“There’s a G train?” asks puzzled Manhattan resident Bruce Wang. Before our interview, he indeed had never heard of it. Niraj, another resident of Wang’s borough, seemed similarly surprised by the line’s existence. “What do you notice about the G?” I ask, directing him to a subway map. He observed its “pretty light green color” and singular, baffling avoidance of “the city.”
The G’s unique features have long fascinated New York native Charles Parks, an interpreter at the New York Transit Museum. Parks related with enthusiasm the origin and half-realized promise of the G. The train, once called the local “GG,” was part of the Independent (IND), established in 1925 to compete with the existing, private lines. Then Mayor John Hylan, a champion of municipal transportation (he held a longstanding grudge against the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company, which had fired him years earlier for crashing a train while reading on the job), intended a grander destiny for it. “The Broadway station has an abandoned upper-level platform, which was supposed to connect with a line into Manhattan and the Second Avenue subway,” said Parks. “The middle track at Bedford-Nostrand drops below and splits into two at Marcy. It was supposed to continue to Lafayette Avenue and connect with a line to be built on Myrtle Avenue in Bushwick.”
How tragic that the G, so elegantly conceived, has become what it is today: disparaged to no end, shorter (four cars) and stopping at fewer stations (21) than your average train, and consistently ranked first in mechanical failures. Even G driver Daniel feels no loyalty to the line: “I hate the G. No one’s on it ’cause they want to be. It doesn’t go anywhere. If you live along the G, you take it ’cause there’s nothing else,” he said. Many New Yorkers are of this mind. A Gawker post entitled “Dear G Train: F!*&ing Blow Me,” “blame[s] the G train for everything,” and Urban Dictionary defines “G-train” as an adjective meaning “unreliable and / or weak and a waste of time.” Other articles discuss service cuts and interminable wait times, and one, an April Fool’s prank, cruelly promises, “G Train to Make Manhattan Stops.”
“The G is the forgotten stepchild of the MTA,” said Kate Contino, Campaign Coordinator for NYPIRG’s Straphangers. “G train riders complain about waiting. The most complaints are that the train never comes or that they have to run for it, as it’s truncated now,” she said. Under the MTA’s 2009 money-saving plan, the G has experienced reduced weekend service and massive cuts in Queens. Perhaps this is why the MTA Press Office refused me statistics or access to the G-line manager.
On a recent morning at the Clinton-Washington stop in Fort Greene, I approached MTA employee John P., who was eating chips and marking arrivals and departures on a Subway Point Check Form. Over his three weeks of monitoring the morning commute, the train had been leaving every five to seven minutes. “They’ve been coming on time,” he said. “They’re running pretty often . . . but the middle of the night’s not my shift. At night, forget about it.” Later that week, I found myself at the Carroll Street stop at 12:30 a.m. As “G for ghost train” ran through my mind, a hipstery man walked by, defending the G to his hipstery companion: “I’m telling you, man, during the day it’s great . . . it’s just at night.” “Yeah,” his friend muttered unconvincingly.
In June the MTA implemented a drastic change to the G, eliminating 13 stops in Queens, including important transfer points. Having previously run to Forest Hills on nights and weekends, the Queens-bound G now terminates at Court Square in Long Island City. The MTA’s justification was that it rarely went to Forest Hills anyway: due to construction, it went beyond Court Square only three weekends in 2009. According to Elena Conte of the Pratt Center for Community Development, such cuts have a significant impact on low-income communities, which are increasingly reliant on buses. “What we find is that most people live and work in the same borough, and you’re not served by the trains if you’re traveling through the same borough,” she said.
“They did to the G what we thought they’d do,” says Mark Borino, former secretary of the North Brooklyn Greens, which was active in “Save the G” coalition efforts several years ago. “It’s all been borne out over the last few years. There was a lot of fear that in time they’d terminate the service permanently at Court Square,” he recalls. Save the G, however, has applauded the five-stop extension to Church Street, the southerly flipside of the Queens reductions. Beginning in July 2009, and lasting four years due to construction at Smith and 9th Street, the new Brooklyn terminus of the G is Church Avenue.
The last two years’ changes have brought the G to its present length of 21 stops, covering a limited but enormously varied distance—from the residential sections of Kensington and Park Slope to Carroll Gardens, Gowanus, and Red Hook, through Boerum Hill, Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, Bed-Stuy, Greenpoint, and Williamsburg, all the way to P.S. 1 in Long Island City. Listing out these neighborhoods, a certain “G” word comes to mind: it’s a virtual roll call of gentrification.
Several Fridays ago, I walked from the Myrtle-Willoughby stop to Clinton Hill, passing check-cashing joints, restaurants with Hebrew placards, Spanish-language Pentecostal churches, a new Duane Reade, and a slew of half-vacant, glassy condos. In Bed-Stuy, I met Linda Perez, a 21-year resident and member of the Myrtle Tenant Patrol who has mixed feelings about recent developments. “In the last one and a half years, the neighborhood improved a lot,” she said. “When I moved here in 1989, the Police Department and City Hall didn’t care about us. They’d set up shop against us. But now they’re harassing us. My husband is black and Puerto Rican, and they will ticket him for sitting in the park with our son.”
Noel Vega, another longtime Bed-Stuy resident and G rider, described how, “before, in the projects, there were shootings. You don’t see that no more. It’s more clean, with new infrastructure in the last four to five years.” I asked him about housing prices. “Rents are expensive, but everywhere rents are higher,” he said. “People are leaving.”
In Greenpoint, Wojciech Mleczko has a more sanguine view of the upscaling. As Program Director at the Polish and Slavic Center and board member of the Polish & Slavic Federal Credit Union, said that, 40 years ago, “poor people [from Poland] came for construction and cleaning, but they bought houses, and now they’re rich.” But Mleczko concedes the unevenness of Greenpoint’s prosperity. He notes visible changes: the inflow of white artists and modernized buildings and the outflow of less wealthy residents. “There used to be Puerto Ricans on the [Greenpoint] border, but not anymore,” he says, “because it’s too expensive.”
Gentrification weighs heavily on the mind of Lincoln Restler, a 26-year-old Fort Greene resident and G rider. Restler recently won the State Committee spot for the 50th Assembly District, defeating the candidate backed by Brooklyn Democratic boss Vito Lopez. “As a lifelong Brooklynite,” Restler says, “I am profoundly concerned about the tremendous displacement of residents happening every day.” While acknowledging that longtime black and Latino residents “naturally feel some bitterness” about these changes, he speaks optimistically about affordable housing and neighborhood alliances. “‘How do we respond and better address the scourge of gentrification?’ is the persistent question in Brooklyn over the last decade,” Restler says, calling himself neither gentrifier nor gentrified.
The population changes on and along the G will likely find confirmation in the 2010 Census results, and we shall see whether the growing number of wealthier, whiter patrons translates into service improvements and the permanency of the Church Avenue extension. In the wake of Queens service cuts, the G is predominantly a Brooklyn line used by an increasingly tony lot. And there are new signs of rider loyalty. At the Transit Museum retail shops, according to manager Gail Goldberg, the G-logo beanie bear places sixth in sales out of 24, and the adult tee ranks a respectable tenth out of 16. Not bad for a train so widely maligned.
My own experience with the G has been pretty good. Then again, I can walk to other trains in a pinch, and I have a soft spot for that gesso-inflected pastel green. Before moving to G territory, I had been an L rider, my punishment for participating in the gentrification of Bushwick. As compared to the overcrowded, perpetually serviced L, the G is more dependable and less fashionable. I often suspect that the G’s bad reputation reflects judgments about its ridership, which remains, despite the influx of newcomers, heavily working-class, immigrant, and African American.
Amidst the G’s haters and lovers, gentrifiers and gentrified, the train itself may represent a promising site of reconciliation. In its benighted, idiosyncratic way, especially late at night, the G joins its riders in a ritual of frustration. Recently, switching to the G at one a.m., I joined a desperate crowd on the Church Avenue-bound platform, all of us subjected to the chaos of a singer-songwriter. I sat on the platform bench, next to a man seemingly at wit’s end, the dark shadow of a tear on his cheek. Pitying his cry-inducing wait, I gave him a second glance—only to realize that his face was tattooed.