If I want to visit my 81-year-old grandmother in Forest Hills, Queens, from my place in Bushwick, Brooklyn, Google Maps tells me I’m approximately five miles away. What Google Maps doesn’t tell me is that in order to get there I will have to fight five krakens in a moat, machete through 18 miles of poison-tipped brambles, and defeat Lord Voldemort.
Really, I just have to take the F train. But folks who want to get from Brooklyn to this part of Queens have to take the train through Manhattan and back to Queens. It would be faster to walk to Forest Hills from where I live. Backward.
Until today, I had never understood why. Luckily, Richard Greenwald, a sociology professor at St. Joseph’s College, has broken down the phenomenon in Atlantic Cities. It turns out that Queens and Brooklyn didn’t always used to be so disconnected–in the ’30s and ’40s, trolleys between the boroughs were all the rage.
Then came along a corporate monopolization conspiracy and ruined it for everyone:
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.
Greenwald goes on to explain that buses never filled the transit void the old trolleys left behind. Instead, buses took Brooklynites to the trains, which took them to Manhattan.
Sorry, grandma. I guess I’ll just look into rollerblades.