New York Times

The Trolley Guy's Last Ride

(All 12 Feet of It)


Published: January 10, 2004

Page A1 (Front Page), continued in Metro Section.



Nancy Siesel/The New York Times                                      
Bob Diamond, with trolleys in a
garage in Red Hook, has been
trying for two decades to return
trolley service to Brooklyn, but his
efforts appear to have been in vain.

IN a darkened bay at Red Hook's watery edge, the trolley guy of Brooklyn steps over the bits and pieces of his grand vision to board his magnificent vessel. Come on, he says, in that weary-whiny voice of his. "I'll take you on the world's shortest trolley ride."

He turns on the lights, rings the bell — ding, ding — and an 1897 trolley of mahogany and oak lurches six feet and stops. He walks to the rear, rings the bell — ding, ding — and the trolley lurches six feet back. That's it; 12 feet. Ride over.

The last stop returns Bob Diamond, the trolley guy, to his cluttered world. In this cold and cavernous bay, from which he is about to be evicted, you will find old trolley fare boxes; books about electromechanical devices of the 1930's; pneumatically powered door engines; a BB gun to scare away pigeons and rats; heavy-duty machine tools; and ever-accumulating piles of spare trolley parts.

Rising from this mess are two meticulously restored, but stranded, trolleys: the brown 1897 model, once used by the king of Norway, and a green-and-silver 1951 Pullman that once cruised along Boston's green line. And beside them always, Mr. Diamond: a rumpled shrug of a man who was married once for two days; whose dinner most nights is three hot dogs, cheese fries and an iced tea at Nathan's; and who is now the only person in New York with 16 trolleys and nowhere to put them.

Mr. Diamond, 44, wheezes out the approximation of a laugh. "I'm laughing but I should be crying," he says. "It must be post-traumatic stress."

This man was once the adopted darling of city officials, proponents of Red Hook revitalization, and anyone else who nursed an ache for the way things used to be in Brooklyn. More than just an electrical engineer, he was a Flatbush visionary — an asset of the city.

He earned his place as a bona fide Brooklyn character more than two decades ago by discovering a forgotten railroad tunnel beneath Atlantic Avenue. He created the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association and enlisted a band of volunteers to restore the tunnel and lead tours. Soon they were launched on the odd but honorable mission of returning trolleys to Brooklyn for the first time since the mid-50's.

Piece by piece, they built their fleet. The Norwegian trolley, on permanent loan from a Staten Island man. Three Pullman cars from Boston that Mr. Diamond managed to buy for $9 — plus $10,000 shipping. A switching locomotive that he recovered from a New Jersey soybean field for $8,000. A dozen more trolley cars from Ohio that cost $10,000 to buy and $50,000 to ship from Buffalo.

In 1994, Mr. Diamond and his group moved their operation to this bay in a 19th century warehouse at the end of Van Brunt Street. Their efforts attracted the attention of local and federal officials who saw the charm and the need for light-rail service that would link isolated Red Hook to the rest of the borough.

With the help of the city's Department of Transportation, Mr. Diamond's group received $286,000 in federal money to lay a few hundred feet of trolley line in Red Hook. Who knew? Maybe it would someday lead to the development of light-rail service all the way to downtown Brooklyn.

The volunteers lovingly laid the track, polished the trolleys and worked out the intricate electrical system needed to activate service. Mr. Diamond estimates that he spent more than $100,000 of his own money — earned in part by managing a New Jersey apartment complex — on sundry items, including several thousand dollars for jackhammer rentals. "It's still on my credit card," he says.

Everything seemed to be on track. In 1999, that glorious Norwegian trolley glided out of its darkened bay, looped around the warehouse, and went a few hundred feet down a track; soon, tourists were paying to take the short waterfront ride. Then city transportation officials gave permission to Mr. Diamond's group to lay track on Conover Street, the hope being that a trolley would one day lead to a bus stop a half-mile away.

Mr. Diamond may have been a visionary, but his single-mindedness caused problems. City officials grumble that he wasn't doing any fund-raising; he counters that his contribution came in sweat equity. As for allegations that he did not want to share responsibility for the trolleys, Mr. Diamond says that he was worried about a "takeover group" within his core of volunteers.

"When I didn't like them trying to take it over, they said I didn't want to share responsibility," he says. "I wasn't going to turn it over, especially after I sunk in 20 years of my own time and money."

In August 2001, the bulkhead along the pier outside his trolley bay gave way, damaging the track and auguring a larger collapse.

The two trolleys inside had nowhere to go. Volunteers left to create their own trolley group. And the disagreements with city officials became so contentious that in early 2002 they announced that they would no longer support the spending of federal money on Mr. Diamond's dream project.

Mr. Diamond now had five stranded trolleys in Red Hook, including the two in the bay; 11 stranded trolleys and a locomotive at the Brooklyn Navy Yard; a half-built track on a city street — and an ever-diminishing number of supporters.

He accused a former volunteer of breaking into the bay one night and downloading his plans from a computer; nonsense, the former volunteer says. He charged that a city transportation official was related to one of his competitors; not true, a spokesman for the city agency says. He also accused the Department of Transportation of having him tailed and even arrested; ridiculous, the spokesman says.

A few weeks ago, Greg O'Connell — the owner of the warehouse who describes himself as a believer in Mr. Diamond's vision — sent an eviction notice to Mr. Diamond and his organization. The group had been using the warehouse space, rent-free, for nearly a decade.

"We've been left with no other choice," Mr. O'Connell says. "There are other nonprofits. We get many calls to use that space from people who could make a real contribution to the neighborhood."

"Bob's difficult sometimes to work with," Mr. O'Connell adds. "He's unique."

Then, a couple of weeks ago, as Mr. Diamond watched, the city ripped up the tracks that had been laid by volunteers along Conover Street; his dream had become a hazard. Tom Cocola, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation, says that Mr. Diamond had been notified several times that the tracks had to be removed.

"We were excited to jumpstart the trolley initiative," Mr. Cocola said in an e-mail message. "But promises made by Mr. Diamond were not met, so we decided that — in a time where the city has experienced budget difficulties — it would not be prudent to waste any more taxpayers' money on this project, no matter how noble it appeared on paper."

Mr. Diamond says that he has no idea what to do, and no more money to spend on his vision. He continues to level charges that all his former supporters have betrayed him and may be conspiring to take his trolleys from him.

"What a huge waste of time and money," he says. "It's sort of like being dressed up with no place to go."

For now, there is just him, and a young volunteer named Donald. They sit in the back of this Red Hook bay, hunched around a portable heater, watching a black-and-white television, while all about them lay pieces of trolley.

After taking the 1897 trolley for its 12-foot ride, Mr. Diamond climbs aboard the sleek Pullman to point out the attention given to its restoration, down to the row of incandescent bull's-eye lights. He turns on the air compressors, and begins to open and close the door. For a little while, at least, this stranded trolley sounds as though it is breathing.



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