Coney Island

Streetcar in Coney Island could tie into amusement parks | Opinion

January 22, 2020 By Raanan Geberer
Coney Island's amusement district. Photo: Lore Croghan/Brooklyn Eagle
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Several years ago, builder, supermarket mogul, radio host and occasional political candidate John Catsimatidis announced that he hoped to include a trolley with his planned Ocean Dreams rental development at 3514 Surf Ave. to take residents to the Stillwell Avenue subway terminal.

Ocean Dreams is now here, and its apartments are advertised online, but there’s no sign of a streetcar. In my opinion, a streetcar system wouldn’t work in Coney Island unless it’s tied into the amusement area and sponsored by one or more of the amusement parks.

The idea is not new. Back in the first decade of the 2000s, Arthur Melnick, a streetcar buff and former teacher who grew up in Coney Island, formed the Brooklyn City Streetcar Company. Its objective was to put a trolley line in Coney Island that would connect parking lots off the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to destinations in the area. 

Melnick had previously been a volunteer for Bob Diamond’s Brooklyn Historic Railroad Association, which had sought to build a streetcar line from Red Hook to Downtown Brooklyn. Diamond, a rail fan with technical expertise, had gotten some financial support from the city and was able to lay tracks and overhead wires in several Red Hook streets before the city pulled its support and ripped the tracks up in early 2004. In an interview sometime in the mid-2000s, Melnick told this reporter that unlike Diamond’s effort, which he characterized as volunteer-driven, he would rely on professional transit experts and engineers. 

When I interviewed Melnick a few years later, however, he told me that the group’s focus was now presenting art exhibitions that would have streetcars and trolleys as a theme. In a phone call last week, Melnick explained that back when he was actively promoting streetcars, he got a very good reception from local community members and organizations in Coney Island, but that the Bloomberg administration wasn’t particularly interested.

Today, the Brooklyn Streetcar Artists Group, which was founded in 2008 as an offshoot of Melnick’s earlier group, lists its goal as encouraging community-related art in general and presenting visual art at public venues. In particular, the nonprofit ran exhibitions at Coney Island Hospital for 10 years, and it has also been active in other parts of the borough, such as Bay Ridge. The group’s site, however, doesn’t list the promotion of trolley cars as an objective.

Many years ago, there actually were several trolley, or streetcar, routes that served Coney Island.  In fact, in the first half of the 20th century, trolleys were one of the main ways that amusement-seekers got to Coney Island, along with elevated lines, subways and ferryboats from Manhattan. 

The Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Co. (BMT) had several trolley routes that terminated at the amusement district — from Windsor Terrace, from Sunset Park and the most picturesque route of all, the one that proceeded through a private right-of-way and ended at Norton’s Point at the tip of the private community of Sea Gate. By the mid-1950s, these routes had all been replaced by bus lines.

Maintaining a streetcar system is time-consuming and expensive. In addition to the cars, there are overhead wires, power generation plants and the tracks themselves to worry about. The original Coney Island trolley routes worked because they were tied into the huge network of BMT trolley lines that shared generating plants, power and track. That network extended all the way into Greenpoint and Southern Queens and was thus able to share expenses across more than 20 routes. 

The distance between Brighton Beach and Sea Gate is about 3.7 miles. Many people can walk that distance, and there are currently two east-west bus lines in Coney Island – one that goes north on Coney Island Avenue and another one that eventually swings west to Bay Ridge. 

As I see it, a Coney Island trolley would mainly be a tourist attraction. That’s not to say it’s not a good idea — San Francisco, for example, has a streetcar line to Fisherman’s Wharf that runs vintage trolley cars from the 1920s and ‘30s exclusively. If the line would be a tourist attraction, however, it would need a different type of developer, someone who has strong connections in the amusement area, or one of the amusement parks itself. Luna Park, are you listening?

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