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◆ 5 ◆ Opening Day Monday, June 25, 2001, is a beautiful and stunning day in Coney Island, Brooklyn. The temperature is approaching ninety, and the ocean is glistening as the bright sun shines down on it. By 3:30 in the afternoon, Surf Avenue is teeming with people who have come to the neighborhood for the Brooklyn Cyclones’ first home game, which will be the first professional baseball game played on Brooklyn soil in forty-four years. Appropriately, the Cyclones are a Class-A farm team of the New York Mets, the team that ostensibly replaced the Dodgers as New York’s National League entry when they were birthed in 1962. The crowds are lining Surf Avenue from the Stillwell Avenue subway station through West 20th Street, with KeySpan Park taking up two whole blocks from 16th to 19th (there’s no 18th street, and the official address is 1904 Surf Avenue), where Steeplechase Park once stood. Fifteen blocks west, however, it’s just another day at the Coney Island Houses. Between the shiny new stadium and the Houses are fifteen blocks that are so gray they seem incapable of reflecting the day’s beauty. Nearly every building in this stretch, such as the Jewish Geriatric Center and the Surf Manor home for the mentally ill, is devoted to housing or “caring for” the poor, the old, or the handicapped. The massive stretch of New York City Housing Authority buildings (a.k.a. the projects) begins just west of KeySpan Park with the O’Dwyer Houses on the north side of Surf. The Coney Island Houses complex begins on the south side of Surf at West 29th and ends at West 32nd, with only the boardwalk and the 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 ◆ ◆ ◆ ◆ ◆ ◆ ◆ ◆ ◆ ◆ ◆ ◆ ◆ ◆ ◆ ◆ ◆ ◆ ◆ ◆ water to the south of them. As you turn off Surf into project property, you see that the Houses property sports an awfully cheery sign welcoming visitors , featuring a cruise ship and palm trees in a bright beach motif. It’s a nice enough image, but the Houses do not exactly conjure memories of peaceful, relaxing days in the sun. The Coney Island Houses are nothing if not drab, five red brick buildings standing an identical fourteen stories high that were built between 1955 and 1957 by the New York City Housing Authority. In total, the complex includes 535 apartment units. And it isn’t just the Coney Island Houses that are drab. The projects on the blocks before it on the east, and those as far as one can see around the curve to the west, are also a picture of brutal architecture that had just one goal in mind—to “house” those who have nowhere else to live. From WASPy Americans to Jewish, Italian, and Greek immigrants, to Latino and black Americans, to Russian Jews, the actual residential neighborhood of Coney Island has been home to a wide variety of ethnic groups. Economically, it has also changed drastically. Once it was basically a vacation spot for the very rich, while the local residents ran businesses that catered to the rich. It was then a lower-middle-class immigrant enclave for many years. The novelist Joseph Heller, of Catch-22 fame, grew up in Coney Island in the 1930s and ’40s. As he once wrote in Show Magazine, “There were apartment houses on every block in my section of Coney Island . . . none had elevators and one of the painful memories I have now is of old men and women laboring up the steep staircases. . . . Everyone’s father had a job, but incomes were low.” The growth of the automobile’s popularity and the birth of suburbs meant that people generally started to leave Coney Island when they could afford to. This was a phenomenon that took place in urban centers across America, but the exodus was even more pronounced in Coney Island. With the decline of the area’s amusement parks, there was little reason to live out there, where daily life is very much removed from the bustle of rest of the city. New York City officials sped up the changes in the neighborhood when, in the late 1950s and into the ’60s, they began knocking down multifamily homes throughout the western part of Coney Island and replaced them with towering project buildings that could ◆ 6 ◆ OPENING DAY house the people that greater New York City didn’t quite want...


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