2005-07-22 / Columnists

Historical Views of the Rockaways

Coney Island, The Favored Child
From The Rockaway Museum by Emil Lucev, Curator Dedicated To The Memory Of Leon S. Locke

Coney Island, The Favored Child – Rockaway Beach, The Step Child Of New York City!

From The Rockaway Museum
by Emil Lucev, Curator
Dedicated To The Memory Of Leon S. Locke

Ever wonder why Coney Island has an operating amusement park to this day, and Rockaway Beach doesn’t? The answer is simple, but most still refuse to believe it. Ever wonder why it took about half a century for the Rockaways to get NYC Rapid Transit? That answer is also very simple, and almost unbelievable to the few.

As simple as possible: the city had extended subway lines to Coney Island in the 1920’s, and was considering the purchase of the LIRR over the Jamaica Bay to the Rockaways, for a rapid transit line to the Rockaways. Peninsula businessmen and developer had been clamoring for rapid transit ever since the trolley line over the bay was killed dead by the LIRR in 1902.

The LIRR and Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company opened joint service to the Rockaways over the bay in 1898. Ten thousands fares were sold in the first season, and this service lasted until the first “war to end all wars” came along, declined, and stopped in 1917. Coney Island had Steeplechase Park, Luna Park, and Dreamland for the throngs of patrons to that spot…but the Rockaway Beaches and amusements, was and were, a stronger magnet to draw the masses from the steaming interior city.

Transportation to the Rockaways was considered better than that to Coney Island, which fell from grace after the horse racing was ended and the big hotel closed up. Steeplechase Park burned down in 1907 and Dreamland burned down in 1911. Luna Park went bankrupt, but slowly recovered. Steeplechase was rebuilt by 1911, but Dreamland was not. Broolyn realty interests caused the NYC Subway to be extended to Coney Island, the perennial favorite of NYC administrators. The draw of the rebuilt and favored Coney Island kept those nickels adding up in the not so full coppers of the subway system. If the subway had been also extended to the Rockaway, would Coney Island have survived?

Realty interests convinced City Hall to extend lines through Queens to the city borders at the Nassau County line and not to Rockaway. Are you nuts?

But local politicians and leadership and concerned citizens kept on, and were about to succeed with their pressure on the then Mayor LaGuardia (who had Robert Moses buzzing in his ears) and the little flower wilted and he sicked (with my apology to my dogs) Moses on the Rockaways in the 1930’s. Moses also convinced the wilted flower to turn Coney Island over to him too!

Moses classed both areas as sleazy and cheap amusement areas…and it was he who decided to tear down the Rockaway area first, so he could build part of his egotistical highway from the Narrows to Riverhead, Long Island. In 1949, he denounced Coney Island as an over-commercialized mistake (after Luna Park had suffered from three major fires), rezoned for a Jones Beach atmosphere, and built hi-rise projects.

But guess what? Steeplechase Park closed in the 1960’s, the city bought and landmarked the old Coney Cyclone Coaster, and landmarked same. It is operated by the Astroland Park. Moses chased the New York Aquarium from Battery Park to the old Dreamland site, for expensive hi-rise buildings. If it wasn’t for NYC, Moses and taxpayer’s money, would Coney Island still be around as an amusement area?

The city and it’s favored sons have big plans for Coney Island and tax revenues. A baseball park has been built, the Wonder Wheel is still running, the Parachute Drop is still around but rusting away, and as soon as a way to use people’s money is found, will there still be time? The last of 13 carousels recently went up for auction on Ocean Avenue, to add to the property slated for a mall. The old Steeplechase Pier (rebuilt) is still around, and a possible Olympic effort, with taxpayers footing the bill, may yet revive Coney Island.

But the rest of the story is that the Rockaway Beach amusement areas of old were built, maintained, rebuilt, renewed, bought and paid for by all the private entrepreneurs and amusement icons – and without a dime from New York City, who gladly took the taxes paid and gave little back to the stepchild…but supplied much grief by always complaining of being broke.

Rockaway got rapid transit in 1956, not direct line to Pennsylvania Station, but a detour through Brooklyn by real estate interests in the Brooklyn East New York area. They got the gravy, while the Rockaways got a double fair and a round robin ride.

Many books have been written about how the subways were influenced, or should I say paid for (in a way) by the real estate interests of old, and good reading on old Robert (the Pharaoh) Moses was written by Robert Caro. It is titled “The Power Broker”, and is a must read for Bob’s fans…if he still has any?

Today’s View is a 1950’s shot of the enclosed and open portion of old Steeplechase Park in Coney Island, between the Rigelmann Boardwalk and Ocean Avenue, which is behind the giant building. The Gravity Horse ride is seen running left to right (it went in and out of the building) and the Silver Streak Rocket ride in front has a long line. Steeplechase Park was between West 16 and West 19 Streets, south of Ocean Avenue. I cannot articulate on the attractions located inside the building, due to limited space, but I will say that Coney’s Steeplechase Park opened in 1897, and George C. Tilyou, who built it, knew a good thing when he saw it. That’s why, in 1901, he opened a second Steeplechase Park (almost a duplicate of the Coney park) complete with a steeplechase horse ride from which the park got its name.

Tilyou was instrumental in bringing the future Playland Amusement Park to the Rockaways, and Rockaways’ Playland operated until 1985, without any help from city officials. That is worth talking about! The owners of Playland (the Geist family) were the stone in Robert Moses’ shoe, and he couldn’t get it out.

The management of Rockaways’ Playland provided area promotion and a few transportation contracts (buses and parking space; boats and docking space; special subway trains; auto parking lots.) Much of the cost was paid for by Playland’s pocketbook…and all those who benefited from these so important services, to bring patrons to the beach, were reluctant to part with some of their profits for this needed cause!

In 1952 Playland was looking around and advertising for Park space elsewhere…to move away and rebuild in a more cooperative atmosphere …despite local expansion which added a new kiddie park plus along the freeway (Joytown) a few years earlier.

In case you are one of those who sits in front of a PC and believes everything on the internet, you can catch a right center glimpse of the first incline up to the fantastic 85 foot drop, at a 60 degree angle, on the Cyclone coaster. If you have never experienced the best of the best, sit in your kitchen chair, hold the bottom, and fall forward without letting go…and holler as loud as you can – EEEEYYYYAAAAHHHHH!

Of course if you do this you are crazy, but if you go to Coney you will most certainly learn how to say this for about 110 seconds…if you live, that is.

P.S. – I have been on all the new coasters at Great Adventure, but newer is not necessarily better. I also survived the Super-Duper-Looper at Hershey Park in Pennsylvania.

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