Red Hook

OPINION: BQX could bring more local tourism to Red Hook

May 9, 2019 Raanan Geberer
Here's Red Hook, with the World Trade Center rising behind it, as seen from IKEA's parking lot. Eagle file photo by Lore Croghan
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The back-and-forth debate over the proposed BQX streetcar, a mass transit improvement that wouldn’t be developed by the MTA, reminds me somewhat of the Roosevelt Island Tram, which was likewise developed without the aid of the metro area’s transit authority.

Almost everyone in New York City has ridden on the Tramway at one time or another. By all rights, however, the Tramway shouldn’t be here anymore at all.

The Roosevelt Island Tramway was built in 1976 as a way to shuttle residents of the new housing developments on the island to Manhattan. The older trolley tracks over the Queensboro Bridge, which stopped mid-bridge at an elevator that took people down to the island, had by then deteriorated too much to be renovated.

At the time, it was understood that the Tramway was a temporary measure that would be taken down once the new 63rd Street subway tunnel, which included a Roosevelt Island stop, opened. But by the time the subway tunnel finally opened din 1989, the Tramway, with its scenic views of the East River, was too popular with tourists to remove. By now, more than 20 million people have ridden the tram.

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

The BQX was not designed for tourists. According to Mayor Bill de Blasio, who announced his support for the project soon after it was proposed, the BQX is a response to the “incredible growth” on the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront, particularly neighborhoods like DUMBO, Williamsburg, Greenpoint and Long Island City, and seeks to meet the transit needs of those who live and work there.

From the beginning, some local officials, like Councilmember Carlos Menchaca, and advocacy groups, like UPROSE, have been critical of the project, saying that it has had insufficient local input and that it would penalize “mom-and-pop” businesses to serve large developers. Still, the city administration is steadfastly behind the proposal.

A stretch of the proposed BQX route in Red Hook. Rendering courtesy of Friends of the BQX
A stretch of the proposed BQX route in Red Hook. Rendering courtesy of Friends of the BQX

When the proponents of the BQX talk about the case for the streetcar line, tourism is rarely mentioned. It it’s mentioned, it’s often in a negative context, like an article in the blog whose headline is “Waterfront Neighborhoods Fear That Proposed Streetcar would favor tourists and yuppies.”

Personally, I doubt whether out-of-town tourists would use the BQX—if you have only a week in New York City, Long Island City is probably not on your agenda. However, the BQX could definitely spur local tourism – for example, Manhattan residents visiting Greenpoint, Long Island City or Brooklyn Bridge Park. And one neighborhood that I believe could benefit from such local tourism, and the tourists that the BQX would bring, is the waterfront area of Red Hook.

Red Hook has been attracting more and more people over the years for its views of the Statue of Liberty and Governor’s Island; attractions like the Waterfront Barge Museum and Rocky Sullivan’s Bar; culinary magnets like Steve’s Key Lime Pies and the Red Hook Lobster Pound, and, of course, IKEA. Yet, the area is not near any subway lines and is only accessible by the B61 and B75 buses and, at times, by IKEA’s free shuttle bus.

The number of local tourists visiting Red Hook could increase dramatically with the BQX, or at least that portion of it. In fact, that was the idea behind the predecessor of the BQX — transit buff and engineer Bob Diamond’s never-completed Red Hook trolley line.

In the 1990s, Diamond’s Brooklyn Historic Railway Association laid trolley tracks and erected overhead wires on private property on Pier 41 in Red Hook. Diamond was able to procure about 10 mid-20th century “PCC” streetcars as well as an 1897 streetcar from Oslo, Norway.

He and his volunteers had begun to lay tracks and erect overhead wires in some adjacent Red Hook streets when the city Department of Transportation withdrew its initial support for the projects under what are still disputed circumstances, ripping up the tracks and leaving Diamond in the lurch.

What effect the BQX would have on Williamsburg, Greenpoint and Long Island City, and the financial feasibility of building the line, are outside the subject of this column. But as far as enabling more visitor access to Red Hook is concerned, the BQX is clearly a win-win situation, in my estimation.

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