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Sunday, August 13, 2006

Commuting in mid-century East Flatbush


Both pictures courtesy of a great resource for all things Brooklyn (Thanks, Brian)

I've always had long commutes. (I'm a firm believer real men don't have short commutes.) My commutes - more like journeys, than commutes, started when I was 12.

There was no easy way for me to get to Winthrop. Meyer Levin would have been closer, but I graduated in '55 and the school was not a option.

It was less than a mile - as the crow flies. For mere mortals, it was a little longer: Church Avenue trolley ( yes, 'trolley.') to Utica. Then, the bus up to Winthrop St. Then, 2-blocks to the school.

I don't remember what qualified a student for a transportation pass, but I sure qualified. No one else had a longer commute to school. Each month a new pass. They were called bus passes, but I was the only one in my class to use it on a trolley.

I got the free monthly pass for a while. Then I remember paying a dollar a month. By the time I got to high school I paid a nickel per trip. Anyone out there remember what the deal was?

I liked getting on the bus or trolley and flashing my pass. Unlimited use on school days. Sometimes we'd ride the Utica bus up to Empire Blvd to White Castle for lunch. That was cool. Lunch consisted of six hamburgers and a cola. Close your eyes; think small square hamburgers smothered in onions on a soft roll. Six of them lil babies. Then compare that to the tuna fish sandwich on stale Wonder bread your mother packed for you in waxed paper that sat in the wardrobe until lunch period on a hot Spring day.

No contest!

Waiting for the trolley and the actual ride was an exercise in optimism. First, you hoped it wasn't stuck behind some double-parked delivery truck. (This problem was more prevalent on Church Av which was narrower than Utica Av.) Then, although you were supposed to wait at the curb at those corners with the blue enamel 'trolley station' signs, you hoped the motorman would see you, so you would step into the safety zone near the tracks and hope that the small warning sign and the white lines painted in the street would protect you from on-coming motor vehicles. See the picture at the top right. That sign would have to be on a car driver's hood for thedriver to read it.

There was a sub-group of optimists- usually teenagers - who would hop on the outside back of the trolley, stand on the bumper and hold on to the window mouldings and hope they wouldn't fall off. The trick was to hold on but crouch down below the window line to avoid detection by the motorman looking in his rearview mirror. Their optimism often came to a near-fatal end. Falling off was the least worry of the options. Being run over by the vehicle following the trolley was a very real possibility. Being detected by the motorman who would stop the trolley and go after the kids with a steel rod used to change the track switch at junctions was another.

Our claim to mischievous behavior consisted of putting pennies on the rails and waiting for the trolley to flatten them. Amazing what a couple of tons rolling over a penny can do. Years later a friend of mine admitted to putting a rock on the Utica Av tracks and watch to his horror as the trolley derailed.

The Utica Av trolleys were gone by the time I started junior high school. The tracks were still there as remembrances of things past. In fact, Utica Av south of Tilden Av was only partially paved. The center of the roadway had two sets of tracks which were mounted on wood crossties embedded in the dirt but the intersections were paved The end of the Utica line was Avenue N where there was a massive car barn that served the Flatbush and Utica lines. The car barn was converted to a bus garage when buses replaced the trolleys.

Hegeman St. was the eastern end of the Church Av trolley. That's where the car barn was for the Church Avenue line until, in the early fifties, it was ultimately replaced by a very unglamourous 'turnaround' near Bristol Street. (The 'destination' sign on the trolleys said 'Bristol')

The picture at the top left of this blog shows a Church Av trolley sometime before 1950 at its eastern terminal at Hegeman St. If you look closely at the 'destination' sign on the back of the trolley it says 'Ralph Av.' Someone must have been messing with the sign.
The Utica Av line and some of the cars on the Church Av line (like the one in the picture) were what is known as double-ended cars. They had trolley poles and motorman controls at each end, thus avoiding the necessity of having to turn the cars around at the end of the line. The car would come to the end of the line; the motorman would make sure all the coins were out of the fare box and 'flip' all the wood seat backs so the seats now faced in the other direction. And then he would take his coin dispenser (used to make change; the 'exact fare' concept had not yet been invented); get out and lower the pole in the back and raise the pole in the front to the wire. The final step required him (It was always a 'him' back then.)to throw the track switch with a steel rod he'd slip between the 'points' of the rail so when he started on the reverse trip the trolley would switch to the other track.
(By the way, after August 31, 1969 riders had to have the exact fare. No longer would drivers make change.)

There was a short one-track shuttle trolley that ran along Tilden Av from Nostrand Av to the west entrance of Holy Cross Cemetery at Brooklyn Av. It may have run only on weekends. Two blocks east; two blocks west. And so it went, all day. Change the poles at each end of the trip; probably left half the seats facing in each direction. Talk about a low-stress job.

By the time I rode the trolley by myself these old double-ended cars had all been replaced by sleek, streamlined PCC cars and the Cemetery shuttle had been replaced by a bus.

The Presidents' Conference Cars (PCC) were trolley's last gasp at competing with buses and represented a radical change in design and operation. They came on the scene in 1936 and as lines elsewhere were converted to buses, they wound up on the McDonald Av and Church Av routes, the last trolley lines in New York City. (October 31, 1956 was the last day of operation for the trolleys.)

The neatest thing about the Church Av line was the tunnel under Ocean Parkway. No one knows the rationale for the tunnel. One school of thought says it was to appease the rich people on Ocean Parkway who didn't want the noise; another group claims it was to avoid the long red light at that intersection. The tunnel was unpaved; originally it was just a single track but later widened to two sets of tracks set into the dirt. Every once in a while a motorist - usually at night - would learn that it was a private right of way for trolleys only. For some reason the vehicles, perhaps on sheer momentum, could make it down to the bottom, at which point they would have to be towed out, disrupting trolley operation in both directions.

I finished high school taking the Church Av bus to Erasmus on Flatbush Av.
Buses: no soul; no character; no fun.

Again, take a look at Brian Merlis' for more great East Flatbush pictures.

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