Chug along! Ridge bar toasts R train centennial

Man of the hou-R: Bay Ridgite and R train historian Henry Stewart recalled the tumultuous history of the Bay Ridge’s loved and hated R train on Jan. 13 for its 100th anniversary.
Photo by Jordan Rathkopf

They wined about the R train.

Straphangers toasted the 100th anniversary of Bay Ridge getting a subway at The Owl’s Head wine bar on Jan. 13. The Bay Ridge’s only train may not get a whole lot of love these days, but Ridgites were so excited over its opening that they held a day-long celebration, according to a local history buff.

“They had feasts, pageants, music, it was monumental in 1916,” said Henry Stewart, who hosted a “Crappy Birthday, R Train!” edition of the bar’s Drunk History series. “At the time, it was cutting-edge. It represented progress and the future.”

Stewart regaled drinkers with locals’ decade-and-a-half–long campaign at the dawn of the 1900s to get a train down to the largely farming community. One long gone newspaper called the area a “potato patch,” and many city dwellers laughed at the idea, he said. But advocates refused to give up, and on Jan. 15, 1916, new stations along the Fourth Avenue Line opened at Bay Ridge Avenue, 77th Street, and 86th Street, changing the neighborhood forever — thanks to campaigners, Bay Ridge was part of the metropolitan sphere, said Stewart.

The story of civic activism inspired one lifelong rider.

“I loved hearing the whole history, the idea of a Brooklyn area getting up in arms and getting organized was really great,” Amanda Nelson said.

Buffs: Andy Martin, Amanda Nelson, and Alline Collier helped pack out the Owl’s Head for the wine bar’s “Crappy birthday” party for the R train, which turned 100 years old on Jan. 15.
Photo by Jordan Rathkopf

Stewart could not pinpoint the moment when disdain for the train replaced esteem in Ridge straphangers’ hearts. Like many other subway lines, the R’s fall from grace was gradual — the product of decades of neglect and inadequate funding, Stewart said. The city took better care of the subway when the public was still enamored with it, but funding fell as novelty wore off, he said.

“Over 100 years, we don’t look at subways like that at all anymore,” he said. “We take them for granted both at a social and political level.”

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority recently gave the line an early birthday present, announcing it would rehabilitate the Bay Ridge Avenue station and two other borough R stations — though the work will mean closures for up to two months.

Not all riders take the so-called “Rarely” for granted, either. Bay Ridgites identify by it, said Stewart. And it’s a marvel to people whose borough isn’t connected to the subway system, one Staten Islander said.

“I’ve always had a bit of love for the R,” she said. “My friends always made fun of it, but I grew up in Staten Island, so I took it when I came to Brooklyn. Pretty much everything about the infrastructure needs to be replaced, but I don’t have any particular disdain for it, so yeah, absolutely a happy birthday to the R!”

Reach reporter Dennis Lynch at (718) 260–2508 or e-mail him at dlynch@cnglocal.com.
Potato patch no more: Locals gathered at the Owl’s Head Wine Bar on Jan. 13 to hear Henry Stewart tell the story of the R train, a subway line that turn-of-the-century citydwellers called a “train to a potato patch,” mocking a then-rural Bay Ridge.
Photo by Jordan Rathkopf

More from Around New York

>