Yesterday, Sunday July 26th, Save Coney Island had a rally on the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall. (Check out the video above.) The speakers were in order of appearance: World Famous BOB as MC; Dick Zigun, “Mayor” of Coney Island; Miss Cyclone, Angie Pontani; photographer and Coney Island historian Charles Denson;  Brooklyn artist Savitri D; Dianna Carlin a.k.a. Lola Staar, owner of Lola Staar boutique; Raya Brass Band; Kevin Powell; The Great Fredini; Juan Rivera; former Astroland operator, and current Cyclone operator Carol Albert; and Reverend Billy.

As Mr. Denson points out on his website, Coney Island has been the site of land grabs and shady dealing since before we became the U. S. of A. The English settlers wanted to take it from the Dutch; Brooklynites protested in the 1840s when the first permanent buildings were built on it; at the turn of the 20th century the city wanted to reclaim beachfront property by demolishing the organic accretion of bath houses and clam bars built on top of the beach and replacing it with a boardwalk; in 1949 Robert Moses sought to “clean up” the area by demolishing parkland and replacing it with low-income high rises and the New York aquarium. This history is well documented on many sites. Check out the history on Wikipedia, at coneyislandhistory.org, and many articles archived in The Brooklyn Paper, The New York Times, and Gothamist (to name a few). If these links don’t satisfy your curiosity, do your own Google search. (Or try Bing. Whatever turns you on.)

The developers say that the protesters are a marginal minority standing in the way of progress. The protesters say that the city wants to destroy Coney Island’s historic role as”America’s Playground” for the sake of a quick dump truck of cash. Certainly the latter point is true. Developer Joe Sitt — whose company, Thor Equities, is reportedly worth $1 billion — stands to make a huge fortune off the deal. If he does he will accomplish in the 21st century what Donald Trump’s father Fred Trump couldn’t accomplish in the 20th century: turning the Coney Island beach from a 19th century amusement area to a 21st century beachfront resort for the internationally wealthy. This is indisputably his goal, as the original plans — kept secret till they were leaked to the press — show. The development they want is a massive condominium complex — well out of financial reach for 3/4 of New York citizens — with indoor entertainments and international shopping chains. The “compromise” with the city increases the percentage of “affordable” housing to 30%, though this is probably a Trojan horse deal — the kind that gets scrapped in a New York minute after the groundbreaking ceremony.

If you follow the news you might wonder why a developer would want to build another multi-thousand unit condo in Brooklyn. After all, they can’t sell the ones that are already built; developers are being reduced to renting units rather than selling them; and that further reduces their profit margin by ghettoizing buildings as potential buyers are turned off by the high percentage of renters. But as Manny Enriquez says in the New York Times, “When the economy kicks in, the property will appreciate well enough.” This is true. Short of nuclear catastophe or a major economic depression, which takes us back to the days of the squeegee men or worse, beachfront property in New York will always be worth something.

You might ask, what’s wrong with forty story, beach front condos in Coney Island anyway? Won’t the freaks be forced to another fringe location, as they always are? Won’t Coney Island Condoland be the beginning of Brownsville and East New York as the new, hip artist enclaves in NYC? Could be. It could be that those who want to preserve Coney Island’s traditional character are hopeless romantics and dreamers. (I include myself in that group, btw.) Everyone who lives in New York knows that it’s all about youth or money in this town. Just ask that kid from NYC Prep. Money talks, and the rest of us get gouged by the MTA. But beneath this patricians vs. plebs mentality is a more important issue about sustainable development and use of resources. I see  the problem as two-fold: the first part relates to typical American mentality that is split between worshipping the individual and self-sacrificing patriotism of our grandparents’ generation. The second part is about the different aesthetics of “poor” and “rich,” which I would like to redefine as “emergent” and “decadent.”

Americans of all backgrounds and income levels believe that freedom must include economic freedom. On the Right this means low to no taxes and unlimited use of natural resources; on the Left it means universal health care and publicly financed infrastructure. The Right side of this equation has been dominant since Reagan, and for thirty years social programs (developed in New York City by Al Smith and made national by F.D.R.) have been officially and systematically starved to pay for tax cuts. Regulations on land and resource use have been gutted or overturned. “Preservation” has become a dirty word, and the biggest developers get celebrated in reality shows. The protesters yesterday on the steps of Borough Hall are the brave vanguard that would turn our collective perception that Greed Is Good around and make it cool again to have community values. Heaven knows we need that now more than ever, as the Right tries to privatize our health care to keep it profit driven and expensive, and kill our public transportation to keep costs low for rich drivers in the outer boroughs.

The question of aesthetics is more complicated, however, because it presents a false dichotomy between wanting a nice, safe place to live and being forced to pay outrageous prices for someone else’s idea of what nice is. It is no secret that Coney Island was a dirty, dangerous place in the mid-20th century. The disintegration of New York’s manufacturing base and the loss of its port jobs to Elizabeth, NJ made New York the legendary setting for West Side Story and The Warriors. Growth in the early 20th century slowed to decay after World War II, a problem shared by all the norther industrial cities in the Rust Belt. Meanwhile, a perfect storm of elitist city planning from Le Corbusier to Robert Moses decided that height equals wealth, and large, broad, open spaces were more enjoyable than cramped, busy sidewalks. The result was an acceleration of decay as urban housing programs built horrible high-rises surrounded by open battlefields dominated by gangs and drug dealers. This is the aesthetic of urban decadence: rich people who want to stay in the city build towers where they live safely above the noise of the street. They look out on their magnificent views, and they look down on the crowded street where life and the energy of the city is generated. As Carol Albert said in her speech, developers in Australia built a tribute to Coney Island’s vanished Luna Park (called, appropriately enough, “Luna Park”), but they thought they would spruce up the place with some high-rise condos. The disastrous result was community friction between the patricians, who thought they had paid for peace and quiet along with their 30th floor residence, and the plebs who enjoy the noise and fun of the amusement park.

City planners discovered in the late 20th and early 21st century that this is not the only model for an aesthetically pleasing cityscape. High density, low-rise houses of the sort that were organically built in Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Caroll Gardens, and Brooklyn Heights fit the human scale of a city. In the same way, the shops on the boardwalk at Coney Island are just the right size for regular sized people: the kind who have day jobs, kids, and enjoy trips to the public beach. If the city were serious about cleaning up Coney Island they could put money and development incentives into low-rise developments that compliment the structures already in place, and zone them so that local businesses and local entrepreneurs are enticed to add to the local economy, rather than giving huge tax breaks to developers so they can charge outrageous rents on spaces that only international shopping chains can afford. This is an emergent urban aesthetic, one that seeks to encourage the middle class to invest in their neighborhoods for both business and residential living.

Many factors contributed to make New York the stuff of infamy, portrayed in movies like Escape From New York (1981): the loss of manufacturing, white flight, and a general population shift from the north to the south after World War II, for example. But I think these changes were accelerated by foolish urban development policies that built the monstrous, neighborhood killing throughways and high-rises that drove out the middle class with its emergent aesthetics, leaving only the very rich in their Upper East Side towers. The tightly knit character of New York City’s neighborhoods saved it from a fate like Detroit’s, Cleveland’s, or Buffalo’s though. Artists, freaks, and bohemians fought to save the neighborhood character of the West Village from the depredations of Robert Moses, and proud brownstoners in Brooklyn kept those neighborhoods together, even as their white neighbors fled for sidewalk-free subdivisions and hours wasted idling in traffic. The children of those artists (and suburbanites) moved back to undervalued neighborhoods in the 1990s during the economic boom, and sought to reconfigure the landscape again with its emergent aesthetic. Abandoned warehouses were repurposed into lofts and studios; the garment district of the LES was transformed into coffee shops and bars. Street life became vibrant again, and soon the rich people realized there was something of value to be had. And just as morning leads to noon, and noon to night, unscrupulous developers who don’t get it, who don’t see the street’s vitality, only an opportunity to build a fortress 30 stories above it, move in to develop skyscrapers.

The corollary to the end of the urban life cycle I just described is political corruption of the sort that was just outed in New Jersey. When government stops being an institution of the people and starts being a tool for the rich to get richer at the expense of the people, you can bet that someone deserves to go to jail. I’m sure that Domenic M. Recchia is looking over his shoulder for a guy with a wiretap, or if he isn’t he should be. He and Sitt have played hardball, low and dirty, with the residents of Coney Island and the New Yorkers who staycation there. They may win the battle of rezoning, but if there is any justice, they won’t win the war on good government.

Save Coney Island is fighting to save a New York City treasure from this decadent aesthetics and the corruption of which it is a symptom. Give them your help. Call your city councilperson, no matter what borough you live in, and tell them to vote against the city’s plan to turn Coney Island into a private resort beach for the internationally rich. The result will be an enriched New York.

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