About the Preservation of Coney Island

July 15, 2009 at 8:21 pm Leave a comment

Following is the first set of answers from Charles Denson, a Coney Island native and historian, who is responding to readers’ questions about the preservation of this historic area.

Do you feel that Coney Island is on the brink of gentrification like other areas before it?

— Posted by NH Resident

What does the future of Coney Island look like now? How will this fit in with its history? Are the developers making plans? What roll is the city playing in development?

— Posted by Jen, Queens

Although I was an early supporter of the city’s efforts to revitalize Coney Island, I believe that the final plan has deteriorated into a “razzle.” A “razzle” is carny lingo for a complex carnival game, a flashy display designed to confuse or deceive its players. The Bloomberg administration and Thor Equities, the developer that recently bought up most of the amusement zone, seem to have mastered the razzle, and they’re using the technique to peddle their opposing Coney Island redevelopment plans to the public. Both entities claim that their primary goal is the restoration of the neighborhood to its former glory, but both use conflicting numbers and misleading architectural rendering to obscure what is actually at stake in Coney Island: the possible destruction and gentrification of one of New York’s last diverse neighborhoods.

The city got off to a good start with its purchase and restoration of the historic B&B Carousel in 2005, but hopes for Coney’s future as a world-class tourist destination faded when it became apparent that the plan favored retail and high-rise residential development over outdoor amusements. Thor’s retail plan resembled the city’s, but with a twist: the residential component included massive high-rise condos looming over the boardwalk at Stillwell Avenue, skewering the heart of Coney Island. The city plan calls for the condos to be placed at the west end of the amusement zone. In an apparent attempt to appease Thor, the city reduced the amusement zone once again, to 9 acres, infuriating supporters without gaining concessions from the developer. The city realized it had been had and began an ugly battle to regain control of Thor’s property. It became a standoff whose outcome will now be decided by the City Council.

The city’s unimaginative plan features a greatly reduced outdoor amusement zone surrounded by high-rise towers and shopping-mall type retail development that planners euphemistically describe as “indoor amusements.” The enormous scale of the residential towers is always downplayed in the city’s renderings. Four 30-story hotel towers proposed for the Surf Avenue frontage of the zone seem unnecessary considering that there won’t be many unique attractions for tourists to visit once the redevelopment project is completed. Visitors don’t come to Coney Island to shop, and there’s a good chance that the hotels, if built, will wind up being converted into condominiums.

The new amusement area presents a sterile suburban layout, with a grid of small, cookie-cutter blocks better suited for a tract development like Levittown, than a New York urban environment. In a bizarre twist, the automobile-averse Bloomberg administration has also proposed a wide new street parallel to the boardwalk called “Wonder Wheel Way” that will bisect and further reduce the new amusement zone, adding automobile traffic and pollution to the middle of a traditionally pedestrian-oriented environment.

City planners have labeled Coney Island a brand and enjoy using nostalgic images to sell their project, yet the “funkiness” and historic nature of Coney Island that they claim to be preserving cannot be found in the new plan. None of the historic buildings currently up for landmark status are being preserved, and the rezoning places 26 high-rise residential towers as tall as the parachute jump throughout an already congested area of Coney Island. The community board, borough president, neighborhood activists and amusement preservationists have asked that the scale of the high-rises be reduced and that the hotels be moved out of the amusement zone to the north side of Surf Avenue. Without these modifications this flawed plan may lead to the mass gentrification of one New York’s most historic and vibrant neighborhoods.

Has any more information surfaced on the history of the Infantorium, which was run by Dr. Martin Couney? Is there any news on the location of his daughter or his personal papers, and is there any news on the publication of any books about the Infantorium in the works?

— Posted by Ed Plunkett

I don’t know of any books about Couney or the whereabouts of his daughter, Hildegarde, but I can provide a brief history of the Infantorium.

Dr. Martin Arthur Couney saved the lives of thousands of premature infants at his Coney Island baby incubator exhibit. It is difficult to believe today that incubators were not used or accepted by the medical establishment until the 1930s. Couney was forced to make his clinic into a sideshow exhibit that was financed only through entrance fees. Although located in an amusement park, the exhibit’s atmosphere inside was kept “solemn and scientific,” and Couney never charged parents a fee for the care he gave the infants. A sign above what some dismissively called Couney’s “Child Hatchery” proclaimed that “All the World Loves a Baby, ” and this was certainly proved true with certain visitors to the exhibit. Many childless women were repeat customers who followed the progress of their favorite preemies.

Couney received his medical degree in Germany and studied with Dr. Pierre Budin, who had pioneered the theory of incubators. Couney opened his exhibit in Luna Park in 1903, and in Dreamland in 1904. His medical team provided five wet nurses and a team of 15 highly trained nurses that included his daughter. By 1939, he had treated more than 8,000 babies and saved the lives of 6,500 including his daughter, who had weighed less than three pounds at birth.

Couney operated under constant criticism and survived numerous attempts to shut down the incubator exhibit, which many considered to be “against maternal nature.” But Couney persisted and provided medical care for children of parents who could otherwise not afford it. By the time his Luna Park exhibit closed in 1943, Couney’s methods were being used in mainstream hospitals and were no longer a paying attraction. Couney retired and died alone at his home in Sea Gate in 1950. His records were never found.

In 2006 Couney was inducted into the Coney Island History Project’s Coney Island Hall of Fame in an event that was attended by many of Couney’s former preemies. You can listen to their oral histories on the History Project’s Web site.

Can you tell me the EXACT length of the boardwalk from the brick wall at Brighton 15th Street to the end at West 37th Street at Sea Gate?
I have run there for many years and assume the distance to be about 2.5-miles. 
Has anyone ever REALLY measured it?
Thanks!

— Posted by Emanuel Hippo

The New York Department of Parks has measured the boardwalk and determined that it is 2.7 miles long (and 80 feet wide).

Is it true that the Bloomberg administration is planning
 to move the ocean back, again? I have heard that
 the ocean was moved “back” about 100 yards some
 years ago,that Surf Ave was once on the “surf” line and that in order to acquire the sufficient land for the new 
development, the city needs to move the ocean back again 
another quarter of a mile. How are they planning
 to accomplish this?

— Posted by Carol Jonezski

At this time the Bloomberg administration is not planning to alter the Coney Island shoreline. The last time the beach was expanded was in 1994, when the Army Corps of Engineers pumped sand from offshore to raise and widen the beach in an attempt to prevent further erosion. As with many corps projects, there were unforeseen consequences: The project had the unfortunate effect of piling sand to the level of the boardwalk, causing the rapid deterioration of the decking.

The curves of Surf Avenue do follow the original shoreline of Coney Island as it existed when development began during the early 1870s. Over the next few decades the shoreline traveled south as jetties and piers trapped sand and widened the beach. The current beachfront was established in 1923 when the boardwalk was built over the high-water mark and an artificial Coney Island beach was created using a hydraulic process to pump two million cubic feet of sand from an offshore location. In 1941 the parks commissioner, Robert Moses, moved a large section of the boardwalk inland to create a larger beach and to eliminate some of the amusement structures that he considered “unsightly.”

Are the many historic sites of Coney Island officially landmarked?

— Posted by Herbert M.

There are four official landmarks in Coney Island: The Childs Restaurant Building, the Parachute Jump, the Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone Roller Coaster. Several other historically and culturally significant structures have been proposed for landmark status, but the designation process is being delayed by the city’s redevelopment plans. These include the Shore (Loews) Theater Building (1925), Childs Restaurant on Surf Avenue (1917), Henderson’s Music Hall (1899), Nathan’s Famous (1916) and the Grasshorn Building (Coney’s oldest structure, 1880s).

City Room
New York Times

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Entry filed under: Brooklyn, Go Coastal, Public Waterfront. Tags: , , , .

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