Richard Greenwald, a professor of history and sociology, is dean of St. Joseph's College, N.Y. His most recent book is Labor Rising: The Past and Future of Working People in America. He is finishing a book on freelancers entitled The Death of 9-to-5: Permanent Freelancers, Empty Offices and the New Way America Works.
Ever try to get from Brooklyn to Queens, two of the most populated boroughs of New York City? Without a car, it's nearly impossible, as most subway lines require one to go through Manhattan first.
I was recently at an event and speaking to a Brooklyn business leader who grew up in Queens. He told me he remembered going to Brooklyn frequently as a child, for shopping and even for high school. Every time I meet someone who grew up in Queens of a certain age, they will tell me that they remember going to Brooklyn all the time. For them, going "downtown" meant going to Brooklyn. So what happened? How did the two neighboring boroughs become disconnected?
In the beginning, the New York City subway system, as historian Clifton Hood details in his masterful book, 722 Miles, was a commuter line. As such, it was designed to bring people to where the jobs were, and that meant Manhattan. So all subway routes lead there.
If this is true, and it is, then how did Queens residents once travel so easily to Brooklyn? One word can explain it: trolleys.
While the subway got people from the outer boroughs into Manhattan, the once-vast trolley system of New York connected the residents of Queens to Brooklyn. Here's what that system looked like circa the early 1930s:
The demise of the trolleys in the late 1930s and '40s seems to be largely responsible for disconnecting the two sister boroughs. Yes, they were replaced by buses, but buses have never — for a number of reasons — been able to cement the connection the way trolleys seemed to.
Starting in the 1920s, a company called National City Lines started buying up street car lines, then mostly privately owned. In 1936, the company became a holding company owned equally by General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California, and Phillips Petroleum. Perhaps you can guess where this is going. NCL bought up trolley systems in over 40 cities and 15 states, converting them almost overnight into bus lines. In 1947, they were indicted in federal court, in what became known as the "Great American Streetcar Scandal." Two years later, the four original companies who owned NCL, along with MAC Truck, were found guilty of conspiracy to monopolize mass transit. But by then the damage was done. Most of the nation’s streetcar system was in junkyards, replaced by buses.
(Wikimedia Commons/UCLA Library digital collections)
Clearly the firms involved in this saw a business opportunity to sell more buses, tires, and gasoline. But what was lost in this shift from trolleys to buses? In the outer boroughs of New York, trolleys had acted as a primary mode of transportation. Buses, on the other-hand, were tertiary, connecting commuters first-and-foremost to subway lines. The massive shift to buses meant that people from Queens and parts of Brooklyn were now better connected to Manhattan than ever before, but stopped shopping in Downtown Brooklyn. As white flight and urban decline escalated in the late 1960s, Queens identified more and more with Long Island, isolating Brooklyn further still.
Now that Brooklyn has emerged as a cultural center, no doubt many folks in Queens would like to reconnect to their sister borough. With the city's upcoming mayoral election heating up, the candidates might be well-served to revisit this history and look for new ways to bring Queens and Brooklyn back together.
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