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Abandoned Rockaway Rail Line Waits for High Line Moment

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Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, as part of an ongoing series on soon-to-change neighborhoods, Kensinger visits the abandoned Rockaway Beach Branch of the LIRR, which some neighbors hope to turn into a park.

[A proposal to transform the abandoned Rockaway Beach Branch of the LIRR into a new park called the QueensWay has brought much attention to this neglected railway. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.]

For over 50 years, the LIRR's former Rockaway Beach Branch in Queens has sat abandoned while nature slowly reclaimed its tracks. In recent months, however, this train line has seen a resurgence in attention, as the proposal to build a new park called the QueensWay along its 3.5-mile stretch has picked up steam. In November, proponents of the park held several public workshops to discuss their plan, which is being developed with help from the Trust For Public Land. And last week, Queens College announced plans to conduct its own study of the tracks.

The QueensWay park "will improve quality of life by making this abandoned, littered stretch of property active, secure and environmentally safe," said Travis Terry, a member of the Steering Committee of the Friends of the QueensWay. "It will create approximately 55 acres of new, linear parkland that our communities desperately need." Despite the support of over 3,000 members, though, the Friends of the QueensWay have recently faced opposition to their park proposal from several different sources.

Although they have lived for decades with a neglected ruin in their backyards, some local residents are against any plans to revitalize these decaying tracks. Called the city's "most controversial potential park," the QueensWay has incited protests, caused heated editorial page exchanges, and been buffeted by negative coverage from the Daily News and the Queens Ledger, which dubbed it "the battle over QueensWay." Some park opponents harbor hopes that these unused train tracks will somehow be brought back to life, while others have embraced the NIMBY obstructionist spirit. In the meantime, the old Rockaway Beach line continues to rust away.

Today, a walk down the proposed path of the Queensway is a bruising workout. The tracks are an obstacle course of downed trees, collapsed signal towers, and rotting third rails. Homeless camps, cat sanctuaries and graffiti spots appear at regular intervals. An abandoned train station is slowly collapsing above a quiet residential neighborhood, while children play in the streets below. Twisted metal ruins look out over backyard swimming pools. "It is an example of urban neglect," said Travis Terry. "It is full of trash and there is evidence of drug and alcohol use and other unsafe activities." It would take millions of dollars to clear this wild landscape, and much more to create and maintain a working park. The dream of creating a High Line in Queens remains far from becoming a reality.

At the southern end of the old Rockaway Beach line in Ozone Park, Queens, empty tracks pass beneath the A train. The Long Island Railroad ceased operation on this train line in 1962.

Several blocks of warehouses have been built under the old tracks here, housing auto body shops, a recycling center, and a police impound lot.

"It's been abandoned for a very long time. You can see there's trees growing up there," said a livery car driver whose garage was located under the tracks. "You could cut down a very nice Christmas tree!"

This section of the tracks is currently a dumping spot for beer bottles and used tires. "Green up the rooftop," said a local mechanic working in a shop under the abandoned train line. "That would lower the utilities for everyone and be more eco-friendly."

Above Atlantic Avenue, an abandoned train station has been overgrown by a thicket of trees. The third rail no longer carries power.

Empty platforms look out over the neighborhood. The station entrances have been bricked off with cinder blocks.

A downed tower has collapsed onto the tracks in Woodhaven, Queens. Homeowners here have expressed concern about the QueensWay creating "the prospect of a parade of strangers behind them," according to the Queens Ledger, and have signed a petition against the park.

Current visitors to this section of the tracks have left behind mattresses, chairs, beds and luggage. "For years it has served as nothing more than a haunt for hikers, young people and the homeless," as the Queens Chronicle describes it.

As the tracks leave Woodhaven and enter Forest Park, double fences and copious razor wire have not succeeded in deterring visitors.

In Forest Park, several homes for cats have been built near the train tracks, with food placed out for the local wildlife. This section of the tracks is accessible to park visitors.

The QueensWay would pass under several graffiti covered bridges here. The Daily News sums up the two sides of the debate: the QueensWay could make parts of Forest Park safer and easier to access, but opponents would prefer that resources go toward the paths that already exist.

North of Forest Park, a large homeless encampment is situated on a spur of the old Rockaway Beach line. This camp is located next to several baseball fields. The QueensWay's route would redevelop areas that are "quite close to people's homes, schools, little leagues and commercial centers," according to Travis Terry.

Though some might prefer the current uses found on this abandoned train line, the QueensWay park would bring about massive changes. "It is clear that the potential for the QueensWay is extraordinary," said Terry. "Like everything in New York City, there are people who have expressed legitimate concerns but we are studying how to address those and I am confident we can find solutions."
—Nathan Kensinger
· Nathan Kensinger [Official]
· QueensWay coverage [Curbed]
· Camera Obscura archives [Curbed]