Coney Island's Grand Past and Grim Future

Requiem for a dreamland

Really, really cool artists' renderings—the same artists' renderings that have accompanied almost every newspaper and TV news piece on redeveloping Coney—were included. They depict a Surf Avenue that looks like the Ginza on steroids, restaurants and boutique hotels lining the boardwalk, block after block of translucent, low-rise buildings, threaded with green spaces—and the highest, wildest, most incredible amusement park rides ever built.

Only a veteran Coney skeptic would notice that one of the amazing new rides is obviously an exact replica of the Friede Globe Tower.

Or that, lurking in the distance, dwarfed by all the magnificent roller coasters, there is what looks very much like a residential high-rise.

Photograph courtesy Michael Saliba
Luna Park, in all its glory, circa 1910
Photograph courtesy Charles Denson Archive /
Luna Park, in all its glory, circa 1910

Or that almost all of the problems the CIDC is now promising to fix are ones created in the first place by the government, and usually by government in the guise of quasi-private special authorities, answerable to virtually no one—much like the CIDC.

In their rush to make money, the proprietors of Coney's three matchless, original amusement parks were careless about translating them into stone, and over the years, they started to burn and deteriorate. Even so, the crowds came to Coney in greater numbers than ever after World War I. In the 1920s, the city ran subway lines out from Manhattan, building the beach and the boardwalk, and pushing back the individual operators who used to roll barbed wire out into the surf—to claim their few feet of sand.

It was over the next three decades that the legendary crowds came to Coney, the famous Weegee pictures of grinning mobs sitting cheek-by-jowl along the sand—an estimated million people, one-eighth of the entire city, on the Fourth of July, 1947.

These were the days of "the nickel empire," when dark rides, whirling rides, shooting galleries, roller coasters, freak and geek shows, tattoo parlors, and any number of other entertainments lined both sides of Surf Avenue for a solid mile. There were 48 of Coney's fabled bathhouses by then—Stauch's and Silvers, and Claret's and Bushman's and Ravenhall's—offering saltwater and freshwater pools, dry and wet heat saunas, awful celery drinks, solariums for nude sunbathing, and all of the rest of the city's wonderfully eccentric Jewish health culture. There were summer beach bungalows, and solid, year-round working-class and middle-class neighborhoods complete with movie theaters and their own shopping districts.

"Coney Island has never been an amusement park. It's a New York City neighborhood that has amusements," points out Charles Denson, a longtime Coney resident and the author of the incomparable history of the place, Coney Island Lost and Found, and it was in this period that Coney, as a vibrant, diverse neighborhood, reached its zenith, with a permanent population of 100,000 that doubled in the summer.

It was almost inevitable that such a lovely, viable haimishe world should have attracted the attention of the city's arch nemesis, Robert Moses. The Power Broker went to work on Coney in the late '40s and '50s much as he did in the Bronx, determined to convert its slightly dilapidated, much-cherished humanity into his same-old, same-old Corbusier master plan of towers surrounded by parks and cars.

Moses "improved" the boardwalk by tearing a new path for it right through a swath of businesses and the municipal bathhouse—thereby discouraging any and all potential investors. He planted the city's aquarium out on the site of the old Dreamland Park, where no one wanted it and no one came to see it. He tore down the venerable working-class neighborhood in central Coney Island known as "the Gut," and started a rampage through the neighborhoods and amusements on the west end of the island, courtesy of federal funds provided under the Title I urban renewal program.

Perhaps the worst part of Moses's depredations, as always, is that they were committed in the name of social progress and urban improvement. Determined to build a sort of Jones Beach with housing projects, he vehemently rejected the claim that Coney could go on much as it always had, insisting in 1958 that the area was "rotting inside and out in spite of nostalgic fables."

At first, he at least put up some decent, economically integrated public housing, but before long, the city was simply warehousing everything it could out in Coney: the sick, the old, the indigent; social-welfare services of every kind. Even after Moses was finally toppled, the city went on like some science-fiction, cyborg race programmed to destroy, using Title I funds to bulldoze block after block of perfectly good, affordable, occupied housing, annihilating the bustling shopping district along Mermaid Avenue—where, until the late 1960s, you could find a book, or a supermarket, or a pair of shoes.

Private developers grabbed up the spoils of all this public blockbusting, especially Fred Trump, father of Donald, who filled in what had been the Gut with towers of his own. Trump also bought the still-profitable Steeplechase, the last of the great parks, for cheap (mostly because Marie Tilyou, granddaughter of the park's founder, preferred to see it demolished, rather than entertain the black residents from many of Coney's new projects).

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