The Beaches of Coney Island- Part 2

“Bathing shoulder to shoulder at Coney Island was both satisfying and enabling in ways that sharply contrasted with other forms of recreation.  It was bigger than any parade, more inclusive than any political rally, and more democratic than any spectator sport.  It was like that 4th of July and every other patriotic outpouring rolled into one.”

Michael Immerso, Coney Island: The People’s Playground, 153

The beach and the Half Moon Hotel.

The crowds kept coming and in response, new parks were built in 1895 (Sea Lion Park), 1897 (Steeplechase Park), 1903 (Luna Park) and 1904 (Dreamland).[1]  In addition, many independent rides and concessions peppered the amusement district.  A spirit of frivolity spread over much of the island as more things popped up for visitors to do upon subsequent visits.  Frederick Thompson, a co-owner of Luna Park, said, “Innocent play is a moral antiseptic, and innocent play has certainly won the victory at Coney Island.”[2]  Although they were among the thousands on the sand, many people felt the beach offered a “unique form of privacy” and got lost in the masses.  Teenage boys could easily lose mom and dad for a few hours while talking to girls from all over New York City.  Beachgoers began to take this feeling of liberation to a new level with their revealing bathing suits.

The regulations for bathing outfits had varied greatly under former island boss John McKane, but after he was arrested in 1895 the reformers hounded the police to ensure all wore decent bathing apparel.  In 1900 the New York Times described an event where the police tried to arrest several people wearing bathing suits while not on the beach.  The daring bathers were about to be arrested when they hopped a passing streetcar and escaped a night in prison.[3]  One watershed of sorts in this battle for skin occurred in July of 1910.  The police walked, spread out, down the beach trying to arrest those in “tight fitting” bathing suits or outfits that “resembled overalls.”  The police chose not to abandon their traditional uniforms and balked at going in the water after the bathers that scampered away in the surf.  Only eight were arrested that day, but they had to spend the night in jail.  Eight years later around 100 women were forced to return to bathhouses because they were not wearing stockings on the beach.[4]  For the 1920 season male and female “censors” were on the beach looking for men in one-piece suits and women showing too much skin.[5]   In 1923 when local lawmen actually looked at the books, they found no law forbidding women to show their ankles at the beach and stopped arresting citizens on that charge.[6]  The same year a man named Leo Wagner from Neptune Avenue was fined $5 because he was “wearing the shirt of his bathing suit inside his trunks.”  After paying the fine, Wagner produced a picture from a local paper that pictured Mayor Hylan of New York City in the same style of bathing suit.  The judge, who was with the mayor in Florida when the photo was taken, had no comment for the paper.[7]  In their book Sodom By the Sea, Oliver Pilat and Jo Ranson describe the losing battle that moral reformers, religious leaders and the police faced with people embracing smaller bathing suits.  There were still some arrests; in the early 1930’s men with their chests exposed could get a $50 fine and spend ten days in jail.  However, the LaGuardia administration made it clear that they saw no point in spending the city’s time or money persecuting beach-goers.[8]  Bathing suit styles were shrinking in part because of greater acceptance of the body being displayed in public and the fact that many beachgoers were from European countries where showing additional flesh had been the norm.  The changes came quickly and by the 1950’s the bikini could be found on the beaches of Coney Island.

The beach was a place where everyone came to relax.

During the winter of 1910-1911 one of the largest public works on the island took shape.  The municipal bathhouse slowly rose at West 5th Street and Surf Avenue.[9]  Island entrepreneurs were not happy that the city was invading what had been a land of private enterprise.  After it opened people lined up for 3-4 blocks to rent one of 6,000 lockers in the structure.  The city charged 10 cents for beach access, well below most of the other bathing facilities.  While many sources said the structure was open for the 1911 season, Times articles from July and August of that year talk of the official opening’s delay.  The bathhouse opened to speeches and dignitaries on August 1 as planned, but no one from the public, not even reporters, were allowed in.  The author surmised that the facilities should be open to all in a few weeks’ time.[10]

The area’s reputation as a resort began to fade with the closing of the Corbin properties in 1911 (Manhattan Beach Hotel) and 1916 (Oriental Hotel).  In addition, horse racing was outlawed in 1910.[11]  Many of the guests that had summered at Coney chose to visit on a weekend or two, if at all.  The island now belonged to the masses.  World War I created a new demand for all of Coney’s facilities, most notably the beach, and most entrepreneurs gouged bathers with exorbitant fees whenever they could.  Pilat and Ransom said that a few facilities, such as Ward’s, kept their prices the same.  But many, such as the Majestic Baths, Parkway Baths, Whitney’s, Ravenhall’s and Scoville’s all increased their prices to get all they could from customers.[12]

As Coney Island became a home to more of the masses and less of the elite, it became known by nicknames such as the Poor Man’s Riviera, the Paradise of the Proletariat and the Nickel Empire.[13]  The last name came from the fact that many of the island’s attractions came in five-cent increments.[14]  Like most amusement areas of the day, Coney Island was a patchwork of different proprietors.  Business owners ran the gambit of sizes, from a local with a small stand in the Bowery to the Tilyou family who owned Steeplechase Park and a large bathhouse.  This meant that almost every attraction on the island was on a pay-as-you-go basis.  In a time before credit cards and ATM’s kids of all ages were seen counting the change left in their pockets after a purchase.

Rolling carts along the boardwalk.

The number of visitors to Coney’s beaches skyrocketed with the opening of the Stillwell Avenue Subway station in 1918.  As historian Richard Snow said, “…Coney did not get smaller, Coney got bigger and more populated…the subway lines got there.  You’d get 300,000 people on a great day in 1913, you’d get a million on a great day in 1923.”[15]  Although trains from Sea Beach had been stopping there for a few months, the Stillwell Avenue Terminal (called the New West End Terminal for a short time) officially opened on May 29, 1918.  In 1919 the Culver line was extended under the authority of the B.R.T. (Brooklyn Rapid Transit).  It reached Avenue X in May 1919 and a little over a year later the line started stopping at Stillwell Avenue.[16]  Now the West End, Sea Beach, Brighton Beach and Culver Lines all had a common dead-end point at the corner of Stillwell and Surf Avenues; some even offered express trains from Grand Central Station.[17]  The August 1938 issue of Fortune magazine declared that the subway created the Nickel Empire.[18]  In April 1920 a short in the Times read, “Beginning at 12:01 o’clock Saturday morning the fare between Coney Island and all other points on the Brooklyn Rapid Transit System will be 5 cents.”[19]  The subway was an obvious success bringing the masses to Coney.  During the 1928 season alone, the Stillwell Avenue station collected more than 24 million fares.[20]

The opening of a subway station at Coney Island in 1920 only reinforced another improvement project that had been in the works for years- a boardwalk.  The public walkway finally became reality when its first section opened in 1922.[21]  This watershed had in many ways started with the funding and opening of the Municipal Bathhouse.  Whether it was a conscious decision or not, the city baths served as a test to see how both business owners and visitors to Coney responded to a beach improvement funded with public money.  The first proposals for a boardwalk came in 1910.  The New York City Board of Aldermen felt that the public shouldn’t have to deal with the dozens of different bathhouses that “owned” the beach. After weathering many city planning issues (many of which are described in Charles Denson’s Coney Island: Lost and Found) the city sued several landowners and ordered them to remove any items from the beach.  The New York Supreme Court ruled in 1913 that any land in the area from high tide to low tide belonged to the people of New York State.  Four years later the Green Bill was passed.[22]  Part of it read that the Commissioners of the State Land Office, “…grant and release to the City of New York certain lands under water in the Atlantic Ocean in the Boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, to provide for the protection of adjacent uplands and the improvement of such lands under water and uplands.”[23]  On October 21, 1920 Brooklyn borough president Edward Riegelmann ordered that the beach be cleared of all obstructions.[24]

The boardwalk made the island truly the “people’s playground.”

Riegelmann drove the first stake of the boardwalk in 1921- although my sources point to different dates.  The October 2, 1921 New York Times reported that the first stake was “yesterday,” while Charles Denson stated it was done on September 29.  Either way it was done at Ocean Parkway, which was the easternmost point of the walk.[25]  A little over 12 months later the first section of the boardwalk opened on October 28, 1922.  This section ran from Ocean Parkway to West 5th Street.[26]  The second section got much more interest as 50,000 people showed up for its opening on Christmas Eve, 1922.  The boardwalk now stretched all the way to West Seventeenth Street, where Steeplechase Park stood.[27]  On May 17th, the full boardwalk officially opened and ran almost two miles in length.[28]  It cost nearly $4 million dollars, half of which was the property acquisition cost the city had to pay landowners.[29]  Brooklynites proudly let everyone know that at eighty feet their boardwalk stood twenty feet wider than the famed walk in Atlantic City, and that it used 3.6 million feet of timber and 120 cubic yards of stone.[30]  Because the boardwalk took up so much room, it was over the water on some parts of Coney’s beaches. 1.7 million cubic feet of sand was added to give the masses more room.  This was done by pumping sand in and using a system of jetties and bulkheads that “harness the wild waves themselves and make them help dig sand from the ocean bed and build a new shore.”[31]  After thirteen years of battle, the citizens of New York finally had a beach that belonged to them.

The upper class stopped coming to the area when gambling was outlawed and the resorts closed.  Their children never came to the island; they had found a new place to swim.  On August 4, 1929 a new concept in public bathing and parks opened- Jones Beach on Long Island.  The concept was the brainchild of a man who shaped New York City more than any other during the Twentieth Century- Robert Moses.[32]  Moses thought beyond big and created a State Park that was more like a resort.  The main bathhouse cost one million dollars, the water tower was shaped like an “Italian campanile,” and a tree-lined parkway brought visitors to the beach.[33]  The beach was filled with order through a completely state-controlled operation that took care of everything, from cleaning the trash on the beach, to serving food, to running the bathhouses.  The bathhouse alone accommodated 10,000 bathers and was always packed full of people willing to pay for its use.  The park received 25,000 guests on opening day and despite the short operating season in 1929, 350,000 people visited from August through early September.[34]  It wasn’t just the public who loved the beach.  Architects and urban planners worldwide were impressed with the grandeur of Moses’ plan.  Historian Robert Caro said that, “When Jones Beach opened the whole world came to praise him [Moses].”[35]

Moses not only created a unique beach and bathing facility, he made sure that it was visited primarily by white, upper-class New Yorkers.[36]  While he vehemently denied the charge that Jones Beach was set up for a certain segment of the population, statements such as, “Breathing spaces in the slums of New York ‘constitute a city problem’ which the State cannot take ‘care of,'” take on a different meaning when read today.[37]  Moses had limited access to Jones Beach by restricting mass transit, including a proposed spur on the Long Island Rail Road, and he had his head of construction build much of the parkway so that city buses could not fit under overpasses.  Only eight years after the park opened Fortune magazine declared that a day at Jones Beach cost a family many times more than a day at Coney.  In addition to the immigrant working classes, African-American social groups had a hard time getting permits for Jones Beach and when they did, they were sent to the far ends of the beach.[38]  Over the next decade Moses tightened his grip on the five boroughs and would take control of Coney Island nine years after Jones Beach opened.

The Depression left the beaches at Coney Island as the primary draw.  Crowds averaging around 35 million came each summer, but they had less to spend. [39]  During the 1920’s the bathhouses had remained profitable despite the introduction of the boardwalk.  The next decade the bathhouses saw their business drop off sharply as families found ways to not pay much more than a subway token to bathe.  Some people changed in the rooms of houses and apartments near the beach.  For a small fee guests exchanged their street clothes for a bathing suit and headed for the water.  Often, the bathing suit provided by the owner was made of lesser-quality materials and could become loose in the water.[40]  It wasn’t unusual for the local police, under political pressure from the influential bathhouses, to raid homes where this changing of swimming suits occurred.  Police were still arresting people renting out space in their homes as late as 1947.  That year a judge fined each found in violation of the law $25.[41]  By the end of the 1930’s, about twenty percent of beach-goers were renting suits from anyone.[42]  Most families chose to change in cars or under the boardwalk, which was known as “bum bathing.”[43]  Some were called “drippers” because they wore a bathing suit under their street clothes and dripped beach water as they rode the subway back home.[44]  During the Depression, families who had been evicted were found in the early morning on the beach living in a tent.[45]  They often roamed up and down the miles of sand, setting up their own personal Hooverville at the back of the beach to avoid the crowds.

The boardwalk was the place to be.

3000 children got lost on Coney’s beaches each year.[46]  Considering the throngs of people that littered every inch of sand, it is no surprise that so many kids were lost.  At Coney most kids were brought by police officers or lifeguards to a first aid station.  After they were taken in, the children were taken to a special recreation area for lost little ones while their description was radioed to every first aid station at the beach.  Most children were returned to their parents within an hour, when the parent was looking.[47]  However, not every parent was diligently searching for their child.  Sometimes adults, and more often older brothers & sisters, purposely lost a younger one for a few hours so they could swim as the kid sat with a babysitter paid for by the city.[48]

While the salt water felt good on the skins of immigrant families normally accustomed to being crammed into apartments, the sea felt the effects of a city seemingly bursting at its seams.  Even New York City was dumping garbage into the harbor in the early 1930’s.  When wind blew the right way, debris floated to the beaches and samples taken at Coney were more polluted than the East and Hudson Rivers.  Sadly, people contracted typhoid, ear infections and infantile paralysis from bathing at Coney.  In their book Sodom By The Sea, Oliver Pilat & Jo Ranson concluded that the city felt it could not close the beach.  Even though many people were getting sick, officials must have believed that disease was easier to deal with than a large backlash against the closure of the city’s most popular strand.[49]  The alarms publicly sounded in 1955 when Jack M. Marshall performed tests and found “alarming” levels of Ecoli in the waters at Coney and that treatment plants were to blame.  The commissioner of Public Works had little to say except that the Owl’s Head Plant in Brooklyn conformed to all current health codes.  After admitting that the plant was dumping water in Brooklyn he said that because other plants outside of his jurisdiction were dumping sewage into the waters, the Owl’s Head Plant was not entirely to blame for the dangerous bacteria.[50]  Pollution continued to be a problem- sometimes civic reformers got their way and other times companies got away with horrible contamination.  By 1980 people were happy because raw sewage had not been in evidence in several seasons and in 2001 the beach got a good bill of health from the EPA.[51]  While today the beaches are arguably the cleanest they have been in decades, there will always be an ongoing beach battle between the city’s industries and its people.

[1] McCullough, Good Old Coney Island: A Sentimental Journey Into the Past, 299.  Snow, Coney Island: A Postcard Journey to the City of Fire, 13-15.

[2] “The Summer Show,” The Independent, June 20, 1907, 1463.

[3] “Coney Island’s Great Crowd: A Youthful Fagin Arrested- Bathers Escape Police and Board a Trolley Car,” The New York Times, August 20, 1900, 10.

[4] Pilat and Ranson, Sodom by the Sea: An Affectionate History of Coney Island, 307.

[5] “Bathing Suite Rule Enforced at Beach: Censors at Coney Island Forbid Women Bathers to Appear in Socks or One-Piece Outfits,” The New York Times, May 31, 1920, 14.

[6] Pilat and Ransom, Sodom by the Sea: An Affectionate History of Coney Island, 307.

[7] “Fined at Coney for Wearing Hylan Style Suit,” The New York Times, August 28, 1923, 19.

[8] Pilat & Ransom, Sodom by the Sea: An Affectionate History of Coney Island, 309-310.

[9] Denson, Coney Island: Lost and Found, 43.

[10] “City Baths Ready Aug. 1: Opening of New Houses at Coney Island to be Marked by Ceremonies.” The New York Times, July 23, 1911, 4.  Pilat & Ransom, Sodom by the Sea: An Affectionate History of Coney Island, 313.  “Bathhouse Oratory, But No Opening,” The New York Times, August 2, 1911, 7.

[11] Ierardi, Gravesend: The Home of Coney Island, 95.

[12] Pilat & Ransom, Sodom by the Sea: An Affectionate History of Coney Island, 313.

[13] Coney Island: a documentary film.

[14] Coney Island: America’s Dreamland, Produced by Erik Nelson, 60 minutes, Videocassette.

[15] Coney Island: a documentary film.

[16] Paul Matus, “Brooklyn’s New Coney Island Terminal,” May, 2003,

<http://www.thethirdrail.net/0305/stillwell4.html> (February 23, 2004).

[17] http://www.nycsubway.org/maps/historical/bmt1924.gif, accessed through: “New York City Subway Historical Maps,” February 21, 2004, <http://www.nycsubway.org/maps/historical> (February 23, 2004).  Immerso, Coney Island: The People’s Playground, 125.

[18] “To Heaven By Subway,” Fortune, August, 1938, 61.

[19] “Coney Island Fare Cut Saturday,” The New York Times, April 28, 1920, 6.

[20] Sterngrass, First Resorts: Pursuing Pleasure at Saratoga Springs, Newport & Coney Island, 255.

[21] “Coney Boardwalk Opened To The Public: Fifty Thousand Persons Promenade Near Extension to Steeplechase Park,” The New York Times, December 25, 1922, 28.

[22] Denson, Coney Island: Then and Now, 41, 49.

[23] “War On Our Bath Barons: Coney’s Profiteering Beach Hogs Vanquished- Progress at Other Resorts,” The New York Times, August 13, 1922, 89.

[24] Denson, Coney Island: Lost and Found, 49.

[25] “Celebrate Start of Coney Boardwalk: Board of Trade Gives Dinner to Board of Estimate- First Stake Driven By Riegelmann,” The New York Times, October 2, 1921, 18.  Denson, Coney Island: Lost and Found, 49.

[26] “First Section of Boardwalk At Coney Is Opened to Public,” The New York Times, October 29, 1922, 1.

[27] “Coney Boardwalk Opened To The Public: Fifty Thousand Persons Promenade Near Extension to Steeplechase Park,” The New York Times, 28.

[28] “Crowds at Coney To Open Boardwalk,” The New York Times, 21.  Immerso, Coney Island: The People’s Playground, 125.

[29] Denson, Coney Island: Lost and Found, 51.

[30] Pilat and Ranson, Sodom by the Sea: An Affectionate History of Coney Island, 315.  Immerso, Coney Island: The People’s Playground, 125.  Ierardi, Gravesend: The Home of Coney Island, 118.

[31] Denson, Coney Island: Lost and Found, 48.  Immerso, Coney Island: The People’s Playground, 125.  “War On Our Bath Barons: Coney’s Profiteering Beach Hogs Vanquished- Progress at Other Resorts,” The New York Times, 89.

[32] “Jones Beach Park To Open Tomorrow,” The New York Times, August 3, 1929, 5.

[33] Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1974, 314, 223, 308.

[34]“Robert Moses and the Modern Park System (1929 – 1965),” n.d., <http://www.nycgovparks.org/sub_about/parks_history/historic_tour/history_robert_moses_modern.html> (February 23, 2004).  Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, 308.  “State Officials Laud Long Island’s Parks: Rain Mars 150-Mile Tour, but 40 Commission Delegates Marvel at Six-Year Growth,” The New York Times, August 24, 1930, N4.

[35] New York: A Documentary Film- City of Tomorrow: Episode 6: 1929 – 1941, Produced by Steve Rivo, & Ric Burns, 120 Minutes, Steeplechase Films, 1999, DVD.

[36] “History,”  <http://www.jonesbeach.com/history>,  n.d., (February 23, 2004).

[37] “Moses on the Parks,” The New York Times, August 15, 1931, 12.

[38] Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, 318-319.  “To Heaven By Subway,” Fortune, 66.

[39] Immerso, Coney Island: The People’s Playground, 148, 153.

[40] Pilat and Ranson, Sodom by the Sea: An Affectionate History of Coney Island, 313.

[41] “302 More Fined At Coney,” The New York Times, July 2, 1947, 25.

[42] “To Heaven By Subway,” Fortune, 66.

[43] Amy Porter, “Coney Island is a Howl,” Collier’s, July 26, 1947, 44.

[44] Pilat & Ransom, Sodom by the Sea: An Affectionate History of Coney Island, 313.

[45] Ierardi, Gravesend: The Home of Coney Island, 133.

[46] Immerso, Coney Island: The People’s Playground, 157.

[47] Edwin A. Osborne, The New York Times, June 29, 1941, XXI.

[48] Pilat & Ranson, Sodom by the Sea: An Affectionate History of Coney Island, 317.

[49] Pilat & Ranson, Sodom by the Sea: An Affectionate History of Coney Island, 322.

[50] “Waters At Coney Termed Polluted: Chemist Reports a ‘Terrific’ Level – City Makes Study, Might Answer Today,” The New York Times, July 27, 1955, 47.

[51] Will Lissner, “Coney Island Lobby Works for Beaches,” The New York Times, August 15, 1971, BQ86. Anna Quindlen, “Outlook for City Beaches Bright as Coney Waters,” The New York Times, June 28, 1980, 23.  Environmental Protection Agency.  “National Health Protection Survey of Beaches – 2001 Swimming Season,” August 19, 2002, <http://yosemite.epa.gov/water/beach2002.nsf/0/2f6fd838877937c385256b1100755e90?OpenDocument>, (February 23, 2004).