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What Comes Next for the Changing Coney Island Boardwalk?

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In Coney Island, community organizers are fighting to preserve and landmark the historic wooden boardwalk. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.

Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, Kensinger visits the Coney Island boardwalk.

The full heat of summer has arrived, driving tourists and locals alike out to the edges of the city. Down in Coney Island, the old boardwalk is crowded with visitors seeking a cool sea breeze, strolling along the horizontal forest of planks, as millions of others have done before them. The variegated, clattering wood underfoot and the waves crashing into the nearby sand create a unique aural and visual landscape, which has inspired generations of artists, musicians, and poets. Since its opening in 1923, the Riegelmann Boardwalk has become an international destination, and a true New York City landmark in every way—except one.

Unfortunately, the 2.5-mile-long Coney Island boardwalk is now being destroyed, board by board, both by official neglect and as part of a plan to replace it with man-made and synthetic materials. Despite a coalition of local citizens and politicians fighting to preserve it, several sections have already been replaced by thick concrete pads, while five blocks at the boardwalk's eastern end are currently being remade into a mix of concrete paths and plastic boards. "This is an iconic, world famous boardwalk. You know, it's crazy, it's just unbelievable that they would think of doing such a thing," said Rob Burstein, the president of the Coney–Brighton Boardwalk Alliance. "Our hope is that the Landmarks Commission will grant the boardwalk the status it richly deserves, so that it can't be tinkered with and destroyed in the way the Parks Department has suggested it should be."

The first attempt at gaining official landmark status for the Coney Island Boardwalk was denied last December, but local Council Member Mark Treyger is refiling an application with new historic information. Local preservationists hope that the second attempt is a success, after having been forced to watch in frustration as the boardwalk is chipped away, one plank at a time. In recent years, wood removed during the boardwalk's replacement has been sold off to become benches on the Highline, walls for a West Village restaurant, a wooden walkway in Italy, high-end lounge chairs, and artisanal $195 pocket knives.

Meanwhile, several sections of the boardwalk near its western end appear to have been abandoned. Here, feral cats roam through fire-scarred holes behind a makeshift barricade of empty barrels, near a strip of boardwalk once described as "a war zone" where visitors would routinely fall through rotting boards. The damaged planks in this area of the boardwalk were removed more than two years ago, leaving its underbelly exposed and forcing pedestrians to navigate over a narrow plywood pathway. "The worst section, ironically, is right outside the Parks Department buildings, on the boardwalk between West 23rd and West 27th street," said Burstein. "It's not fixed because nobody gives a damn about the people who live over there. The money and political muscle is in Brighton Beach, especially in front of the section that's being done now, where it's these luxury condominiums."

"The decisions are being made by people who don't live here, don't really know or care in a deep way about it, and just want to do what they see is the easiest thing to do," said Burstein, who lives alongside the boardwalk in Brighton Beach. "They don't really know in an intimate way how the boardwalk is used out here, on a daily basis." Besides hosting crowds of tourists in the central amusement area, the entire length of the boardwalk is used for a variety of different recreational activities, with joggers, bikers, and skaters sharing two straight wooden pathways with elderly visitors using wheelchairs, canes, and walkers. "It's like a track," said Burstein, who runs on the boardwalk every day. "Certainly, the feel on the foot is critically different, especially for people who use it in an active way… for almost anybody, it's more tiring to walk on concrete."

Few people look down when traveling along the boardwalk, but the structure's unique design has long been a visual inspiration to filmmakers, photographers, and painters. The surreal shadow world underneath the boardwalk was featured in the classic 1953 Coney Island film Little Fugitive, while photographer Bruce Davidson chronicled youth culture above and below the boards for his seminal 1959 series "Brooklyn Gang." Modern artists have continued to explore the boardwalk's architecture while reflecting on its history. "It's one of those things you think about—this is the boardwalk, and people have been walking down this thing for a hundred years," said Johnny Lowe, a Brooklyn painter who, for the past seven years, has been creating canvasses based on Coney Island's landscape. The boardwalk was the subject of his first Coney Island painting, and continues to offer inspiration. "The way it feels, the way it sounds, everything," said Lowe, who has recently been photographing the texture of its wooden boards. "I feel like that's the allure, that's the draw of Coney Island, is the history behind it. And when you just pave over it, you are paving over a large part of the reason people go there in the first place."

Many of the East Coast's wooden boardwalks were badly damaged in Hurricane Sandy and have been slated for removal, including the shattered, displaced Rockaway boardwalk, which is being replaced with a concrete walkway. The Coney Island boardwalk was largely spared from serious damage during the storm, yet the city has tied its removal to issues of climate change, public safety, and resiliency. However, critics of the plan to remove the boards believe that the plan is really about lowering costs and simplifying maintenance for a boardwalk that is already showing signs of unmanaged neglect. "From a financial standpoint, I am sure the city is like screw this, let's just pave it over and be done with it," said Lowe. "But there's not that many wooden boardwalks left. It's this piece of Americana that we still have. I feel it's worth being saved and kept." 

At the eastern end of the boardwalk in Brighton Beach, a five-block, $6.9 million renovation project is being completed in front of the Oceana Condominiums, a "luxury oceanfront community" with a private pool and clubhouse.

The boardwalk here is being replaced with a 10-foot-wide concrete path flanked by plastic planks, as part of a compromise reached between the city and local activists. "The original plan for our boardwalk was similar to what Rockaway is now getting, an all-concrete walk, which is by definition not a boardwalk," said Burstein.

One of the first sections of boardwalk to be replaced with concrete was between Brighton First Road and Ocean Parkway, galvanizing protestors. "It was right under my nose that they started to do some work," said Burstein. "What [the] Parks Department calls a 'test section' is right outside my window."

Further west, the boardwalk remains entirely wooden and appears to be much more popular than the concrete sections. "It's a respite from all the concrete we have around us. That's one of the reasons people seek out boardwalk areas," said Burstein.

In a five-block section near the central amusement zone, "the reconstructed Boardwalk is wood over concrete slabs," according to Amusing the Zillion. The new design does not allow sand or light underneath the boardwalk.

In the old wooden sections near the NY Aquarium, remnants of the shadowy world underneath the boardwalk still exist. Once celebrated by filmmakers and photographers, the underside of the boardwalk has mostly been filled in with sand and fenced off.

The area under the boardwalk still remains a haven for the homeless and, occasionally, dead bodies, although access under the boards has become increasingly difficult in recent years as new businesses have moved onto the boardwalk. 

Beyond the amusement zone, the slatted wooden boardwalk returns, above a section that was once home to camping tents and a plastic shark.

The boardwalk here faces an empty lot that formerly housed the old Thunderbolt roller coaster and Playland, two landmarks from Coney Island's past that were also demolished. 

The striking, functional design of the boardwalk continues on toward the west. Bicyclists, joggers, and skaters use these straight board paths to travel the entire length of the wooden boardwalk. 

Underneath a section of boardwalk that has remained unrepaired for over two years, at West 25th Street. "It was really dangerous. Many people fell through," said Burstein. "So what they did was close off half of it completely, and the other half they threw down some plywood over the boards there."

The condition of the boardwalk is much worse in its western half. In this fenced-off, overgrown section near West 33rd Street, feral cats are fed near a homeless camp in an abandoned lot next to the boardwalk. 

A quiet section of boardwalk nearby is mostly frequented in the daytime by retirees. "I've always liked things that were once vibrant places, that have kind of been forgotten, but you can still see the beauty in them," said Johnny Lowe. "That's really why I started doing those paintings, was to try to capture that mood." 

The boardwalk's western end is another truncated concrete slab, four blocks long. "Tourists might not mind it that much, because they just don't know better," said Lowe. "But I think for the people that love Coney Island and what it stands for historically…it's key to keep the things we have, because so much of it is gone."

· Nathan Kensinger [Official]
· Coney Island Boardwalk coverage [Curbed]
· Camera Obscura archive [Curbed]