Brooklyn on Thursday evening felt something like Pyongyang, as the agency that controls the trains went through the bare motions of a public conversation ahead of what looks to be the inevitable closure of the subway tunnel that connects much of the borough to Manhattan.
What was billed as the first chance for the lines 400,000 daily riders to have their say on the looming shutdown—dubbed the “L-Pocalypse” by the hipsters of Williamsburg and Bushwick, Brooklyn’s Meccas of cool—was so staged-managed that North Korea would have been proud.
Think of it as New York’s version of Carmageddon, when the 405 Highway in Los Angeles was shut down—only with more skinny jeans.
The Metropolitan Transportation Agency, the state-controlled body that runs the trains, says that the 94-year-old, 7,100-foot-long Canarsie Tube linking Brooklyn and Manhattan has to close to repair the damage 7 million gallons of brackish water inflicted to the tunnel, tracks, and signals during Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
A first public meeting in January ended when residents booted the sole MTA representative after he provided no answers to their questions.
This time, it required people to fill out cards with questions, which were finally read out after attendees were bludgeoned half asleep by an hour of videos and speeches by politicians at Williamsburg’s Marcy Armory, an imposing 165,000-square-foot brick fortress built in 1884 that occupies a whole city block.
The Armory originally housed the 47th Regiment of the National Guard who, in one of those funny ironies of history, were dispatched to suppress the Brooklyn Trolley Strike of 1895.
Press officers and staff nearly outnumbered the 250 ordinary citizens attending, who were invited to peruse an exhibit with diagrams explaining the work ahead. There was also a show-and-tell-style table with damaged items that have been removed from the tunnel since the storm, including a rusted track plate.
Before the presentation began, Steve Bauman, an electrical engineer and MIT graduate, got into a heated conversation with MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast, who told him: “I wish that somebody when they designed the tunnel had this day in mind.”
It was more revealing than anything I heard all night.
The official meeting began with a slick seven-minute video that laid out two “options”: Completely shutting down the tunnel for a year and a half, which was described in the video as the “fastest and most efficient” choice. Or closing one half of the tunnel at a time over three years, over which trains would run under the East River every 12 to 15 minutes — leaving enough capacity for about 20 percent of the current riders.
Given that the Bedford Avenue stop at rush hour already makes a sardine wince, it’s pretty obvious the MTA is going to get what it wants.
After the video, Donna Evans, chief of staff for the MTA, announced that this meeting was the “'beginning of the robust community outreach project.”
A man in his 60s shouted out: “Ha!”
After seven politicians, including New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, offered brief, anodyne remarks, the crowd had thinned out by about a third. Those who stayed looked bored and checked their phones; the only thing keeping most people awake was the chill in the cavernous room.
At last it was time for questions. The cards were read, one by one:
Will the shuttle buses that would replace the train have dedicated lanes? Too early to say. What extra ferry service will there be. Don’t know yet. Will there be extra service on other subway lines? Yes.
Prendergast, MTA chairman, said that building another tunnel was not an option as it would take five to seven years. Putting in a giant gondola, dubbed the “East River Skyway,” was out too.
With no way to follow up on any of the non-answers, it felt like one long press release being read out loud.
The audience continued to dwindle, so by the beginning of hour three, the media outnumbered the community.
By 9, it was done.
Talking to members of the community, their anger and frustration made clear why the MTA didn’t want to hear directly from them—or let the TV cameras there see them speaking.
Michael Sanderson, who lives in Bushwick, told me he was worried about shuttle buses going down single-lane streets and past schools.
Maria Garrett, 59, an administrative assistant who commutes into Manhattan from Canarsie, the final stop on the L train, said that the shuttle buses were always too crowded and few and far inbetween.
Jamil Faisal, 38, who wore a leather jacket and trendy sneakers, said that he bought a property off the L train a few months ago but now was half-wishing he hadn’t.
He said: “We should have been allowed to speak. It’s like with Donald Trump. If you’re not a Donald Trump supporter, you have to get out.”