Tunnel Vision

Brooklyn's Poorest Neighborhood Braces for the L Train Shutdown

How will Brownsville survive the looming subway closure?
April 7, 2017, 5:20pm
Photo by the author

In early 2019 the L train in New York City will shut down for 15 months to repair damage caused during Hurricane Sandy. Leading up to the closure, VICE will be providing relevant updates and proposals, as well as profiles of community members and businesses along the affected route in a series we're calling Tunnel Vision. Read more about the project here.

On the second floor of the Brooklyn Public Library in Brownsville, in a room called the Heritage House, which honors African-American history and culture, community organizer Joe Loonam laid out the MTA's suggested alternatives to the L train shutdown in April 2019. Among more ambitious proposals like a gondola above the East River, ideas currently under consideration include more protected bike lanes and shares; increased service on the already-crammed JMZ; an extended G train, which would lengthen the number of cars to pack more people in; and more ferries, which would deposit transit-stranded Brooklynites on Manhattan's East Side.


"How does that sound to everyone?" he asked the room.

"Sounds like another headache," Lyeta Herb, a local resident, replied, almost instinctively.

The small discussion, organized by the Riders Alliance, a grassroots advocacy group dedicated to improved transit options citywide, was of particular importance in this section of central Brooklyn. In a neighborhood like Brownsville, the prospect of life without the L for over a year is not only met with predictable anger and frustration, but also, exhaustion. Far flung from the center of the city, this corner of Brooklyn is already awash with transit issues, with subway stations that are either closed for repair or inaccessible, and bus speeds that often add another hefty leg onto a trip. (One bus in particular, the B58 from Brownsville to Sunset Park, won the 2015 award for slowest bus in Brooklyn, traveling at a mere 5.8 miles per hour.) And given its location, the disruptions can be staggering, taking commuters like Lyeta nearly two hours sometimes to travel the 20-ish miles to Manhattan.

So losing a line like the L—which is lauded among residents as the fastest route into the city, clocking in at roughly 25 minutes—carries an even heavier burden here than for most. And not just due to distance.

Nearly 40 percent of the population in this low-income community, which is dotted with mazes of housing projects and an array of abandoned lots, lives below the poverty line, making it the poorest neighborhood in Brooklyn. According to the city's own figures, about one in six adults here are unemployed. And although crime stats are at all-time lows citywide, Brownsville's reputation has long been tainted by violence and an intense police presence.


This more recent history has lent Brownsville a strong feeling of isolation toward the rest of the city when it comes to offered services—a notion front and center when Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his "Vital Brooklyn" plan in March, which will funnel $1.4 billion into the area. "What is the area in this state that has the greatest social need?" he asked. "If you look at unemployment rates, food stamps, physical inactivity, number of murders, one of the greatest areas of need in the entire state is central Brooklyn. And it's not even close."

That said, hindering transit access to Manhattan and its higher-paying jobs could have serious economic implications for an already-distressed area. And what that could mean for neighborhoods like Brownsville and nearby Canarsie was the topic of conversation here at the Heritage House on Wednesday.

Residents shared their needs for the train—some said their jobs or doctors were in Manhattan— and explained how this shutdown will force them to reconfigure their daily schedules. Loonam, who led the talk, voiced his own concern: "I'm worried that they'll be focused on North Brooklyn and Manhattan improvements, and they'll forget about what's out here." The handful of residents in the room nodded their head in agreement.

Herb chimed in, saying that she's lived in Brownsville for ten years, and during that tenure, the 3 train—the other major line that passes through the neighborhood—has been shut down twice for repairs (two stations in the area are currently closed until later this spring). As a result, she has to take a shuttle bus to another subway, which tacks on another 20 minutes to her commute. "The thought that these two lines could ever be closed at the same time," she said, shaking her head.


Throughout the meeting, Riders Alliance organizers outlined the MTA's plan going forward: an input phase lasting until summer, where the agency will gather community feedback on the perceived impact of the shutdown; and a fall 2017 deadline for a comprehensive shutdown report, which could include any remediation efforts for local businesses, and a litany of promised improvements for certain stations along the route.

Immediate service changes were also discussed, like temporary disruptions on the line, at night and on weekends, that will take place leading up to the full shutdown, while copies of Riders Alliance's list of recommendations for the MTA were handed out. "Do things like build elevators," Loonam argued. "Do things like free transfers."

A game plan was written up to canvass Brownsville—at senior centers, laundromats, bodegas, subway stations, and the library downstairs—in order to spread the word to residents who might not know that their transit is about to get ten times shittier (many who attended the meeting did not, in fact, know the full extent of the shutdown). Loonam then name-checked the politicians who could "influence" the MTA in the coming months: Governor Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio, state senators, assembly members, and city council members.

"And who influences them?" he asked the room.

"We're supposed to," said Miriam Robertson, the curator of the space. "But we know how that's worked out."

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