City Journal

Peter Reinharz
Rockaway Riviera? CopacaConey?
Coney Island and the Rockaways boast gorgeous beaches that any other world city would flaunt. Here’s how Gotham’s blighted oceanfront can glitter again.
Summer 1999

It's a steamy Friday in August, and a flood of wealthy Manhattanites pours off the train and flows into the beachfront hotels. Soon, they're luxuriating on the hotel verandas, just a few yards from the ocean's lapping waves—so close they can feel the sea breeze cool their faces—as they sip cocktails and discuss the week's business. A scene from the tony Hamptons, right?

Nope: it's Brooklyn's Coney Island in the nineteenth century. But today, Coney Island, along with the Rockaways, just to its east in Queens—both formerly flourishing playgrounds of well-to-do New Yorkers—is bleak, run-down, and pockmarked with problem-ridden low-income public housing. Both these oceanfront areas, potentially as magnificent as any in the nation, are wasted precious assets that few other world-class cities possess. New York should make them sparkle again.

Coney Island, an island in name only, is a peninsula directly south of central Brooklyn and fronting the Atlantic Ocean. Affluent New Yorkers began escaping from the sweltering city to its sandy, secluded shores as early as the first quarter of the nineteenth century. A few hotels—the first opened in 1829—catered to those who could afford to reach it via horse-drawn carriage or, a bit later, the small steamer that linked the peninsula's western end with Manhattan. But after the Civil War, the railway boom ended Coney's seclusion. Five lines soon connected Coney to the rest of Brooklyn, and by the late 1870s, it was a flourishing popular resort catering not only to New York's wealthy but to its swelling middle class as well.

Railroad baron August Corbin and entrepreneur William Engeman helped spark Coney Island's growth into a major resort by building three grand beachfront hotels in the late 1870s. Corbin owned two. His elite Manhattan Beach Hotel, on Coney's eastern shore, featured a spectacular three-block-long wooden porch; his even more opulent Oriental Hotel sported exotic minarets to give it a romantic touch. Corbin also owned the railway that transported the well-heeled hotel guests from the city to the hotels' front doors. Engeman, for his part, operated the massive Brighton Beach Hotel, west of Manhattan Beach. Despite its gorgeous flower beds, it was less exclusive than the competition. As historians Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace note, "Brighton drew businessmen and their families, doctors and lawyers, white-collar office workers, clerks in insurance firms, and salesmen with manufacturing companies"—the whole range of New York's fast-growing middle class.

Even before the hotels opened, entrepreneurs had flocked to Coney Island. From 1868 through the 1890s, local government—Coney didn't officially become part of Brooklyn until 1894—rested entirely in the notoriously corrupt hands of constable John Y. McKane, who welcomed any kind of investment, as long as he got his cut. Soon, thanks to McKane, Coney pulsated with food vendors (the hot dog was an 1868 Coney invention), freak shows, gambling dens, brothels, and just about everything else—from boutique hotels and three thriving racetracks to theaters and music halls. Coney's wild doings—cordoned off from the luxury hotels and concentrated in the West Brighton area and the peninsula's West End—won it the sobriquet "Sodom by the Sea." But for immigrants, whose money was as good as anyone's for McKane, it was a theater of ambition. Visitors flocked to all parts of Coney—not just to the luxury hotels but to the hurly-burly attractions, too. As early as 1881, the New York Times described Coney as ranking first "among the pleasure resorts popular with the masses" and noted with awe the "invasion" of 75,000 visitors on a busy summer day.

The seven-mile-long Rockaway peninsula in southern Queens blossomed in a very similar way. Like their Brooklyn cousin, the Rockaways were at first an exclusive ocean retreat for the very wealthy. But rail connections from Jamaica, Queens, built in the early 1870s, spurred the building of numerous hotels, and by the early 1880s the Rockaways rivaled Coney as New York's top summer resort. Rockaway Beach was a particular draw—"the most famous watering place in America," local historian William W. Munsell wrote in 1882. The area also sprouted several upscale beachfront communities: Arverne-by-the-Sea, Belle Harbor, and Neponsit, each founded during the 1890s. Oceanfront housing in these villages ranged in price from the affordable $6,000 to the weightier $36,000—from $106,000 to $637,000 in today's dollars.

As the twentieth century dawned, Coney Island became home of the world's greatest amusement parks. Between 1897 and 1904, Steeplechase Park, Luna Park, and Dreamland all rose out of the oceanfront sand, gaining worldwide reputations for their thrilling rides, wild animals, and millions of dazzling electric lights. These were family places, free from the honky-tonk and license of the previous decade, and the crowds swelled still more. On an average summer weekend, park historian Stephen Weinstein tells us, visitors mailed 250,000 postcards from Coney's shores. In the evening, the parks were wondrous to see, as the Russian poet Maxim Gorky proclaimed in 1907: "Thus, when night comes, a fantastic magic city, all of fire, suddenly blazes up from the ocean. Without

consuming, it burns long against the dark background of the sky, its beauty mirrored in the broad, gleaming bosom of the sea."

Nearby in Queens, Rockaway Beach Amusement Park and Rockaway Playland, sprawling arcades opened in 1901, held their own against Coney Island's amusements. And the Rockaways had something Coney didn't: Arverne, Edgemere, Far Rockaway, Rockaway Park, and other peninsula towns featured affordable seaside bungalows that middle-class families could buy or rent.

In 1920, as the New York subway and its five-cent fare extended to Coney Island and the city bought up much of the area's beach property, the "nickel empire" was born. "Coney Island had become the watering place of all the people," historian Elliot Willensky enthuses. The crowds swelled to gigantic proportions. On any given summer weekend during the twenties, a staggering 18 percent of New York City's population—over 1 million people—could be found walking the recently built boardwalk that hugged Coney's shoreline, splashing in the surf, or thrilling to the rides. The 1920s marked the golden age of the roller coaster, topped off by the 1928 opening of the Cyclone, with a breathtaking 86-foot drop, at Surf Avenue and West 10th Street. Amusement parks across the world emulated Coney, some even calling themselves Coney Island. To keep up, Rockaway Playland installed its own roller coaster in 1925 and continued to thrive.

Both Coney Island and the Rockaways survived the Depression, although Luna Park went into receivership, and Coney never quite regained the luster it had in 1920. But the areas didn't survive the fifties and sixties, when they fell into precipitous and seemingly irreversible decline. By 1964, Coney Island had one of its worst years ever, with concession sales dropping as much as 90 percent, as New Yorkers shunned the increasingly menacing subway and thug-plagued amusement parks. The space for amusements withered from 20 oceanfront blocks to nine by the eighties—to a forlorn half-dozen or so today. The novelist Mario Puzo, echoing Dante's Inferno, characterized Coney's postwar plight: "It breaks your heart," he wrote, "to see what a slothful, bedraggled harridan it has become."

By 1973, New York mayor John Lindsay, lamenting that the Rockaways had become a microcosm of the urban problems that needed fixing, was declaring: "We can make it anywhere in the city if we can make it here"—things had gotten that bad. What happened?

The resorts' decline began with New York's Faustian parks commissioner Robert Moses. For Moses, Coney Island represented the past, and the past was dead. "There is no use bemoaning the end of the old Coney Island fabled in song and story," he wrote to Mayor Fiorello La Guardia in 1939. "The important thing is not to proceed in the mistaken belief it can be revived." Moses' assessment was highly dubious: the previous year, Fortune had warmly evoked Coney's spirit of enterprise, calling the area "perhaps the greatest concentration of independent little businesses in the world." The very year Moses wrote, Coney drew 25 million patrons during its five-month season, more than attended all of the nation's pro-baseball games combined that summer. It was Moses himself who made certain that Coney could never return to its fabled past. In 1949, just as Walt Disney prepared to launch what would be the world's most successful amusement park, Moses rezoned Coney Island's Luna Park—it had burned down during the war—for a low-income housing project. It was a warning of what was in store for Coney Island—and the Rockaways—over the next two decades.

Some blame the resorts' downfall on the automobile or on shifting public attitudes, but the real reason, seldom remarked, was bad urban policy. From the early fifties through the early seventies, under Mayors Robert Wagner and John Lindsay, New York City simply wrecked Coney Island and the Rockaways by glutting them with low-income public-housing projects like "Luna Park Village," as it was now called. Public housing turned out to be a failed strategy everywhere (see "We Don't Need Subsidized Housing," Winter 1997), but saturating priceless urban assets like Coney and the Rockaways with it was especially bizarre. Gotham pushed thousands of poor blacks and Hispanics, uprooted by the city's ongoing efforts to demolish crime- and drug-swamped slums, into the new beachfront projects, thinking that the pleasant, healthful surroundings would spur former ghetto residents to embrace bourgeois values, since their high rates of dysfunctional behavior were purportedly the product of an unwholesome environment. Instead, since that behavior sprang from dysfunctional cultural values, not the slum environment, urban blight tragically radiated from the projects wherever they went up.

Luna Park Village's 1,600 units of public housing didn't open until 1961, but by then Coney Island's transformation into an anti-Disneyland was well under way. Already in 1960 Coney Island had more than 3,000 public-housing units. With Luna Park Village, though, the floodgates opened: from 1961 to 1967, nine new blocks of public housing opened, taking in more than 7,000 residents.

The city dotted the Rockaways' once-thriving beach communities with public housing, too. In 1951, the Housing Authority opened the 410-unit Arverne Houses; in 1955, the 712-unit Hammel Houses; in 1959, Redfern Houses, with 604 units; and in 1961, the gigantic Edgemere Houses, with 1,395 units—soon to be one of the most violent and dystopian projects in the five boroughs.

Though Moses had all but retired three years before John Lindsay's election as mayor in 1965, the Lindsay administration found ways of making things even worse. For Lindsay, city government existed only to benefit the poor, and that presumption lay behind virtually everything his administration said or did. His "Plan for New York City, 1969"—a municipal welfare-state recipe for housing and economic development in the city—teems with bad ideas, but it is especially silly about Coney Island and the Rockaways.

Coney Island, the plan said, had some of the worst housing in the city—a goad, it declared, to "civil unrest and despair." So how did the administration think to save Coney? You guessed it: by building more of the public housing it decried—exactly what wrecked Coney in the first place and nearly bankrupted New York, state and city, by the mid-seventies. Irving Herzberg of the Coney Island Community Council immediately warned that the plan had to be stopped "in order to keep Coney Island from being frozen into a low-income community"—which it had, in fact, already become. But Herzberg's admonition failed: by the end of 1969, three additional public-housing complexes were set to open: Carey Gardens, O'Dwyer Gardens, and 32nd Street-Mermaid Housing—all big, and all built on property near the beach that cried out for private development.

By 1970, Coney's transformation was complete: the resort now had more than 15,000 people in publicly assisted housing of one kind or another—nearly one-third of the area's total residential population of 50,000, which before the public-housing deluge had been mostly Jews and Italians. Before the deluge, novelist Joseph Heller reminds us, Coney was "safe, insular, and secure," with "just about no fear of violence...and practically no crime." After it, crime rates rose dramatically, hitting 5,000 felonies a year during the seventies and a frightening 7,000 during the eighties. The crime explosion laid waste Coney's once-buoyant economy. By the eighties, Coney's projects would be among the most crime-ridden in the city. "I used to love it, just a block away from the beach," a jittery Mermaid Housing resident told the New York Times a few years back, when Mermaid had the highest murder rate of any project in the city. "But it's turned into the O.K. Corral. I don't want to stay here any longer than I have to." Though Mayor Giuliani's innovative crime-fighting strategies cut felonies to fewer than 4,000 by 1997, making Coney's streets much safer, the economy hasn't recovered.

In the Rockaways, the Lindsay administration, sticking to its 1969 plan, bulldozed a large swath of Arverne, Hammel, and Edgemere for urban renewal—and then ran out of money to finish the job. For 30 years, bureaucratic tie-ups have kept fallow hundreds of acres of prime oceanfront property as the city's various development schemes have sputtered out—just as well, since the proposals invariably called for yet more public housing and even a space for ocean-view trailer parks (an idea approved by Mayor Lindsay) to fill the empty land. It's worth recalling that in 1969, Atlantic City was transforming its waterfront into a vast, rich hotel and casino empire. If New York City had been running things, there's no telling how far from the beach the hotels would be—or if there would be hotels at all.

As you travel across Coney Island today, you can't escape the results of decades of bad urbanism. Manhattan Beach still retains most of its former dignity, with neat brick houses trailing down to the ocean (the beach itself has been public property since the mid-fifties). But at Manhattan Beach's easternmost tip—formerly Oriental Point—sits CUNY's Kingsborough Community College, oddly out of place in its spectacular surroundings. It has been there since 1964, another legacy of Robert Moses' long reign over city planning. Why the city located an undistinguished two-year community college on such a beautiful site, surrounded on three sides by the Atlantic Ocean, is unfathomable. Surely, a prestigious oceanographic institute would be more appropriate, if a school had to be there.

If you move west, beyond the Brighton Beach enclave of Russian immigrants and across Ocean Parkway and Stilwell Avenue, things get much worse. The whole area is desolate, as if it were bewitched. Public-housing projects loom over Surf Avenue, the long commercial road closest to the boardwalk and the beach. Numerous stores on the street are boarded shut or have for lease signs struggling to be seen through the ubiquitous graffiti. Those that remain open are a collection of cheap furniture stores, discount mattress markets, and low-end flea markets. Before the projects, Mermaid Avenue, a block north of Surf, bustled with more than 400 prosperous retail businesses. By the 1980s, only 39 stores remained. Today, it may be Coney's bleakest area. A liquor store is still open, but not much else. A banner on a light pole invites you to shop in Coney, but it's hard to imagine getting out of your locked car. Heaps of rubble from demolished buildings strew vacant lots surrounded by rusting chain-link fences.

One weed-cracked asphalt lot, at the corner of Surf and West 22nd Street, reflects Coney Island's decay with eerie perfection. This oceanfront site, 11 miles from midtown Manhattan's towers, is . . . a parking lot for school buses. If you look east over the buses, the long-silent Parachute Jump tower—once one of Steeplechase Park's biggest attractions—rises up forlornly against the sky. Between the parked buses and the edge of the boardwalk hunkers an abandoned warehouse, pigeons fluttering in and out of its broken windows. The whole scene makes you wince: where are the luxury high-rises, the seafood grills, and the nautical novelty stores?

Sea Gate, a relatively affluent working-class Coney neighborhood that runs from West 37th Street to Norton's Point on the peninsula's West End, offers a powerful lesson in the merits of private versus public ownership. Fenced off with barbed wire from crumbling Surf Avenue, Sea Gate's 800 homes can be reached only through a main entrance that recalls Checkpoint Charlie, the cold-war crossover between Berlin's Soviet sector and its American-occupied zone. On the privately owned Sea Gate side, you see attractive homes and well-tended lawns; on the public-housing-dominated Surf Avenue side, rubble-strewn lots and broken glass assault the eye.

A drive across the Rockaway peninsula confirms Sea Gate's lesson that too much public housing can ruin a neighborhood, despite priceless natural advantages. The Rockaways begin just west of Nassau County's affluent Five Towns on Long Island's south shore. As you cross Doughty Boulevard from Nassau County into Queens, you enter eastern Far Rockaway. It's a nice area, home to a sizable community of Orthodox Jews who help keep it that way. But in order to attract potential home buyers to the region, real estate brokers now advertise it as "West Lawrence"—neighbor to Nassau County's Lawrence—rather than sully it with the Rockaways' wretched reputation.

Go deeper into Far Rockaway, and the picture abruptly changes. At Rockaway Beach Boulevard, with the boardwalk, beach, and Atlantic surf visible, you can drive beneath the "A" train line as it moves through Edgemere, Arverne, and Hammel—the towns most saturated with housing projects. Soon all you see are the ruins of community—garbage-strewn lots and boarded-up buildings. A beachfront high-rise will spring up almost out of nowhere, only to be followed by more empty seaside lots. Would any other major city treat its prime oceanfront with such blatant disregard?

How might Coney Island and the Rockaways come back to life? Start with the Rockaways. Nearby Nassau County's Atlantic Beach shows how the Rockaways might look in just a few years—if the city were to make the right decisions. Atlantic Beach runs some two to three miles along the ocean. Private clubs, renting summer lockers and cabanas at top prices, abut the beach property. The clubs are immensely popular, with yearlong waiting lists common. Yet, though the Rockaways have far more oceanfront property than does Atlantic Beach, only a few clubs dot the peninsula's shoreline. None has the elegance of its Nassau County neighbors. What separates Atlantic Beach and the Rockaways are radically different zoning philosophies, as Atlantic Beach's well-kept single-family homes—in contrast to the Rockaways' dilapidated public-housing projects and run-down multiple dwellings—starkly reveal.

Things may be changing for the better: thanks to Mayor Giuliani and Queens borough president Claire Shulman, long-unused beachfront property in Arverne and Edgemere has at last been turned over to private developers to build private housing and retail space in both communities. The city is chipping in $7 million for better sewers, sidewalks, and roads. The developers promise to add to the tax rolls 161 market-rate private homes and 75,000 square feet of retail space along the Arverne and Edgemere beachfront. Shulman also is pushing an impressive $1 billion private development called Destination Technologies: in 2002, it plans to open an Arverne waterfront complex boasting movie theaters, a luxury hotel, and a family-oriented sports center with an indoor ski slope and white-water rafting facilities.

But the city can do even more. It should rezone Coney Island and the Rockaways to encourage private development, and it should send its economic-development officials across the country, beating the drums about the area's potential commercial opportunities. Urban planners in Malibu, California, have recently created a successful community of sprawling beachfront estates that offer luxury housing to those who want to be close to Los Angeles. Why not provide something similar for New Yorkers? After all, thousands of people already commute to Manhattan from Nassau's wealthy Five Towns region. Upscale Rockaway living would bring them closer to work. As a vacation spot or summer residence for prosperous Gothamites, too, a suitably improved Rockaways, which already boast magnificent, broad white sand beaches and a curling Atlantic surf, would give the Hamptons a run for their money, breathing much-needed vitality into the area's comatose economy.

In addition, the Rockaways' proximity to Five Towns makes the region ideal for retail. Why shouldn't the city's economic-development folks try to sell developers on the idea of building an oceanfront mall and shopping zone, like the one that flourishes in Newport Beach in southern California? If the mall had ample parking and sufficient security, New York City's slightly lower sales tax alone would draw throngs of Nassau shoppers. Just imagine it: after a morning on the beach, you'd shop the air-conditioned mall in the afternoon and eat in one of the seafood restaurants that lined the boardwalk that night. This isn't to say that the city should decide what gets built—that's for the market to decide—but only to suggest some obvious ways to start generating the commercial excitement that might lead to even more visionary projects.

But the real jewel of New York's oceanfront could be Coney Island. Mayor Robert Wagner called it "a precious asset incapable of duplication"—though he stood by as Moses started to wreck it. One potential boon is its nearness to Manhattan: while the "A" train takes up to 90 minutes to reach Far Rockaway from Manhattan, Coney is less than an hour from midtown—a mere 30 minutes if the Transit Authority would provide a nonstop express train between Coney and Times Square. Such a train, which could use existing subway tracks that end at Coney's Stilwell Avenue, would speed the area's economic development enormously.

Coney Island's history could serve developers and city officials as a useful guidepost to the peninsula's future prosperity. Certainly Coney's amusement area, though tawdry and diminished, could be spruced up. Perhaps Disney could be enticed to build a new amusement park there, revitalizing Coney just as it helped revitalize Times Square, an area with a similar history of prosperity followed by blight. (A Disney rep scouted Coney for development possibilities in 1997, though nothing solid came from the visit.) And why shouldn't a sports entrepreneur bring back the "sport of kings"—horse racing? A century ago, Coney's oceanside racetracks teemed with horse enthusiasts. There's no reason to think horse racing wouldn't be a huge attraction again. After all, many New Yorkers—and growing numbers of yuppies among them—currently ferry from lower Manhattan to New Jersey's Monmouth Park for evening races. The shorter trip to Coney would draw even greater numbers of Gotham's racing fans. During July, Coney could become a seaside precursor of Saratoga's horse-racing classic in August. During August, the Coney track might stay open as a trotting facility, thus making racing part of the peninsula's rhythm throughout the summer.

Coney Island's proximity to Manhattan makes several additional happy scenarios thinkable. Imagine, for a moment, that instead of shuttered stores, vacant lots, and bleak housing projects, Coney's beachfront bloomed luxury hotels, as it did a century ago, or beautiful condominiums, as it might tomorrow. Imagine that instead of the ramshackle 1,500-seat Abe Stark ice rink and "convention center," Coney promoted a spanking-new, privately built, state-of-the-art convention complex. Though Coney doesn't have the warm climate of Miami Beach or Monte Carlo, it does have access to New York City in all of its glory: world-class cuisine, top-notch theater, venerable museums, and championship sports teams. An express train could zip Coney's visitors—in town for a convention or vacation—into Manhattan for dinner and a show after a day at the beach, then zip them back to their beachfront hotel for a nightcap. Soon, Coney Island would boom with tourists.

To revitalize Coney Island and the Rockaways will require a sizable shift in the way the city thinks about its oceanfront property. These days, the city owns the beachfront in both regions, and it will have to ease zoning restrictions there. While Coney and the Rockaways should have public beaches that all New Yorkers can enjoy, there's no justification for keeping virtually all of the city's beach property in public hands. Most other beach areas close to major cities—Atlantic Beach, Palm Beach in Florida, and L.A. County in California come to mind—manage to balance beach access between public and private interests.

Naysayers doubtless will object not only to the loss of unfettered public access to the seashore, but also to the necessary razing of the existing public housing in the area. Ideally, the city could simply pay residents to relocate and proceed to demolish the ugly projects. Given the political firestorm that approach would surely ignite, a more realistic alternative would be for the city to get potential developers to agree to build new, smaller-scale, private affordable housing in suitable areas of Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens as a condition of being allowed to rebuild Coney and the Rockaways. More important for the poor, thousands of new jobs would follow the creation of luxury hotels, new retail opportunities, and upscale condominiums, just as David Walentas's bold, if ugly, plan to develop "Dumbo"—a long-fallow stretch of Brooklyn waterfront "down under the Manhattan Bridge overpass"—with a hotel, theaters, and retail would bring needed employment to the city. Mayor Giuliani has seemingly recognized this crucial point, both with his plan for Arverne and in his ideas for developing Governor's Island with pricey hotels and casino gambling.

Coney Island and the Rockaways are just one decade and one visionary development strategy away from being a major East Coast seaside attraction. New Yorkers could once again sit on long verandas looking out over the Atlantic Ocean—enjoying everything the city has to offer.

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