Trolley Terror! Meet the Original Prospect Park West NIMBYs

The electric trolley was said to be "dangerous to property, man, and beast."

Norm Steisel, Louise Hainline, Iris Weinshall, and their anti-bike “Better Bike Lane” comrades aren’t the first well-to-do, politically connected bunch to wage war against a new configuration for Prospect Park West. According to a fascinating Curbed piece from the Weekly Nabe’s Keith Williams, another powerful NIMBY cadre once sought to undermine a nascent progressive transportation movement. In the late 19th century, the object of fear and loathing was the electric trolley.

Williams writes that, at the time, Brooklyn was a smattering of separate towns, and railroad owner Henry W. Slocum saw an opportunity to provide residents with intra-city travel and access to the shore.

Slocum had already electrified the five miles of track between Park Circle (the southwest corner of Prospect Park) and Coney Island. In 1891, he was looking to convert the Brooklyn portion of that line: straight up what is now Prospect Park Southwest, across the future Prospect Park West to Ninth Street, and down to Smith.

But those living along Prospect Park weren’t having it. Their main argument was that electric trolleys would crush pedestrians without warning. Go figure: pulling a lever to operate an electric brake was more reliable than trying to get a horse to stop. There was also the fear of fire caused by falling wires, which had happened on a few occasions in other cities. The 500-volt supply was “enough to kill a regiment of men,” according to one electrician. Since then, however, safeguards had been developed to keep dislodged wires in place.

The drama even had its own Marty Markowitz, says Williams: Congressman David A. Boody, a trolley foe who became mayor of Brooklyn.

Ultimately, Slocum was granted approval from the State Railroad Commission, which said it “would not feel justified in withholding its approval in consequence of the protests or dissents of property holders upon certain streets.” Again, sounds familiar.

Writes Williams: “A government panel holding the will of the people above the whims of a few rich complainers? Many things have changed in Brooklyn since 1892, but that, thankfully, is not one.”

Click over to Curbed for a spot-on takedown of NIMBY propaganda, which essentially has not changed in the last 120 years.