The Beaches of Coney Island- Part 3

A beautiful day for the beach.

“The fat dames is different.  Hell you don’t have to worry about them- can’t swim a lick- but they go in, dog paddle around two hours an’ never touch bottom.  By God you can’t sink ’em.”

John McMonigle, lifeguard of 37 years at Coney Island, Fortune, August 1938

America was coming out of the Depression when a new hold was put on Coney Island.  In 1934 LaGuardia consolidated parks departments from five boroughs into one for New York City.  At its head he placed Robert Moses.[1]  By the summer of 1937 Moses had arranged that the Parks Department take control of the city’s beaches, most importantly Coney Island, Rockaway and Staten Island.  In charge in December of 1937, Moses gave LaGuardia a plan to revamp the three beaches.  The Times said that he offered the mayor a plan for a “New Coney Island to Rival Jones Beach.” Moses first asked the city for $16,150,000.00 for the reworking of Coney, Rockaway and Staten Island.[2]  Moses’ vision of Coney Island included a new boardwalk, new recreational facilities, gardens, playgrounds, straightening of the boardwalk and removal of concession stands under the boardwalk.  In addition, he directly contrasted the “congestion” of Coney Island with the capacity for “three times as many bathers” at Jones Beach.[3]  Two years later this plan was revised to include only Coney Island.  Moses offered LaGuardia two plans, one that cost $3,720,000.00 and another, more comprehensive one that cost $9,659,600.00.[4]  Knowing Moses’ pension for project overspending it is unlikely that either of these costs accurately reflected the amount public money that he anticipated using.

The boardwalk and Parachute Jump, circa 1948.

Robert Moses and the people of Coney Island were not a good mix.  For a man who created places where people lived and spent their free time, Moses had a hard time understanding individuals or accepting anything but calm, orderly behavior as they trod upon his recreational facilities.  As famed progressive reformer Francis Perkins said, “He loves the public, but he hates people.”[5]  Moses lusted after park space, but his concept of serene parkland was in many ways dull.  His thought a good park felt the same, whether it was located at Jones Beach, downtown Manhattan or Coney Island.  Coney was a different battleground for Moses because it was in the city, the area was always crowded and some never forgot the fact that the beach was taken over by the city in 1922.[6]

After taking over the Parks Department, Moses laid down a detailed code of conduct that outlawed ballyhoo all over the area, banned advertising on the beach, prohibited speakers near the beach and fined anyone that was involved in any of the following activities: “human pyramid building, speeches, record-playing, newspapers and beach blankets.”[7]  Moses did some good.  He added trashcans that lined the boardwalk, seven new lifeguard stands, sixteen first-aid stations, several water fountains and men in white sailor suits that speared the trash each morning.[8]  The Parks Department also brought in fit young men as lifeguards, as many as eighty on the miles of beach at one time.  Many of the guards they replaced had been on the job for decades through patronage and were old and out of shape.[9]  But, Moses’ lack of understanding for what Richard Le Gallienne called a “human need of Coney Island” showed through in this well-known quote from a letter to Mayor LaGuardia: “It would seem, however, that a community that calls itself civilized might do a little more by way of recreation for its citizens between the tight spaces of the cradle and the grave.  Certainly there is no reason to perpetuate out of doors the overcrowding of our tenements.  The park and beaches should provide a release from this kind of thing.”[10]

The Parks Department worked over the winter of 1940 to create a new beach.  They felt that the 57 acres available at high tide were not enough for the families that continued to crowd the area.[11]  But instead of adding sand to the beach, Moses ordered that property be bought and the boardwalk be brought or “moved” 400 feet northward.  While the Times reported the project cost around $3 million, Charles Denson estimates that it was closer to $5.5 million.[12]  Moses angled the boardwalk inland beginning at Schweikerts Walk.  It cut across Stauch’s Baths, Ward’s Baths, Feltman’s Restaurant, and several other properties.[13]  The largest change was the cut across the Municipal Bathhouse, which significantly reduced its capacity.  Since he first built Jones Beach, Moses had championed his opinion as the correct one in urban planning.  While Moses’ vision of more bathing room for beachgoers was a good idea, Denson points out that sand could have simply been added to the beach instead of investing millions to move the boardwalk.[14]  The sad realization is that Moses was bringing “new” white sand to Coney’s beaches for the 1941 season.  He wanted to make the beaches look pristine and cover the brownish Brooklyn sand, so he pumped in sand from Suffolk County.[15]  He could have simply brought additional tonnage but Moses wanted things done his way- so the boardwalk had to be moved.

The war did not seem to have much of an effect on those going to Coney, except that beachgoers still did not have much to spend.  Rationing of items such as rubber and gasoline, which limited automobile use, made the subway that much more important to those visiting the Brooklyn beach.  Despite the growth of other beachfronts like Jacob Riis Park, Rockaway and Jones Beach, Coney Island was the easiest and cheapest way for a family from New York to go for a swim on a hot summer Sunday.  Two years after the war ended not more than half of Coney’s visitors were known as “good customers” (customers with more than one dollar to spend).  Business owners complained because visitors would come to the beach early, bring their own lunch and enjoy the day without paying much more than subway fare.[16]  This demonstrated that no matter their income, the beach still appealed to families.  On July 3, 1947 Coney Island saw more people than ever on its beaches.  On that day 1,300,000, one-fifth of the city’s population, enjoyed the surf, the sand and an air & fireworks show put on by the New York Daily Mirror and the U.S. Air Force.  Roughly one in one hundred Americans spent the day at Coney Island that weekend.[17]  Many call this the “last hurrah” for the Nickel Empire.

As veterans returned from war they did notice a certain dullness to Coney’s veneer.  Many saw it as a place where they spent their childhood and associated it as a place to visit with parents.  Now that they had seen the beaches of Normandy and the South Pacific, the imperfections of Coney Island (such as trash and overcrowding) made it seem a little less special.  Author Joseph Heller said, “After the war it was less exciting.  I and almost everybody that went to World War Two…we came back and it was a different experience.  By then we had sexual experience, we had some money and we looked for evening entertainment elsewhere.”[18]  As the decade rolled over, the parents who had spent many weekends at Coney grew old.[19]  Some of their children moved out to the suburbs or across the country to growing population centers like Los Angeles or Dallas.  Those who had grown up at Coney Island didn’t forget about it, but it now took them 1.5-2 hours to take the train in from New Jersey on a sticky summer Saturday.

The Ravenhall Baths were a popular watering hole along the beach.

Like so many of Coney Island histories, the story in many ways seems to end here.  Not many sources document what happened on the island itself after the 1950’s and almost none paint a clear picture of what the beach was like during this time.  In 1955 Robert Moses moved the New York City Aquarium to Coney Island.  Because of its location and price, few people attended the new aquarium for decades.[20]  In 1964 Steeplechase Park shuttered and the last of the great parks at Coney Island was gone forever.[21]  According to historian Craig Steven Wilder the regional demographics of New York City, particularly the borough of Brooklyn, differed too.  Changes that began in Depression-era New York under the Home Owners Loan Corporation (H.O.L.C.), a federal entity, came to fruition by the 1960’s.  During the 1930’s the H.O.L.C. mapped out the borough in sixty-six different neighborhoods based on the racial and ethnic makeup of its citizens.  If Latinos or African-Americans were found in the area, its rating went down.  White citizens were encouraged to move out and black families from the five boroughs and Staten Island were often only given good financial incentives to move if they chose selected areas of the city like Bedford-Stuyevesant or Harlem.  The state had a similar form of racial mapping.  Its inspectors were told by the city that a single African-American or Latino resident on a street redlined the area and this created a new Brooklyn where minorities were herded together.  In 1930 black people living in Brooklyn were the least segregated in the borough, twenty years later they were the most segregated.[22]  The Brooklyn of the 1960’s had changed a lot after only few decades.  It was against this background that a rudderless Coney Island struggled.

Two articles in the Times during 1964 demonstrated the problems nearly every business owner in the area faced.  First, the subway system was perceived as a dangerous way to get around Brooklyn.  Police offers on trains offered little protection from thieves.  Second, the island itself was dead that year.  Only a few thousand people were seen at the island during the weekends.  The paper noted that despite the racial strife, the area that had become famous for crime was actually a safe place for those wanting to swim because the only people there were a few families and people running the rides.  Business dropped between 30 and 90 percent for Coney’s independent rides and games that year.  Even the free beach wasn’t enough of a draw to pull families south.[23]  The perception of Coney Island as an unsafe place slowly became reality.  Racial strife rose on the island and the area became known as a haven for prostitutes[24] Under the Title I plans, the area had become a ghost town by the 1970’s.  Empty lots stood around the island where businesses used to stand.  Some owners burned the structures down and others were demolished for urban renewal projects that never seemed to materialize.[25]    A New York Times poll called “Where New Yorkers Go-and Do Not Go” was published in 1974.  In it, only 28% of respondents said that they went to Coney Island at least once a season.  Almost half said that no one should go to the area.[26]  During this time many of the beachfront properties were torn down or burned.  The famous Ravenhall Baths closed in 1963 and the Washington Baths closed in 1968, because the city wanted them to filter the salt water going into the pool.  The Silvers Baths closed during the 1970’s, and the only remaining grand boardwalk pavilion was torched in 1970.  Three years later, the Bushman and Claret’s Baths burned.[27]

The beach and boardwalk at Coney are fantastic any time of year.

As the 1980’s started, Coney Island became more identified with the beach than anything else.  Norman Kaufman’s revitalization of Steeplechase Park closed in 1981, and as the next season ended the Thunderbolt ran for the last time.[28]  The Cyclone, the Wonder Wheel and the B&B Carousell seemed like after-thoughts for many visitors to Coney.  Fewer things to do along Surf Avenue and the Bowery prompted many to head straight down Stillwell Avenue for the beach after they left the subway station.  In 1980 the Parks Department reported that concession revenues at the beach had been steadily rising for several seasons in a row.[29]

While the 1980’s seemed to have few watersheds, the 1990’s saw Coney Island rise in both the local and national consciousness.  Unique attractions like Sideshows by the Seashore and the Mermaid Parade had laid their roots during the previous decade and were now in full bloom.  Dennis Vouderis, co-owner of Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park, said that he felt one of the best changes occurred in 1994 when the Army Corps of Engineers’ added tons of sand to the beach and the Parks Department refurbished the boardwalk.[30]  The Corps worked on 3.5 miles of beach at Coney Island, Sea Gate and Brighton Beach.  The project called for sand to be added when needed over the next fifty years to ensure erosion prevention and a continued spot for people to enjoy the beach.[31]  Not only did the Coney Island beach look the best it had in years, but the Army Corps of Engineers utilized a new system of small-to-medium-scale backpassing.  Instead of simply trucking sand in from other areas, much of the sand was pumped in from the immediate beach area, which saved taxpayer dollars and time of revitalization.[32]  In 2001, another surprising development happened at Coney.  The new Keyspan Park opened and hosted the New York Mets farm team, the Brooklyn Cyclones.  Most locals saw the stadium as a positive step as it provided additional money and interest in Coney Island.[33]  The next major change at Coney Island will be the opening of the new Stillwell Station at Coney Island for the 2004 season.  This $240 million dollar investment rebuilt the old station from the ground up.[34]  The new station was another catalyst for families from all over the city to spend the day at Coney.  With the aquarium, the amusement parks, the baseball stadium and the beach all only a few hundred meters from the corners of Stillwell and Surf Avenues it seems that the world is once again within reach and that you can still get “to heaven by subway.”[35]

The sand at Coney Island has seen a lot of change since people started coming almost two hundred years ago.  But, there is a still a primal urge to relax and forget the world for a few hours.  The bathing suits are smaller, the languages spoken are different and the area is now something that few people envisioned decades ago.  However, bathing in Coney does seem to make people free, and every year more people are looking for a release from the “concrete jungle” that is New York City.[36]  Edo McCullough best described the longevity of the beach at Coney Island, “For always there will be the salt sea and the sand, and always there will be fun.”[37] [1] “Robert Moses and the Modern Park System (1929 – 1965),”  <>.

[2] “Moses Seeks $16,150,000 To Remake 3 City Beaches: Offers Plan to Mayor for New Coney Island to Rival Jones Beach – Rockaway and Staten Island Resorts are Included,” The New York Times, December 2, 1937, 1.

[3] Department of Parks, City of New York, The Improvement of Coney Island, Rockaway and South Beaches, New York, NY: November 30, 1937, 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, 20.  It is also interesting to note that in the report that Moses states that over 16,000,000 people attended Coney each season.  He said that 9 million of these people arrived by subway & trolley and 7 million arrived by automobile.  Considering the lack of parking at the time I don’t see how this was possible.

[4] “Coney Island Plan Revised by Moses,” The New York Times, August 21, 1939, 11.

[5] New York: A Documentary Film- City of Tomorrow: Episode 6: 1929 – 1941.

[6] Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, 335.

[7] McCullough, Good Old Coney Island: A Sentimental Journey into the Past, 282.  Denson, Coney Island: Lost and Found, 65-66.  Immerso, Coney Island: The People’s Playground, 159.

[8] McCullough, Good Old Coney Island: A Sentimental Journey into the Past, 283.  “To Heaven By Subway,” Fortune, 161.  Ierardi, Gravesend: The Home of Coney Island, 137.

[9] Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, 335.  “To Heaven By Subway,” Fortune, 66.

[10] Richard Le Gallienne, “Human Need of Coney Island,” The Cosmopolitan, 239, New York Times August 21, 1939.

[11] “To Heaven By Subway,” Fortune, 61.

[12] “Coney Island Work Begun: Removal of Lamps First Step in Moving Back Boardwalk,” The New York Times, January 17, 1940, 19.

[13] Denson, Coney Island: Lost and Found, 72.  “Coney Island Grants Cost City $1,151,229: Amount Is Ordered Paid For Land to Improve Beach,” The New York Times, December 23, 1940, 37.

[14] Denson, Coney Island: Lost and Found, 67.

[15] “City Beaches Groomed and Ready: Improved Beaches Await Rush,” The New York Times, May 19, 1940, 1.

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

[17] Coney Island: a documentary film.

[18] Coney Island: America’s Dreamland.

[19] Coney Island: a documentary film.

[20] Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, 686-687.

[21] Snow, Coney Island: A Postcard Journey to the City of Fire, 113.

[22] New York: A Documentary Film- City of Tomorrow: Episode 6: 1929 – 1941.

[23] Martin Arnold, “Subway Ride From Coney Island Can Be Long, Lonely, Fearful,” The New York Times, June 8, 1964, 32.  Martin Tolchin, “Coney Island Slump Grows Worse: Decline in Business Since the War Years Has Been Steady,” The New York Times, July 2, 1964, 33.

[24] Denson, Coney Island: Lost and Found, 149, 156.

[25] Maitland, Leslie, “Air of Uncertainty Dogs Coney Island,” The New York Times, November 3, 1975, 39.

[26] Deidre Carmody, “Where New Yorkers Go – and Don’t Go,” The New York Times, January 18, 1974, 19.

[27] Denson, Coney Island: Lost and Found, 168, 169, 190.

[28] Denson, Coney Island: Lost and Found, 210.  Adam Sandy, “The Coney Island Thunderbolt: 1925-2000,” n.d., <>, (February 23, 2004).

[29] “Outlook for City Beaches Bright as Coney Waters,” The New York Times, June 28, 1980, 23.

[30] Martin Wilbur, “The fun and nostalgia of Coney Island,” n.d., < >, (February 23, 2004).

[31] “Tons of Sand: Replenishing The Shoreline,” The New York Times, February 6, 1994, CY11.

[32] Diane Rahoy and Stuart Chase, “Coastal Forum: Small- to Medium- Scale Sand Backpassing Extends Fill Life and Upgrades Protection,” n.d., <>, (February 23, 2004).

[33] Henry Naccari, “Can a stadium save Coney Island?” n.d.,<>, (February 23, 2004).

[34] “Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg Announces Formation of Coney Island Development Corporation: Thirteen-Member Board to Oversee Future Economic,” September 25, 2003, <>, (February 23, 2004).

[35] “To Heaven by Subway,” Fortune, 60.

[36] Al Lewis, as quoted in Coney Island: a documentary film.

[37] McCullough, Good Old Coney Island: A Sentimental Journey Into the Past, 338.