Forgotten fanfare: Coney Island calls on city to reinvest in Riegelmann Boardwalk after lack of centennial celebrations

coney island riegelmann boardwalk
The Riegelmann Boardwalk turned 100 years old earlier this week — now residents are wondering why there hasn’t been a celebration.
Photo by Rhododendrites/Wikimedia Commons

The Coney Island Riegelmann Boardwalk turned 100 years old on May 15, and instead of celebrating with cake and balloons, residents are pleading with city officials for an adequate reinvestment in their community.

The city’s parks department currently has a capital project addressing what locals say are much-needed repairs on the boardwalk. The city was initially supposed to finish designing the reconstruction in April 2023. That design date has been extended to June 2023 to incorporate more ADA accessible ramps, according a park spokesperson. 

Craig Hammerman, a southern Brooklyn activist and facilitator of a grassroots boardwalk advocacy group, wants city officials to use this time to reevaluate their level of engagement in the Riegelmann Boardwalk and the surrounding Coney Island neighborhoods.

wonder wheel at coney island boardwalk
The Riegelmann Boardwalk first opened in 1923, making this year its centennial anniversary. File photo by Erica Price

“I’m hoping that the delay in the design work is an opportunity for us to get them to change their minds about their approach, because their approach is considerably at odds with the community’s priorities,” Hammerman told Brooklyn Paper. “So hopefully the fact that the design work is not done, it gives us an opportunity to get them to do it in a way that supports the community’s vision for the boardwalk.”

After zero fanfare on the boardwalk’s centennial, Hammerman — on behalf of the newly organized Riegelmann Boardwalk Working Group — requested a meeting with Mayor Eric Adams and parks department commissioner, Sue Donoghue, to address a “pattern of disenfranchisement” in the southern peninsula.

“This once-in-a-lifetime event has passed us by without any celebratory commemoration planned by the City of New York. It’s part of a larger pattern of disenfranchisement our marginalized communities regularly experience when dealing with the city. The Riegelmann Boardwalk Working Group is hoping to change that,” Hammerman said. 

In a letter to the local leaders, Hammerman called for a few major commitments from city administration. One being an immediate emergency repair contract that would allow for complete restoration of the boardwalk. He suggested using sustainable wood as recommended by the Rainforest Alliance and Forestry Stewardship Council, rather than the recycled plastic lumber NYC Parks has mentioned during community board meetings.

Hammerman also insisted on a new park administrator position that would specifically oversee the Coney Island and Brighton Beach boardwalk and beach areas, the creation of a new community advisory board which would focus on long term planning, historic integrity, maintenance, rule enforcement and improvement of commercial sales around the boardwalk. He also asked that the parks department stop driving on the boardwalk with heavy vehicles and instead switch to lighter weight vehicles like Segways.

According to a parks spokesperson, the department plans to highlight the 100th anniversary at an upcoming Coney Island beach opening event.

“For the past 100 years, the Coney Island boardwalk has been an iconic destination for New Yorkers seeking fun in the sun and surf,” the spokesperson said. “We take seriously our role as caretakers of the boardwalk and strive to make improvements where resources allow to ensure this New York City icon can continue to be a safe public space for relaxation and recreation for the next 100 years and beyond.”

Ida Sanoff, a longtime resident of Coney Island, says the delayed construction plans and lack of celebration thus far all comes down to inadequate funding in the parks department. 

“Nothing here ever seems to get done in an expeditious fashion. If anything does get done, we’re thrilled,” Sanoff said. “The parks department, nobody gives them funding. It’s not all their fault. They don’t have funding.”

In her 50 years in the neighborhood, Sanoff can’t remember a time where the southern peninsula or boardwalk saw proper updates. 

“They have purposely neglected it because they want it to fall down. There’s no excuse for the neglect and abuse that this boardwalk has sustained. It would not be tolerated in any other city,” she said. 

coney island boardwalk riegelmann boardwalk
Coney Islanders are asking for more funding and city engagement for their roughly three-mile beach walkway. File photo by Ben Brachfeld

According to a parks department spokesperson, the team anticipates the capital project will start construction in 2024 following the completed design and 9 to 12 month procurement phase. 

The department also shares they make repairs and upkeep year-round to the 1.3 million planks that make up the Coney Island boardwalk, with $1 million in funding from the Office of the Mayor. This includes a  $11.5 million dollar safety and accessibility improvement project to the boardwalk between W. 24 Street and W. 27 Street. 

All hope is not lost when it comes to honoring the beach walkway. The Coney Island History Project will open an exhibit on May 27 called “The Riegelmann Boardwalk: Past, Present, and Future” telling the story of how the boardwalk came to be, how it was built and how its erection affected the future of the community. 

According to Charles Denson, director of the Coney Island History Project, this year seemed like the perfect time to shed light on the boardwalk’s longevity and look for answers for its future. 

“It’s a big centennial and it didn’t seem like there was much being done. Every year we do a new exhibit and it just seemed appropriate to honor the boardwalk, especially when there’s a lot of controversy about its future,” Denson said. 

The Riegelmann Boardwalk: Past, Present, and Future exhibit will run from May 27 through September 4, on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, from 1-7 p.m at 3059 W. 12 Street.