City Lit: Parachute Landing

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When Charles Denson heard the first rumors that Disney was coming to Coney Island, back in 1998, he thought it was high time to start preserving local history. An art director and photographer, Denson put together a gorgeous four-color walking tour guide to the neighborhood he’d grown up in. But when he offered his map to the city to give away at its Times Square Visitors Center, they weren’t interested. Nobody, they told him, wants to go to Coney Island.

Five years and one 39-million-dollar stadium later, Denson’s map sells out with regularity on Amazon.com. Ever since Mayor Giuliani picked the seaside neighborhood to build his minor-league legacy, the city has showed a renewed interest in Coney Island, and backed it up with millions in (pre-recession) redevelopment dollars. But as Denson demonstrates in his new book Coney Island: Lost and Found, the only thing worse than the city’s malign neglect is its benevolent attention.

At first, private enterprise seems to be the hero of Coney Island’s history. In the early 1900s, the island’s populist entrepreneurial vigor was at its height. When Dreamland amusement park burned to the ground in 1911, the island’s entrepreneurs, undaunted, set up a wooden viewing platform and sold beer in the smoldering ruins.

But the city had other plans for the smoking swath of seashore: a genteel beachfront park. Denson, who scoured everything from old property records to 19th century farming gazettes for his research, quotes Municipal Life magazine: “All the shooting galleries, Japanese cane-and-ring stands, merry-go-rounds, pop-corn and candy kitchens, saloons, dance halls, the huge Steeplechase; in short, the entire lot of noisy, glaring, garish, entertaining shacks and places would be swept away by the laying out of a public park. But it would be worthwhile…” Thankfully, this vision of dullness didn’t come to pass, in part because of a private-public land-use controversy not unlike the one currently surrounding a certain 16 acres.

A few decades later, however, the city finally managed to crush the neighborhood’s native commercial exuberance. In 1954, power-mad Parks Commissioner Robert Moses seized control of the boardwalk. For the next 14 years, he savaged the community, razing beautiful landmarked buildings and entire residential neighborhoods and erecting rings of high-rise housing projects in their place, until it was almost dead.

“There is no use bemoaning the end of the old Coney Island fabled in song and story,” wrote Moses in a report to Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. “The important thing is not to proceed in the mistaken belief that it can be revived.”

Yet Coney Island did revive, thanks mainly to artists, entreprenuers and small businesspeople (and, though he doesn’t say it, Denson himself).

Denson is clearly ambivalent about Giuliani’s baseball project–the author tried to save the historic Thunderbolt roller coaster, which Giuliani had knocked down. And Denson is wary of anything that smacks of “Disneyfication,” which the stadium’s strip-mall architecture certainly does. But he is also willing to accept that anything that brings pleasure, commerce and people back to the boardwalk is potentially a good thing. His last chapter, in which he alternates a glowing account of the stadium’s opening with pointed references to the mayor’s sweetheart deal with Mets owner Fred Wilpon, is a tour de force of balance.

While there’s no shortage of histories mythologizing Coney’s early days of burlesque and ballyhoo, none until now chronicled its planned descent into urban decay and subsequent revival. Denson’s well-researched, passionate account of his neighborhood’s decline and rebirth is an invaluable addition, both to American history and to that subgenre of true crime stories known as Urban Planning’s Worst Mistakes.

But the book is more than just a history of “urban removal,” as its victims called it. Its first half is an unusually thorough coffee-table history, packed with primary documents, fascinating sidebars and profiles, and remarkable photographs, many of them previously unpublished, including a number from Denson’s own personal archive. After it reaches the 1950s, however, the book turns into something more like a reported memoir–a moving tale of a young boy growing up in a neighborhood where loss was the only constant.

As a boy growing up in the projects, Denson roamed the ruins of Coney Island, breaking into the abandoned pleasure palaces with his friends and saving plaster cornices (many of which he later donated to the Brooklyn Museum) from the wrecker’s ball. His explorations awakened an enduring love of art. When he visits Chartres Cathedral as an adult, it reminds him of his first exposure to classical architecture: Steeplechase Park’s Pavilion of Fun, with its world-famous grinning Funny Face painted on the façade like a stained-glass window.

The book’s most heartbreaking chapter details the destruction of Denson’s beloved Steeplechase Park. One day, Denson was walking past the half-demolished Pavilion when he saw two young boys emerge carrying targets from its shooting gallery. They told him their father owned the company that was tearing down the park. “I’ll never forget the sense of injustice I felt at that moment,” he writes. “Their father was destroying a landmark, and his kids were being rewarded with souvenirs.”

Without his personal meditations, Denson’s book would simply be an excellent social history, a case study in the struggles between public ownership and private gain. By linking local land disputes to his own life, however, Denson shows how such power struggles devastate the lives of those who live on disputed lands. For the people who live in it, the loss of a neighborhood can be as traumatic as any divorce or even death.

Denson doesn’t just talk about his own pain. He lovingly documents the hangers-on, the people who never left, through short profiles, oral history and his personal trove of pictures. “We grew up poor and didn’t know it,” says one old-timer, thrown out by urban renewal. “Our backyard was the beach and the amusement area, and we always thought that’s what everybody had in life.”

“People traveled for hours on the subway just to get to where we lived,” says another. “It was paradise.”