History Major Explores the Development of Coney Island in Summer Research Project

Coney Island 2Since the 1880s, millions of visitors have flocked to the amusements entertainment venues of Coney Island. It is a New Yorker’s dream: a place where the greatest urban metropolis  meets the beauty of the seashore. Although it has been the topic of many books and documentaries, few have studied the planning proposals that shaped the Coney Island we know today. Fordham History major Priscilla Consolo (LC ’16), who grew up ten minutes from Coney Island, wanted to learn how this neighborhood and holiday spot came to be. She wrote to us with a description of the fascinating research project she conducted last summer.

Priscilla writes:

This summer, I conducted a research project, titled Revitalizing the People’s Playground, with Dr. Roger Panetta, to analyze the history of public policy and private development efforts to revitalize Coney Island from 1945 to the present. Since World War II, many businessmen and public officials have proposed ways to restore Coney Island to its past glory.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Coney Island, located at the southwest end of Brooklyn, New York, was one of the most popular vacation spots in the United States, with dozens of resorts and amusements located throughout the island. However, after thriving for the first half of the twentieth century, Coney Island was in a state of economic decline from 1945 until recent years, with failing infrastructure, neglected buildings, and insufficient services for the local area.

Planners and politicians from Robert Moses to Fred Trump to Rudolph Guiliani have been focused on renewing Coney Island to re-create the island’s former success, beauty, and grandeur. In addition to those who wish to see the island return to its past, there are others who want to bring Coney Island into the future. The diverse proposals to revitalize Coney Island have included plans for housing development, economic growth, and recreation and entertainment venues. These proposals provide a history of public and private planning.

Archival documents uncovered by Priscilla Consolo during her research

Revitalizing the People’s Playground is a case study of these efforts which have not succeeded in their aim to return prosperity and progress to Coney Island. A close examination of the major proposals has revealed the reason they have failed and that there is a pattern to these shortfalls, and why the renewal of Coney Island has been so intractable.

I have a personal interest in Coney Island’s future. Coney Island is my second home. My family has deep roots, going back generations, which connect us to Coney Island. My great-grandmother, a first-generation American, was born to Italian immigrants in Coney Island in 1899. Raised in Coney Island, she then moved to the southern part of neighboring Gravesend after she was married. It was here in Gravesend, next door to Coney Island, that my maternal grandmother grew up, as well as both of my parents and myself.

My personal ties to Coney Island begin with being raised in a neighboring community, Gravesend. I attended middle school I.S. 303, which is located at 501 West Avenue in Coney Island. My father worked in Coney Island for over twenty years. I spent many summer days at the Coney Island beach and eating Nathan’s famous hotdogs. My political aspirations began in Coney Island, when I took a stand against an unfair educational plan proposed for my former middle school, I.S. 303. In the winter and spring of 2011, I led a school-wide effort to enact reforms to this proposal, so that students and educators would benefit from the plan, and quality public school education would be preserved in our neighborhood.

And in 2012, when Superstorm Sandy made landfall in New York City, Coney Island was one of the hardest hit locations. It was not until then that I finally realized my personal and family connections to Coney Island. While Coney Island is still not completely recovered from Sandy, many people are again discussing new ways to try to revitalize this historic neighborhood. This persistent failure deeply pains me.

I believe that my personal connection to and professional interest in Coney Island make me an ideal and unique person to perform this research project. As a native of southwest Brooklyn, Coney Island is a part of the greater community in which I live and work. I have relationships with the places and people of this community, including, local activists, neighborhood leaders, residents, small business owners, elected officials, skilled professionals, and working class citizens.

For this project, I researched the public policy and private planning attempts to revitalize Coney Island from 1945 to present, examine their successes and failures, and will present this case study for use as a tool to aid future revitalization efforts. I feel particularly qualified to conduct this historical study because of my professional and personal connections, lived experience, and academic knowledge, as well as access to first-hand accounts, which will aid this venture. In addition, my familiarity with Coney Island’s various geographic and environmental factors also were vital to understanding the context of the long history of efforts to revitalize this community.

An important component of this research project will be creating a digital history of public policy efforts and private planning to revitalize Coney Island. This digital history will be available on a website specifically designed for this project. By making this digital history readily available on the internet, it will increase its visibility and accessibility for community residents, academic researchers, and policymakers. Furthermore, Coney Island’s history is visually rich, and a website would create a platform for historic photographs, revitalization blueprints, and renewal plans to be displayed. I am currently planning this website with a web designer, and I aim to have this website available for the public within a few months.

Primary source documents located in the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives relating to the revitalization of Coney Island provided research materials. These documents will be found in the New York City Council, and New York City Housing Authorities collections, as well as in the Fiorello H. LaGuardia, Robert F. Wagner, John V. Lindsay, Abraham D. Beame, Edward I. Koch, and Rudolph W. Guiliani collections. In addition, I used the main and special collections at the Brooklyn Historical Society, Brooklyn Public Library, New York Public Library, City Hall Library, and the New-York Historical Society.

However, most importantly, I am emotionally invested in Coney Island and its future. My established connections with this community make the revitalization of Coney Island especially important to me. I want to see Coney Island prosper and thrive as it once did nearly a century ago, but I want to see this success happen in a way that engages the local community, and ultimately benefits them and the other surrounding neighborhoods. The people of southwest Brooklyn can gain tremendously if future efforts to revitalize Coney Island are implemented, and provide a better quality of life.

The past proposals for revitalization for Coney Island are relevant to the region in its present day because they constitute a nutshell history of planning. Residents, elected officials, and policy planners are still discussing the best ways to move ahead and reshape this desirable location, where the urban capital of the world meets the sand and seashore. We believe that this historical case study, Revitalizing the People’s Playground, of public policy and private planning efforts has practical application. The findings of this research project will inform the public and governmental debates, and contribute to future policy makers in their endeavors to revitalize Coney Island.

In conducting this research project, I found that a pattern exists in the failures of public policy and private planning efforts to revitalize and develop Coney Island from the 1940s to present day. All of these proposals, whether prepared by the government or the private sector, have similar characteristics spanning the seventy years in which development and renewal has occupied the minds of corporate developers, policymakers, and local people within the Coney Island community. Although at different time periods these various efforts have had their own particular focuses and goals, these planning proposals have the comparable interests of promoting business, tourism, and the travel industry in Coney Island. Examining these planning proposals, it was evident that the vast majority of these efforts lacked interest in the local community which exists in Coney Island, most especially the neighborhood’s year-round residents, small businesses, and nonprofit organizations. Most aspects of these diverse proposals, whether produced in the 1940s, 1960s, 1980s, or 2000s, did not engage the local Coney Island community. Rather, the Coney Island community was often overlooked, discounted, and ignored.

While the more recent proposals of the 2000s aim to involve the Coney Island community, to some degree, in the revitalization and development processes, these goals have yet to be largely realized and met. However, even these more recent planning efforts fail to completely or adequately address the most pressing needs of the local community in this southern Brooklyn neighborhood. It appears that the services and facilities wanted and needed by those who live and work in Coney Island are often disregarded by the public and private sectors when plans are produced to revitalize Brooklyn’s most southern neighborhood. Instead of involving the Coney Island community in the shaping of these plans, the process of revitalization has consistently excluded the local people. This notion was not only an observation supported by the planning documents, but also a sentiment regularly voiced by the individuals who I interviewed for this project.

This sentiment was echoed by lifelong Coney Island resident Pam Harris, who has been involved in the most recent revitalization efforts of the past decade. Harris, whose mother was an activist in the Coney Island community and teacher at neighborhood school P.S. 188, contended “Living here in Coney Island and watching it grow, I didn’t know what a ‘project’ was – that’s what they called it – until they were actually built. All I ever knew was [private, one and two family] homes and bungalows. We lived on 36th Street and Mermaid Avenue -3609 Mermaid Avenue – which of course is no longer here. But growing up on that block and just having all the smaller bungalows and homes and railroad tracks was really a way of life for us. As I’ve watched, throughout my life, Coney Island evolve, it became fascinating to me. I was proud to be living someplace that was being developed. One of the things that I always asked was ‘Why are we putting that there? Why is this coming? And why are we losing?’” This seems to be question many Coney Island small business owners, residents, and others involved in the local community have been asking over the past seventy decades as their neighborhood has become the focus of countless planning proposals.

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While I interviewed a number of Coney Island locals, from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences, to conduct this research project, nearly all of them expressed the same concern, echoed in the quote by Pam Harris: Why has Coney Island lost so much in terms of facilities and services due to revitalization efforts? And furthermore, why hasn’t Coney Island gained from these development and urban renewal proposals? For those who live and work in Coney Island throughout the year, such losses have been constant over the decades. Locals spoke of the needs of the community, including affordable housing for the lower and middle classes; better shopping amenities; improved traffic flow; additional parking spaces; more recreational centers and programs, especially for youth and senior citizens; assistance in securing necessities and other services; employment opportunities; and better-quality education for children. Yet, these concerns have rarely, and only within the past ten years, been addressed by the New York City government and private developers. For the locals who call Coney Island home, the revitalization efforts in their community haven’t just resulted in profits and benefits for the City government and outside businesses, but there is a sense of loss. Coney Island residents and small business owners just don’t feel that the planning efforts have led to gains for those who invest, plan, and build. They feel that they are consistently investing in their community, but such planning efforts are costing their community much-needed services and facilities.

Priscilla Consolo (FCLC ’16) undertook her summer research project with the support of a $3,300 Summer Research Grant from Fordham. Her project was supervised by Dr. Roger Panetta. 

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