I was born in Brooklyn but moved when I was five years old to Long Beach, New York, a barrier island off the coast of Long Island, where I walked the 2.5 mile boardwalk several times a week and raced my blue and white Schwin bicycle from the West End to the East End, passing the penny arcade and Skeeball, the Greyhound Races and Playland, the kiddie rides where toy boats painted bright blue and toy trains painted bright red moved in tight little circles.
The boardwalk then was a world of wood: wooden buildings with wooden, hand-painted signs of cotton candy and hot dogs, wooden benches and wooden planks, bleached by the sun and beaten by the hurricanes that hit the island repeatedly in the 1950s. Here, there, and everywhere, nails popped up out of the wood.
The boardwalk I knew and loved was not one of concrete; nor was it one of plastic-laminated wood. So, imagine my tears and my despair when I learned today that the New York City Public Design Commission voted to replace a stretch of the Coney Island Boardwalk (less than a mile) with recycled plastic lumber and a concrete lane -- added, so the story goes, to handle emergency vehicles.
Alex Hart, assistant deputy chief of designs for the Parks Department said that various woods tried during the design and testing process failed to meet the commission's standards for slip resistance, longevity, and availability. So, instead of wood, they approved the use of RPL (Recycled Plastic Laminate). Two concessions were offered: the possibility of moving the concrete lane to the land side of the boardwalk and including a trial section of natural wood to see if wood might work in the future.
Neither of these concessions will stem the tide. What the Coney Island Boardwalk needs -- to save it from a concrete destiny -- is to be landmarked, like the buildings in the Coney Island Historic District -- like The Cyclone and The Parachute Jump. The wooden planks of the boardwalk are just as historic as Nathan's Famous and the Shore Theater. They are the historic landscape, the connective tissue that holds Coney Island together.
Several years ago, when I published my collection of linked short stories, Boardwalk Stories, I named the final story "Splinters." "Some splinters are best left in," I wrote.
Despite my skill with a tweezers, I know that preserving the integrity of the past is worth the effort, the cost, even the pain.
Roslyn Bernstein is a professor of journalism at Baruch College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She is the author of Boardwalk Stories and the co-author of Illegal Living: 80 Wooster Street and the Evolution of SoHo.
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