Through the throes of the Depression petty crimes made early appearances in Coney Island perhaps a notch more because the closed-down amusement area was a target for petty break-ins or in some cases, for torch jobs.
After a slow summer Depression era season, some shady lessees were known to seek “torchers.” (Guys who knew where to light their matches, as if to pretend that it was done by a windblown cigarette).
That was all the lessee needed to terminate his lease, pack his girl-pal, terminated. And try to make it back, playing the horses at Tropical Park or Hialeah, down in Florida.
Of course we have to remember that some of that resort area’s fires came from being closed down when schools opened in early Fall and wooden structures surely became targets of windblown cigars, or other smokes.
What could landlords do with burned out assets; stands all boarded (or tinned) up? Further vacancies were ordained during WWII, when presidential orders dictated blackouts for American shorelines, where enemy submarines endangered our vessels and our cargoes.
Ocean fronting Coney was the first target to pull down its war-born darkest curtains, landlords couldn’t afford to cut rental rates. Seasons were too limited. One by one there were closures or fires or both.
About 1947 Luna Park was one of the two giant fun-parks to close. The City primed it for a housing project, but Fred Trump, a private home-builder, loaded with political clout, got the first apple out of the barrel ahead. He got a subsidy to build Luna Houses for New York City.
Steeplechase Park was literally subsidized by the NY State Unemployment Insurance Laws. Most of its staff were older men, who were retirees (or firees). When that amusement park closed down after each year’s Labor Day, their elder workers signed up and drew NY State Unemployment Insurance carrying them through the icy winters.
God willing, the experienced helpers were back for Good Friday, next April, when the wheels and wild carousels and horses and calliopes were singing again.
Builder Fred Trump wanted to take Steeplechase shambles over and came up with a plan to build an enclosed amusement area, taking several blocks, but the City planners rebuked his plan.
Trump re-bounded with a plan to erect low-income project apartments there, but was not able to get re-zoning variances for more housing within an amusement zone.
For too many years that downtrodden area lay fallow, or barely occupied by traveling out of town fairs.
After 1965 when John Lindsay was elected, his City Planning Commission started to inundate other non-ocean frontages into low-income projects for our City’s 2 major resort areas; Coney Island and Rockaway.
Both of those resorts were unwisely handicapped, as the City welfare offices dumped unemployed, poor families into corners of our city with no industry and locked into multiple fare zones. Crime came with them. Little by little, one year around store was robbed, or burgled – or both.
My tailor was widowed and felt a despair in his home, where unemployed hoodlums moved in – “Powsner” he pleaded, “You’re on the community council, can’t you help me to get a few rooms in one of the new projects. Not a low income. I have enough money to pay for middle-income. I’m very afraid where I live now with all the new tenants here.”
I was very eager to see if I could help this widowed working man, if I could. This was a new building just opening on Surf Avenue, a block from the beach and Boardwalk. We went with Mr. Bush and we sat and waited our turn in this new mid-income project.
We listened as this youngish man went in, before us.
He told the clerk, “I gotta have two apartments. One for my wife and 2 daughters and one for me and my girl friend. That was the way those houses were filled, we found out, going into a city office for the first time.
Another instance came to mind about the same time, when we suffered one of our holdups early one winter morning.
Three youths rushed into our store, and they left the windblown door open, as one of them screamed, “Let’s see one of your Cortefiel’s man.” Cortefiel was a famed 200 year old coat company in Span, that produced very beautifully made leathers and corduroys. As one swept a coat off the rack, we yelled, “Won’t you close that door?” But they left it open for their 4th man – the gunman, who came in screaming “Get your mother- F&*&* ass on the floor, man.” With gun raised high, he became the choreographer. While he had them load up some coats, he opened the register, throwing the “loot” into my lunch bag that had a letter addressed to me, from Congressman Solars.
After he tied our hands, feet and mouth, he fled with all the loot. We crawled across the frozen floor until we reached a shelf that had a ‘crime button’ sending an alarm to an alert company who signaled the police.
They had me up in a frozen half-hour and the gunman was the first one caught.
He led the cops to a housing project where the other three were arrested, all out of breath. When we got to court the next day, the gunman’s mother approached me, “Mr. Powsner. How can I apologize for what my son done to you” You were so nice to us, when I was president of PS 80 Parents, and that Christmas at our party, I asked you to help get me in the new projects. You did and I never said thanks to you. Now look at what my son did to you – I’m so sorry.”
We consoled her, simply saying, “I never realized that the city was loading the new houses with bottom of the barrel criminals where the son of the Public School President could learn crime.
Three of the boys confessed, and went to an upstate youth’s prison. The 4th went to trial and pleaded not guilty. After we testified against him, he was held in a police shelter until they could bring the other three down from an upstate prison to identify him.
He escaped that weekend, in 1987 and long after we retired from our store, we received a call from the NY Daily News in 2003, while on vacation in Puerto Rico, telling us that this guy was arrested now, on another charge and would go back to prison on my robbery conviction.
Our son mailed us almost a full page photo story of that 1988 youth and the recaptured bum in 2003.
Surely that better not be the “Coney Island Of Old” that the city hopes to bring back. And jobs that planners can bring must be year round.