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Tunnel Vision

Students Explain How the L Train Shutdown Will Affect Them

"The L train is literally my entire life.”

by John Surico; photos by Jason Bergman
Apr 16 2018, 8:49pm

Photos by Jason Bergman

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 policy 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.

From about 2 PM to 4 PM, New York City’s subway system is taken over by kids. A large part of the 1.1 million children who go to school every day in New York—a population bigger than most of America’s mid-size cities—hop on and off the train just like the rest of us, hoping they don’t miss class, or a test, due to delays.

Much of the coverage surrounding the 2019 shutdown has focused on the effect it will have on businesses and adult commuters, so VICE reached out to students and parents who felt their plights have been overlooked and gave the floor to them to hear their thoughts about getting to class without the L.

Name: Tula deBaer
Grade: Junior
School: NYC iSchool
Current Commute: 20 minutes

“Almost weekly, we have what's called an extension time. Because whatever train—and my school is surrounded by a lot of lines—breaks down, they'll extend the cutoff time so the kids who came in aren't late. But when the L train stops working, there aren't enough kids who go to my school that take it. There are only like five or six kids who take my same commute. On a lucky day, I can just get on a train. But if not, I have to be the pushy New Yorker that I am. I figured out where it stops, and then I have to get myself to the edge, where everyone's going. Sometimes I can get on the subway, but sometimes I can’t. One time, I had a test, and the train was just too crowded. I had to tell my teacher that I couldn’t make it, though. It wasn’t gonna happen.

“I've heard there will possibly be a ferry, and buses over the bridge. But buses are not that consistent and are usually pretty slow. I could take the G to the C if necessary, but right now I walk one block here, and then I walk one block from the C/E to my school. [The L is what] sustains Williamsburg as a neighborhood, and so, I mean, it's also an incredibly convenient train for me. Not just for school, but socializing in general. I take the L train pretty much the majority of days in my life.

“I have several days a week when I have a tutor later at night. I'm interested in photography and darkroom printing, so I go to the International Center for Photography in Midtown, and I'll print there for a couple of hours and then go to my tutor. But without that, I can't do that. It'll take me too long to get home.

“The subway is my entire freedom. It's what allows me to do whatever I want to do, which is a pretty impressive thing as a teenager. Most teenagers living outside of New York City don't have that option. But my friends and I can go wherever. I can meet up with anyone. I can pretty much go wherever I want in the city. It's really amazing, and it's part of what makes me grateful for living here.”

Name: Velldreice Cadely
School: Brooklyn Technical High School
Grade: Senior
Current Commute: 45 minutes

“I've lived off the L my entire life. I was born in Canarsie, so ever since I was young and taking the train, it's always been the L train. All the colleges I'm looking at here are in Manhattan, so I'd have to go through downtown Brooklyn and up through Manhattan. That's definitely going to add on 45 minutes to an hour to my commute, because where I live in Canarsie to get to any other train you have to take a bus. So I'll probably have to wake up at like 5.

“A lot of the focus has been around Williamsburg and not around Canarsie. I feel like that's maybe due to the fact that Canarsie is a very minority-heavy neighborhood. But in Canarsie, there's no way for us to leave without the L. We rely on that train heavily. And to get to other trains, it's an hour commute. So when it gets shut down there's going to be such a huge amount of people affected by it.

“I go to the Rockaway Parkway station every single day, twice a day, coming both ways, and there are no signs [about the shutdown] at all... nothing. With a lot of the alternatives, we'll still have to take hour commutes to get to where that's taking place. So it's not going to help us at all. We're pretty much being left out of the equation here, and I think it's really unfair. Because a lot of the L train passengers are from Canarsie, and the fact that we're being overlooked kind of sucks.

“A lot of my friends already won't come out to Canarsie. We always have to meet up somewhere in the middle. I'm on a step team at my school, and to get to any competitions, no matter where they are, I have to take the L train. So the L train, it affects my extracurriculars, it affects my social life, and when I'm going to see family elsewhere in the city, it affects that, too. The L train is literally my entire life.”

Students' names: Poppy and Clover Lane
School: Friends Seminary (East 16th Street)
Grades: 2nd and 6th

Parents' names: Megan Fenstermaker (Teacher at Friends Seminary for 17 years), Clifford Lane
Current Commute: 25 minutes

Megan: “We’ve been living here for 17 years. We were one of the first buyers in this building. We live at the foot of the bridge, so we’re lucky, at least. We’re considering the ferry at Schaefer Landing, but that’ll be a nightmare. Bad weather days will really be tough. There’s talk about organizing a bus for Friends Seminary, but who’d pay for that? The city? That’s not gonna happen. Right now, we already lose points for having kids on the subway. Like, why would you bring your kid with you?

Cliff: “When I take the J, it’s already packed. It goes slo-mo over the bridge. We’ve considered electric scooters, but who knows if they’ll be legal by then. We’re very much a biking family, with a 3-person bike and everything. But the bridge is already filled with bikers that are always grumpy, and competitive. And the thing is, one train is 6 buses, so there’s no way to compare the two. We’ve even considered renting this place, and getting a spot in the East Village. We’ve mulled that over, for sure.

“It’s all the unexpecteds… other parents are just sort of asking, ‘What can we even do?’ We’re at the mercy of the MTA. And it’s pretty unfortunate.”


Students' names: Dinah and Alexei Landsman
School: The Salk School of Science (East 20th Street) and The Children’s Workshop School (East 12th Street)
Grade: 7th and 3rd


Name: Jenny Weisberg (parent)
Current Commute: 20 minutes

Dinah: “I can get on the L train, take it one stop, and then just walk up 1st Avenue for like 4 blocks, and turn. There's been talk of a ferry stop at 20th Street, so that may be an option. And then I'd walk. But that'll take a lot longer, definitely, because there will be a lot of people waiting for each of the boats within the hour. If they made a priority for kids, it'd still take longer because it's a ferry. But if it starts when the L train shuts down, and doesn't work, then people are gonna be struggling to find a new solution after having to rely on, 'Oh, there's gonna be a ferry, so I'll be fine.'" The people who live in the neighborhood, we've talked briefly about it. We just gave out various ideas, like carpooling, take the ferry, we could bike. It just all takes longer.

“It'll be difficult coming home because I have to be home a lot of the time by like 4/4:30, or certain times. If I have to be home by 4, generally I'll get on a train at 3:45, and I'll be home. But if this happens, then that means that I could be out for nearly a half hour after school, and it could take an hour coming home. Also there's the fact of school work. Because I'll be home later, continuously every day, and I have after school that ends between 5 and 6. So that means I'd be home at 6:30/7, instead of 5:30. And I still have to eat dinner, and finish homework.

Alexei: “Usually, I just take the train one stop to 1st Avenue and I walk. It's like a five minute walk. But sometimes, the train can be really annoying and you have to wait for like ten minutes, and it's crowded. But I don't usually get to school late, or before it starts. I've only been late once. It takes me about 20 minutes. My dad suggested renting a place in Manhattan... I could also take the ferry.

Jenny: “I feel like the MTA has really only regarded Williamsburg and Brooklyn in general as a bedroom community, and they're not really taking the needs of the people who travel back and forth a lot seriously. They've had a long time to come up with workable plans, and they haven't done that at all. I don't think the streets are going to handle what's gonna happen to this nabe. If the trucks can't already make the turns, how are the buses gonna make turns? And HOV-3 lanes on the bridge, where are they even gonna go?

“But with the L train gone, the main thing is crossing a body of water. It's not about crossing Manhattan. Parents are already looking into renting a bus. Because in New York, the school buses don't go interborough. You're really not supposed to leave your borough or your district to go to school. So it'd be a private bus that parents would have to pay for. But also, I can't anticipate at this point, just knowing what commute times can be like—it can either be really fast, or it could be 45 minutes. So who knows.

“You're taking what's really a 15-20 minute commute, and turning into something that's gonna be over an hour, twice a day, if you're lucky and don't have to go pick somebody up if you don't have to. And kids don't come home every day at 3. Children have activities after school. She's gonna be going into the eighth grade, and for all of her first year of high school, which we don't know where she'll be, how do they get home? He has a friend that lives off the Montrose stop—what are they going to do? He'll be able to get out at Bedford, and then what? It's not even the financial stuff—it's just time.”

Name: Io Perl-Strahan
Grade: Junior
School: Hunter College High School (94th Street)
Current Commute: 40 minutes

“I'm always on these crowded trains with thousands of people, but I try to just meditate and collect my thoughts before the day of school. Ideally, that's what I can do, but about half of the time I end up leaving my house late, and so it's very stressful, and I sometimes can't get on the L train. Our school day is kind of designed to avoid the really rush hour times, but I used to do track, and so then I was coming at peak rush hour, and it was awful.

“I’m probably gonna walk to the Nassau Avenue G and get that to Court Square. And then get either the 7 or the E/M, and then get the 4/5/6 from one of those stops... I have not done it on purpose, but sometimes the L isn't running, like once a year or so, so I'll have to do that. It'll probably be closer to an hour, but it's gonna be my second semester of my senior year, so it's not like live or die if you're late. And I'm probably not gonna get suspended. I'll be fine.”

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Update: An earlier version of this article misidentified Dinah and Alexei Landsman as Dinah and Alexei Weisberg.