Exploring the Abandoned Rockaway Line

Because New York City is constantly being remade and revised, pieces of the city’s past can often linger around and become subsumed into the present, sometimes barely noticeable. These totems of city history are treasures often right in front of our faces.

Such is the case with the abandoned track of the Long Island Railroad’s Rockaway Line, which has been a tempting forbidden zone to Queens residents since the early 1960s when this part of the LIRR stopped operating.

Years ago, when I lived on 101st Avenue only a few blocks from the abandoned Ozone Park station, I would walk by the abandoned tracks, which are elevated for much of its stretch through Queens. The city rents out the space beneath the tracks to some businesses along the way. And one auto parts business near Rockaway Boulevard and Liberty Avenue welded a large spider sculpture together from used auto parts and suspended this from one of the trestles over the track. It has since fallen down. While I was living in Ozone Park, a motorcycle club rented out one of these spaces beneath the tracks, and would have parties in their clubhouse there.

The success of the High Line in Manhattan has encouraged communities in Queens to push to make a three and a half mile stretch of this abandoned LIRR line into a similar park. The QueensWay is a plan to turn the abandoned line into a “family-friendly linear park and cultural greenway.” Others would like to revive the tracks so they can be used for public transportation again. This plan would meet a lot of resistance from people who now live near the existing track, and face an uphill battle for funding. The prospect of a 20-minute commute to midtown is enticing and New York’s transportation system is in such a shambles that any stretch of track should be welcomed with open arms. Maybe some long-term compromise can be reached, whereas much of the railroad is revived and used for transportation again but some segments are made into a park.

But I have long wanted to walk along some of this abandoned track and this weekend I got my wish in Forest Park. Not far from Woodhaven Boulevard, there is a paved road that looks like a regular street but is closed off to regular traffic. This road traverses an overpass that runs over a segment of abandoned track. With a two-year-old girl in a carrying pack on my back, I walked down a steep drainage gutter that runs along the overpass.

There were some N.Y.U. students there filming what they described as an experimental film, and they looked more nervous about filming on off-limits abandoned property without a permit than about the critical success of their film. They had camera equipment and enough food and beverages there to be a proper film crew. I discreetly made my way around them and started walking on some of the abandoned track.

The tracks are overgrown and the rails are rusted. Trees both grow out of and in some cases lay across the tracks. There is a lot of graffiti on the concrete surrounding the tracks and even some on the trees. Rusted wire towers stood sentry along the line; some of them have topped over. The lush greenery is also dotted with signs of the tracks being a party place. There are empty beer cans, and sadly, traces of a poorly-tended campfire.

A second overpass is more remote to pedestrians and has more elaborate graffiti. A collection of discarded spray paint can tops sit together among the leaves and other detritus.

It feels like stepping into part of history, even poorly preserved history from 50 years ago feels significant. It is a feeling of pleasant quiet and secret entre among the bustle and grind of our five boroughs.

Someday the Rockaway Line will be busy again, either with park-goers, tourists, or even trains. Take some time to explore it before this piece of overgrown history goes away.

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