Coney Island

Coney Island exhibit shows how fresh air saved thousands of immigrant lives

'Salvation by the Sea' opens Saturday

May 24, 2019 Scott Enman
An immigrant family in Coney Island. Photo courtesy of the Coney Island History Project
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A new exhibit opening Saturday in Coney Island brings to light a bygone era when the seaside neighborhood was instrumental in saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of immigrants.

From the 1870s to the 1920s, immigrant women and children would come to live in nonprofit summer homes to escape the disease-filled tenement houses of the Lower East Side and elsewhere. The immigrants, many of whom were sick, would come to the neighborhood for its fresh air and would see their health improve immediately.

“It’s an unknown part of history,” Charles Denson, executive director of the Coney Island History Project and curator of “Salvation by the Sea,” told the Brooklyn Eagle. “These immigrant summer homes for poor women and children saved thousands and thousands of lives. It was a very important time and very few people know about these societies.”

There were four main charities on the West End of the neighborhood that owned 30 acres of land: Brooklyn Children’s Aid, New York Children’s Aid, St. John’s Summer Home and the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor.

One of the seaside homes that would house immigrant women and children. Photo courtesy of the Coney Island History Project
One of the seaside homes that would house immigrant women and children. Photo courtesy of the Coney Island History Project

Calvert Vaux, the same architect who built Prospect and Central parks, designed Brooklyn Children’s Aid, located on West Fifth Street across from Seaside Park, in 1876.

New York City’s wealthiest families like the Vanderbilts and the Astors funded all the homes. “In this political climate it’s hard to believe, but all these things were supported by the one percent of that time,” Denson said.

Many children during that era died of illnesses that were easily treatable, according to Denson, who said the leading cause of infant mortality was diarrhea.

Luckily, the summer houses doubled as hospitals, where kids were treated for these diseases, and mothers were taught housekeeping and child rearing.

“It was abject poverty,” Denson said. “They came here seeking the American Dream, and instead found this kind of nightmare. Coney Island is where people came to be assimilated.

“Here is where everyone mixed and everyone got to know each other, and all the different cultures could come together. [Coney Island] is where they became Americans.”

But as the neighborhood became more residential and the boardwalk was built and the beach was declared public, all of the summer homes were forced to shutter. But by then, the wave of immigration had passed and the charities had achieved their mission of saving thousands of lives, according to Denson.

“In today’s political climate, it’s really important to remember the contributions that immigrants have made and to make the connection to Coney Island,” Denson said.

“There’s so much about Coney Island that is not generally known. People think of it as mostly an amusement park, but it’s also been many other things. It’s important to get this history in people’s memories. Everything is changing so fast with the rezoning and all the recent development.”

Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter.

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