R.I.P. Bob Diamond: Brooklyn Historic Transportation Visionary

This is a really local story, but an important one nonetheless. We are sad to report that one of Brooklyn’s favorite sons, Bob Diamond has passed away at the age of 62. Diamond was known for two huge things:

One: an amazing archaeological discovery. A train buff his whole life, Diamond was an electrical engineering student at Pratt when he became interested in the lore about an old subway tunnel under the streets of Brooklyn from the 19th century. It was in fact, the world’s FIRST subway, built by LIRR in 1844 for its Boston run. (Yes, LIRR went to Boston — not crazy. You can still go to Boston that way: take LIRR to Montauk, transfer to a Ferry, then transfer to Amtrak in New London or Kingston. The only difference is now you have to use three different systems. Back then LIRR owned all three legs). 1844 is very early in locomotive history. These were steam trains. Hence, this line and its tunnels were closed down in 1861 due to a Brooklyn law banning steam locomotives. The tunnel was sealed up, and vaguely remembered by only a few historians and city employees. By the late 20th century, nobody knew precisely where it was. Diamond, a kid in his 20s, on his own initiative, went to the archives of Borough Hall and found old maps and schematics that suggested where to find it — under Atlantic Avenue, in a section of Brooklyn once considered part of Red Hook (see H.P. Lovecraft) but is now called Brooklyn Heights. Bob got some city workers to let him in a manhole, went down, moved some bricks, shone his flashlight — and there it was. It was 1981. Diamond got mountains of press for the discovery. He gave tours of the tunnel, about a mile of which remains, for over 30 years. I took the tour in the late ’80s or early ’90s, and I’ll never forget it. Climbing down a manhole in the middle of Atlantic Avenue? Standing in an 1844 brick lined tunnel? (It’s huge, by the way, cavernous in more ways than one. You needed lots of ceiling to accomodate all the smoke and steam). Bob was a delightful guide. At one point, as part of the tour, we all turned out our flashlights to experience the blackness. Think about it — it is never TRULY dark in the City That Never Sleeps. Unfortunately, the city ended the tours several years ago, but boy it’s a great memory, and it was a great discovery. Historians can learn a lot just from going in there and poking around, and I believe many have done so.

Two: you’d think that, following the find of a lifetime, Diamond would be tempted to rest on his laurels. No, he went the other way. As I mentioned, he was a train buff. He formed an organization called the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association. His grand project, one I was hugely enthusiastic about, was to aquire old trolley cars and reactivate them on the existing track in the neighborhoods in Brooklyn where it still existed. The brilliant thing about this idea is that a lot of those areas are poorly served these days by the MTA’s buses and subways. So there was a need, over and beyond the cultural aspect of it. He had a lot of supporters and a whole warehouse full of donated trolley cars. And he came THIS close to making it come true. But, in the end, the city decided the projected ridership didn’t warrant the investment. It was a typical bean counter-y judgment, lacking the imagination to realize that the historic trolleys themselves would have been a tourist attraction, just like the trolleys in San Francisco and New Orleans. People would have taken them just to take them! Talk about your “Instagrammable selfie opportunity” or whatever the third graders who run everything say nowadays.

Here’s one of Bob’s trolleys. I took this pic in Red Hook, in 2016. Red Hook would definitely have benefitted from his proposed streetcar line

There are numerous excellent tributes to Bob, his vision and his civic-mindedness hither and yon. Here are some of them:

Brooklyn Paper

New York Daily News

Brooklyn Eagle 1

Brooklyn Eagle 2 (before his death, but has great video clips)

And to remind you that it wasn’t all skittles and beer, here is a clear-eyed portrait on Streetsblog NYC by Simi Horwitz, who gave me and my vaudeville show some of our first press attention in Backstage, about a quarter of a century ago!