m terrified people are going to start having loud cell phone conversations. People will be annoyed and there will be a huge divide.”

Marc Agger, a Heights resident of 25 years, agrees. “I like the idea that they have Wi-Fi in the subways; it’s a good idea. But I don’t think it’s necessary to have phone service, just Wi-Fi service,” said Agger, who serves on the advisory board of Transportation Alternatives, a non-profit seeking to encourage and increase non-polluting, quiet, city-friendly travel and decrease private car use.

It’s not all pedal and foot power for Agger, though: “I use subways all the time, buses sometimes. I use the ferries all the time. The ferries are really convenient. The subways in Brooklyn are so good — even if you had the option to drive, [the subway is] more predictable and faster than driving. If you can afford a car and drive in the city and park it,” he continued, “maybe it’s a good idea to put in a wireless toll system on the Brooklyn Bridge and let people pay for the right. It costs enormous amounts of money to repair the bridge. The same with the BQE,” Agger added. “Now they’re saying it’s going to cost close to a billion dollars to repair it. There are heavy trucks going back and forth and no one pays tolls. There are people with disabilities who need to drive, why not exempt them?”

Agger knows not all neighborhoods are as well served by the subway as Brooklyn Heights and supports the mooted expansion of BikeShare into those areas. He also thinks New Yorkers should view a half mile or so walk to the Subway as an enjoyable part of their day.

“A little exercise on both ends of your day, there’s nothing better than that,” he says. “New York City has a great street life. You see people you know, and people you don’t know — either way, it’s a wonderful part of city life.”

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