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Famed Coney Island boardwalk marks centennial

October 1, 2021 Francesca Norsen Tate
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Today marks the centennial of the Coney Island Boardwalk, which began life as a $3 million beach improvement and boardwalk construction project on October 1, 1921 when Brooklyn Borough President Edward Riegelmann drove the first stake into the water. The boardwalk, completed and opened in 1922, was later named for Riegelmann, one of its strongest advocates.

The Brooklyn Eagle of Sunday, October 2, 1921 chronicled the previous day’s ceremony:

“The Coney Island boardwalk is an assured fact…. Over 2,500 persons attended the ceremony at 5 o’clock, when a parade led by St. Lucy’s Band formed at the foot of Ocean Parkway and marched to the shelterhouse, where the Rev. Father Walter A. Kerwin, pronounced a benediction. Returning to the ocean front, where an improvised platform had been erected at the foot of the parkway, the crowd witnessed the driving of the stake into the sand with a silver hammer and cheered the proceedings.”

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“‘This is probably one of the greatest improvements on the Eastern line of America,’ said Mr. Riegelmann, who wielded the hammer. ‘The Coney Island boardwalk has been the talk of the city for the past twenty years. Time and again different committees from this, as well as other sections of the city, have started movements to get the boardwalk, only to have the plan fall dead again.

“‘My heart has always been in it, and I determined to carry the matter through. The Board of Estimate has made the hope a reality. By the middle of next summer people will walk on the boardwalk. It will be 9,500 feet long and 80 feet wide, with an elevation of 14 feet. On hot nights the breeze from the water will afford great relief, and it will be always a splendid place to walk at any time.”

The New York City Parks’ website history of the board walk gives specifics on the boardwalk’s construction: “The immense engineering project required 1.7 million cubic yards of sand to add another 2.5 million square feet to the beach area. Construction of the boardwalk made use of 120,000 tons of stone, 7700 cubic yards of reinforced concrete, and 3.6 million feet of timber, including long leaf yellow pine for the flooring. From a height of 14 feet above the beach, the 80-foot wide boardwalk stretched from W. 37th Street to Ocean Parkway and provided easy access to both beach and concessions. ‘Coney Island’s Fifth Avenue’ opened with great fanfare on May 15, 1923.”

The Brooklyn Eagle reported on this event, “Coney Island opened officially today, with a military review, a dedication of the Riegelmann Boardwalk, a flood of oratory, a flag raising and a dense crowd which defied lowering skies to be present at what Coney Islanders hope will mark the renaissance of New York’s seaside playground.”

The Great Depression of the 1930s did not stop the millions of visitors to Coney Island. And the Parks Commissioner of that time, Robert Moses, of course wanted to alter the area, by replacing the popular commercial amusements with “better opportunities for exercise and healthy outdoor recreation.” Moses and the Parks Dept. gained jurisdiction of both the beach and boardwalk, extending the latter eastward to Brighton Beach.

The Coney Island Riegelmann Boardwalk has figured into several films, notably Brooklyn filmmaker Woody Allen’s 1977 classic, Annie Hall, set in Brooklyn, naturally, and hometown also to main character, Alvy Singer. And since 1983, the boardwalk has hosted the annual Mermaid Parade.

Meet the Coney Island Boardwalk’s Namesake: Edward Riegelmann

A lifelong bachelor, and an attorney, Riegelmann had several roles in public service during his career.  Throughout, he was dedicated to the improvement of public works. Foremost among these commitments was the beautification of Coney Island, particularly during his time as Borough President, to which he was elected in 1917 and re-elected in 1921, the year that the boardwalk construction was begun.

During his time in public service, he was also chairman of the Manhattan Bridge Approach, and the Manhattan Bridge Plaza Commissions, according to his 1941 New York Times obituary. Riegelmann also fought vigorously to extend Flatbush Ave. across Jamaica Bay to Barren Island, along what became the Marine Parkway Bridge. He also pushed for improvements to the subway system in Brooklyn and condemned the then-existing Supreme Court Building as being “wholly unsuitable for the proper conduct of the court.” (That building, at Joralemon and Fulton streets, had been built during the 1860s and was eventually demolished almost a century later when the new and current Supreme Court building at Adams and Court street opened.)

Prior to becoming Borough President, Riegelmann was in 1915 elected Sheriff of Kings County in 1915, after having served as counsel to the Sheriff. 

After his second term as Borough President, Riegelmann served as a Justice of the Supreme Court’s Appellate Division, 2nd Department until reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70 in 1939. He died on January 15, 1941 at age 71.

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