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Brooklyn Trolley Tours Teach History, Architecture and Pride

By Janet Upadhye | November 29, 2012 6:31am

DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN — For nearly 72 years, Brooklyn has served as the backdrop to Joe Svehlak's life.

Born at the Brooklyn Hospital in 1940, Svehlak felt betrayed when the Dodgers left for California in 1957. He was proud when Harvey Lichtenstein began to revive Brooklyn’s lost theater scene with the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the '70s. And when Macy’s replaced Abraham & Straus on Fulton Street in the early '90s, he was in awe.

“Brooklyn is the greatest place in the world,” said Svehlak, who has lived in Sunset Park, Bensonhurst, Park Slope and Borough Hall, and currently hangs his hat on Willoughby Street in Downtown Brooklyn.

“I’ll never leave.”

Svehlak’s intimate knowledge of his birthplace has landed him a coveted gig leading holiday trolley tours for the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership.

On Saturdays through Christmas, an old-fashioned trolley will tote passengers along a mapped route through Downtown Brooklyn. The ride, a cup of hot chocolate and Svehlak's born-and-bred Brooklyn insight come free of charge.

“He has seen Brooklyn change over many decades,” said Kate Lyon, who helped organize the tours. “He is a fantastic guide because he can connect the past with the present and really give people a feel of what Brooklyn was and is becoming.”

On the 40-minute tour, Svehlak points out interesting facts about the 1908 Dutch Renaissance building in the middle of Atlantic Avenue that once served as a subway entrance. He notes the older buildings near Albee Square that made up a small theater district in Brooklyn in the 1940s and '50s.

Throughout the trip, he highlights the architecture, history, transportation systems and development of Brooklyn over the years.

“I give people an inside look into the city,” he said. “They will leave with a better understanding of its struggles and its charms.”

He also connects Brooklyn’s history with that of New York City’s, pointing out that Brooklyn was its own city until 1898, contributing to its tightly-knit and unique neighborhoods and culture.

In the '50s, before the Twin Towers “were even imagined," Svehlak was a messenger delivering engraved goods throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan. He went on to work on Wall Street for almost 30 years. But even then, Brooklyn was his first love.

“In order to be a great tour guide you have to really love a place,” he said.

“And I do.”

The free hop-on trolley tours run on Saturdays through Christmas from 1 to 7 p.m. For a map and full schedule visit the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership's website.