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Tunnel Vision

How One Subway Closure in Queens Wrecked a Community

And what it could mean for the upcoming L train shutdown.

John Surico

John Surico

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.

Since VICE first launched this series in April of 2017—exactly two years out from the shutdown—we’ve heard from more small businesses who rely on the L for their livelihood than we can count. Bodega workers who are worried about losing that rush hour surge. Club managers who are struggling to strategize ways people can actually go out at night. And restaurant and bar runners who are calculating life with much less foot traffic.

A fascinating urban symbiosis exists between a subway and a neighborhood. Most neighborhoods in New York—especially in the outer boroughs—sprouted from the ground where a subway lied underneath, or ran overhead. Entire communities grow around subway lines like moss, sustaining themselves off of what that transit opportunity brings: people. And the subway’s subsequent service depends on how many riders actually use it.

In many respects, one cannot exist without the other, which is something we do not realize until the subway’s gone. And in what is perhaps a grim forecast for Brooklyn and Manhattan in 2019, that’s what has happened in my own backyard.

30th Avenue is one of the many hearts of Astoria, Queens; a bustling thoroughfare that is home to some of the incredibly diverse neighborhood’s most popular spots. Like many communities in New York, Astoria has seen rapid growth of late, due in large part to the condo construction bubble next door in Long Island City. In the four years I’ve lived here, 30th Avenue has become Ground Zero of that growth.

But if you stare down 30th Avenue from its eastern or western ends, you’ll notice that residential and commercial energy flows from a power center: the 30th Avenue N/W subway that runs through its center. Where businesses are located roughly follows the paths where residents walk to, and from, the subway. The morning and evening rush hours there remind me of this scene from the ethereal film Baraka of Shibuya crossing in Tokyo , where it looks as if the station itself is a beating heart, pumping people in and out.

Actually, let’s keep going with that heart metaphor just for a second. Because since the 30th Avenue station shut down in late October for eight months, the businesses here have gone into nothing short of cardiac arrest.

I first started to hear what impact the mini-shutdown was having just by word of mouth; businesses I frequent often told me foot traffic had collapsed, and, as a result, sales. Then, in December, the New York Times reported on the early signs of trouble. So I attended the packed public meeting held by the MTA last week at a local bar not really knowing what to expect.

It started off calm, as Bill Montanile, a project manager with MTA’s New York City Transit (NYCT), outlined the project underway. The 30th Avenue and 36th Avenue stations are part of ‘Package 2’ of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s ‘Enhanced Station Initiative’ (ESI), where 30 subway stations citywide would be subject to a complete overhaul.

In June, when it’s planned to reopen, the decrepit station will look nearly unidentifiable, outfitted with new glass canopies, digital screens, mezzanine access, and stairways—except, notably, an elevator for ADA capabilities. Once done, the stations at Broadway and 39th Avenue will then face the same fate; Ditmars Boulevard, the line’s terminus, will also shut down partially in April for 14 months. (Although actual service itself is another story.)

“I know it's difficult to believe an MTA member saying a job is on time. I know we don't have a very good track record in the past,” said Montanile, who oversees ESI. “But this is a completely different program. It's approached differently. Within NYCT, this project is the top priority.”

It took almost no time to see that the local business owners and workers in attendance didn’t want to hear about future benefits. And the minute the floor was given over to questions, that discontent—fraught with cursing, interruptions, and charged frustration—became known.

"Our business has been here for 75 years, with my grandfather and my father. We've never seen such devastating effect on the business until this time,” said Bob Battipaglia, the owner of Grand Wine & Liquor, which is located in front of a station stairway. “We're down so much in foot traffic. Twelve thousand customers we're down since October 23. It's affecting my business and my family, the people I work with, their families. It's a great concern.”

To be clear, the 30th Avenue and 36th Avenue stations’ closure are a bit different than what will happen with the L, at least in Brooklyn. Trains will still run within Brooklyn, just not into Manhattan. But the stations along 14th Street in Manhattan will close entirely for 15 months. Which is why these mini-shutdowns in Queens hold such weight: this closure is almost half the time of the L train shutdown’s projected timeline, and only affects a couple of stations at a time. Yet still, to the local economy here, even a slight disruption to the status quo has developed into an existential crisis.

Nearly every business owner present said profits were down at least 50 percent or more since the shutdown, bolstered by the cold winter months. No one was notified in advance, they added, although the MTA pointed to press releases and presentations to the community board. Some said they were months behind on rent; others had laid off employees. "When I tell you this is the worst thing I've seen in all my life, being in the business for 30+ years, owning since I was a kid, this is a disaster,” said Peter Karalekas, the owner of Petey’s Burger, who added that the eatery made $16 in total cash purchases the day before. “This is a shock.”

All hands raised in the air when local Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas, who organized the meeting and played the part of mediator there, asked who would be in favor of a shuttle bus along the route—something business owners said worked well over the summer, when the stations faced weekend closures for signal work. But MTA officials shot down the idea almost immediately, much to the community’s dismay.

“Instead of shuttle buses, we did increase the Q102… and we see an increase in ridership on it, so customers are using that bus,” said Luke DePalma, an assistant director of government and community relations. “Others are walking to the next available open station, be it Broadway, Astoria Boulevard, or wherever. So we haven't seen the need to run a fleet of shuttle buses during this operation.”

But the goal, said Frank Arcabascio, the president of the 30th Avenue Business Association and a local salon owner, was to have people just walk by their businesses. On weekdays and nights since the shutdown, the busiest parts of 30th Avenue have been notably quiet, with little reason for residents to walk there without a destination in mind. To commute, they must reroute themselves to nearby stations, which effectively take them away from the thoroughfare.

“These are pathways that people walk past our stores, which have been eliminated by this. This is a natural behavioral pathway,” said Arcabascio. “The people are not walking past our stores, and we're not getting the business. That's it. That's as simple as I can make it.” He then asked the question that seemed to be on everyone’s mind: “Are we going to be compensated for this?”

This isn’t the first time the idea of compensation from transit outages had been floated. It came up during the prolonged construction of the Second Avenue Subway, which left a number of businesses in the Upper East Side shuttered indefinitely. And it has arisen since the L train shutdown was announced, with elected officials and business leaders calling for special sales-tax-free zones, or curbing commercial property tax appraisals.

“I'm here to ask one question: what can you do for us?” asked Jesse Tang, the young owner of Pink Nori, a popular sushi restaurant. “Can you compensate us? Can you get the rent lowered? Can you give us five years of free outdoor seating? Can you give us free Health Department renewal? Like, what can the city of New York do for the people that pay the taxes, and that support the city, who got hurt by this city?"

So far, those ideas have gone nowhere in Albany, and the same outcome appeared likely here. MTA officials repeatedly said they had no authority over commercial taxes in the area or the rental market; instead, one official suggested a “Shop 30th Avenue” marketing campaign—which, four months into the shutdown, didn’t go over well with this crowd. One business owner, who said his Greek restaurant, Opa, had to close after 49 years, was directed to the city’s Law Department. "Put your family in my position,” he said, in broken English, holding back tears. “I lose everything. What do you have me say? Thank you?”

The meeting of aired grievances and little remedies came to an end almost naturally, as the business owners headed out into the brisk afternoon, reaffirmed in what they already knew: that they’d have to survive until June, when—to take a glass half full approach—a brand new station could mean higher ridership than before. The symbiosis had backfired; their proximity to the subway felt more like a curse now than a blessing. And in New York, that’s sometimes just the way it is.

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