Residents: Repair the landmarked Coney Island Boardwalk now
It’s a landmark — so treat it like one, they say.
Dionne Brown knows full well that in cold weather, a three-block-long stretch of the Coney Island Boardwalk covered by plywood panels can be as slick as a skating rink.
The lifelong Coney Island resident does her power walks on the famous boardwalk three to five days a week. She’s the founder of a walking group called the Coney Island Trekkers.
She knows tripping hazards from loose boards, planks with holes in them and exposed nails can be found all over the boardwalk in the areas to the east and west of the amusement park zone. She knows the plywood deck over the boardwalk from West 24th to West 27th streets, which was installed after Superstorm Sandy, frequently freezes over in the winter.
But on the December 2018 morning when she slipped and sprained her left wrist, the sun was shining and water glistened on the worn-out plywood. The ice beneath the puddles was invisible.
“It happened so fast,” Brown said in an interview. “I tried to get up and fell back down again.”
Four joggers came to help her. They all fell on the ice, too. One of them, who was training for a race, hurt his knee.
“It was just awful,” Brown said. “I was embarrassed and I was angry.”
For 10 minutes, she stayed out on the boardwalk, warning everybody who approached to stay off the plywood deck.
Her doctor made her wear a bandage on her sprained wrist for several weeks. She couldn’t so much as pick up shopping bags with her left hand. Her wrist stayed bruised even when she no longer needed the bandage.
‘The whole community is angry’
The plywood-covered section of the boardwalk is a part of the famous span that tourists don’t see. They visit the rides in the amusement park zone and don’t walk this far west.
It is landmarked, though, just like the rest of the 2.7-mile walkway — and vitally important to the lives of residents of nearby NYCHA properties and seniors buildings.
“The whole community is angry about this plywood,” Brown said. “The bottom line is it has to be repaired. This is a landmarked boardwalk. It should not look like this.”
The plywood-covered area is the biggest, most concentrated unrepaired section of the boardwalk. But there are loose and broken planks and exposed nails throughout the famous walkway on either side of the amusement park zone.
The Brooklyn Eagle photographed dozens of these spots between West 29th and West 32nd streets; from West 19th to West 24th streets; between Ocean Parkway and West 5th Streets; and from Coney Island Avenue to Brighton 6th Street.
“We love this place. This is our place of solitude,” Brown said. “We walk. We think. We run. It’s our home. This is who we are. This is Coney Island.”
A repair plan for the plywood-covered section of the walkway might be out there on the horizon.
The Parks Department is considering whether it’s financially feasible to undertake a capital project to fix up the sections of the boardwalk where damage from Superstorm Sandy remains, an agency spokesperson told the Eagle.
A grace period before fines
In May 2018, the city Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the Riegelmann Boardwalk, which opened in 1923, as a scenic landmark. Brown believes the designation should carry with it a responsibility on the commission’s part to compel the Parks Department to keep it in good repair.
“It’s time for the Landmarks Preservation Commission to look into the problem of poor conditions on the boardwalk outside the amusement zone,” she said.
A technicality apparently prevents the Landmarks Preservation Commission from intervening to get the Parks Department to fix up the plywood-covered section of the boardwalk, the Eagle has learned.
Conditions that exist before a landmark designation are grandfathered in, an LPC spokesperson said. That’s the case with the unrepaired, plywood-covered section of the boardwalk.
The preservation agency doesn’t compel private-sector or government property owners to repair grandfathered-in conditions, the LPC spokesperson said.
If people complain to the Landmarks Preservation Commission that other parts of the boardwalk are in disrepair, the agency will investigate and take action if it needs to do so, the LPC spokesperson added. With any landmark, the LPC’s modus operandi is to try to work with its owner and give them a grace period to do repairs before issuing fines.
‘Total disregard’ for residents
After her fall, Brown emailed Brooklyn Parks Commissioner Marty Maher and other Parks Department officials about it and urged them to repair the plywood-covered section of the boardwalk. Nobody from the department answered her.
She reached out to Community Board 13 about it. CB13 got word from the Parks Department that instead of repairing the boardwalk, it would repaint the plywood and throw down salt when the weather was bad, Brown recalled. As of yet, it hasn’t been painted.
Leaving the boardwalk covered with plywood for so long shows “total disregard” for residents, especially seniors, she said.
“I’m afraid for seniors — their bones are more fragile than mine,” she added.
Parks Department Press Officer Charisse Hill defended the agency’s efforts to keep the boardwalk in good repair.
“With the 1.3 million boards that make up the Coney Island Boardwalk, we are always working to maintain this popular Brooklyn summer destination,” Hill said. “We have always been responsible for the maintenance of this historic space and will continue to maintain it with available resources.”
There are ornate, old-fashioned street lamps sticking out of the edge of the plywood deck. That’s because in 2013, the Federal Emergency Management Agency allocated $1.2 million to repair Coney Island Boardwalk’s 122 ornamental light poles.
It upsets Brown to see them surrounded by the plywood platform. “It’s like putting a steak dinner on a garbage-can lid,” she said.
‘Okay, be careful’
Brown said Parks Department personnel — workers as well as executives — have been unresponsive to her concerns about the boardwalk over the years.
For example, one day, she and her walking group came upon nails sticking up on the boardwalk near West 21st Street. By chance, a Parks Department worker was sitting nearby in a van stacked with lumber for boardwalk repairs.
When they told him about the nails, he said, “Okay, be careful. You have to be careful when you’re walking up here,” Brown recalls. He explained he was the only maintenance worker in the region.
“I’m not going to fix all the boards,” Brown recalls him saying.
“Why don’t you start with one? Just start with one,” was her reply, which he didn’t heed.
Brown and the members of her walking group have seen some upsetting boardwalk accidents — such as one that occurred when an elderly man fell on a nail sticking up near West 19th Street. He cried and said, “Everything hurts.” They called an ambulance for him.
Ever since Brown sprained her wrist, the Coney Island Trekkers have stopped walking on the plywood-covered portion of the boardwalk on wintry days. Instead, they walk on the sand.
They’re careful about where they step on other parts of the boardwalk. Nevertheless, they’ve all tripped. After taking a fall, one group member was too sore to come out on walks for a few days, Brown said.
According to Parks Department records, there have been six reported injuries on the boardwalk since January, an agency spokesperson told the Eagle.
‘Stepchildren to the amusement area’
Residents of the Brighton Beach end of the boardwalk are angry about the beloved walkway’s condition, too.
“This is our neighborhood’s backyard,” Brighton Beach activist Ida Sanoff said in an interview.
“You go down the boardwalk, there’s people speaking a million different languages. No two people look the same. They’ve come from every place on the planet. This is where we’re all sitting next to each other,” she said.
“You go up there even in the winter and you just say, ‘This is incredible. You can see the sky. You can see open space.’ This is what unites us here.”
The Parks Department keeps the boardwalk next to Coney Island’s famous rides in good shape and doesn’t maintain the parts in other areas, Sanoff said.
“We’re all stepchildren to the amusement area,” said Sanoff, who has lived in Brighton Beach for more than 40 years.
“The landmarking has done — really — nothing for us,” she said. “The designation is just smoke and mirrors, quite frankly.”
She added, “It’s one thing if you talk the talk, but you’ve got to walk the walk.
“If you’re saying that this is such an incredible resource and you put all the time and effort into landmarking it, then you should put the effort into maintaining it so it doesn’t fall apart and just get neglected into oblivion.”
A Landmarks Preservation Commission spokesperson said the agency has a role to play in Coney Island.
“The designation of the Coney Island Boardwalk as a scenic landmark protects and preserves the presence of this iconic site,” the spokesperson said.
“We recognize that boardwalk planking needs to be replaced over time due to normal wear and tear and other environmental conditions, and will work with the Parks Department to review work when necessary to ensure there are no changes to the length, width or configuration of portions of the boardwalk,” the spokesperson added.
Lumber but no carpenters
At the beginning of the summer season, Parks Department personnel told Community Board 13 they had an adequate supply of lumber for boardwalk repairs — but no carpenters, Sanoff said. Most of their employees are seasonal workers, which further limited the possibility of work getting done.
“Let’s face it — this is manual labor,” she said. “It’s got to be done one plank at a time. So if you’re so concerned about keeping this landmark in great shape, then give the Parks Department more funding to hire year-round carpenters.”
A Parks Department spokesperson told the Eagle its workers regularly do repairs of wear and tear on the boardwalk and address its general maintenance issues.
Sanoff said she and other Brighton Beach residents have been complaining to Community Board 13 for many years about the boardwalk’s maintenance problems.
One reason it’s in bad shape is that it was built to be a pedestrian thoroughfare. When the Parks Department and its contractors trucks drive on it, “you can see the boards dip and bend and creak,” she said.
Sanoff remembers the boardwalk was beautiful when she was a little kid — and it was used solely by pedestrians. “And then at some point, it turned into a highway,” she said.
Also, sand from the beach blows onto the boardwalk in the winter. And snowplows that are used to clean the boardwalk pull up nails and scrape off the tops of the wood planks.
“We have the abuse from the vehicles, we have the lack of carpenters and maintenance, we have the sand piled up high. And all of that is just contributing to a disaster,” Sanoff said.
No one ‘should be put in harm’s way’
Sanoff is cautious when she strolls on the boardwalk.
“Quite frankly, I’m a senior citizen now. I’m 67. I’m full of arthritis,” she said. “And when I walk on the boardwalk, I literally have to walk eyes down. If I fall, it’s a broken hip or something.”
City Councilmember Mark Treyger, who advocated for landmark designation for the boardwalk, didn’t respond to questions about keeping it in good repair.
City Councilmember Chaim Deutsch said the city should keep the boardwalk safe for visitors.
“When a New York City homeowner has a cracked, hazardous sidewalk, they are quickly issued a violation so that they repair it before someone trips. The city should be held to that same standard when it comes to the boardwalk,” he said.
“There is no reason why anyone should be put in harm’s way while they are simply enjoying a pleasant stroll on one of our City’s loveliest destinations.”
Follow reporter Lore Croghan on Twitter.
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