It’s 7 a.m. on a high-summer Friday, and Steeplechase Pier in Coney Island is already packed. A frail older woman spreads a large silk scarf on a wooden chaise lounge, then stretches out to catch the sun. A younger woman cruises by on a silver bicycle, then skids to a stop when she recognizes a neighbor, beginning an excited conversation in Jamaican patois. Two dozen fishermen line the pier, casting again and again, looking for the sweet spot, until most give in and leave their long ocean rods leaning against the railing while they chat in Russian, Spanish, and Chinese. The chaotic back and forth is broken up only briefly as a Russian cry of “Ryba!” (“Fish!”) cuts through the cacophony. A man has pulled in a foot-long sea robin, a bottom feeder known for its unattractive face and tasty tail. A man of 40 or so rolls determinedly up the pier in a wheelchair, the muscles in his arms flexing as he spins the chair’s wheels, mounting the ramp leading up to the elevated platform at the end of the pier. He stops on the platform and stares out over the pounding waves of the Atlantic Ocean.
The pier’s current iteration, a modern design created after Hurricane Sandy turned the old one into driftwood, is enjoying its first summer after an extensive, $19.4 million rehabilitation. While the very idea of a pier is a bit of a relic of another era, the pier itself continues to fulfill a unique need in twenty-first-century Brooklyn. It is a vibrant public space, accessible at all times to Brooklynites of all walks of life. Though the pier still feels new, its culture, its characters — the old men and women whipping their lines into the sea, regardless of whatever fish are left in it — have a certain timelessness, a remarkable feat given the pier’s perilous history.
In its more than 100 years of existence, Steeplechase Pier has been destroyed, by fire or storm, five times. What has made the city reconstruct this small wooden jetty, hardly a twig sticking out into the ocean along New York’s gigantic waterfront, again and again? And why do people keep coming back?
Reconstruction of the pier after its destruction by Sandy certainly never seemed like a sure thing. The process began in March 2013. Facing pressure to bounce back quickly, the Parks Department set Steeplechase Pier’s reopening date for July 2013, just about eight months after the disaster. Of course, the construction process took longer than anticipated and faced a few setbacks, including the sinking of a barge carrying a crane at the work site. The pier reopened in October 2013, just a few weeks shy of a year after Sandy, and unfortunately timed, as Coney Island’s peak summer season had already wrapped up. This year was the reconstructed pier’s first summer.
Structurally, the pier has been built to stare down another storm like Sandy. The engineering firm for the project, the McLaren Group, designed the pier “specifically for that kind of the storm,” according to the Parks Department’s resident engineer, Mike Azzollini. The Parks Department faced the monumental task of addressing Sandy’s damage not only in Coney Island, but also in the heavily damaged Rockaways, Orchard Beach, Midland Beach, and across the city. According to Brooklyn Parks Commissioner Kevin Jeffrey, the department felt a sense of urgency in the face of the unprecedented destruction to “get back to a sense of normalcy and to get things running as soon as possible.”
During the hurricane, Steeplechase sustained the most damage to the wood timbers that form the connection between the concrete pile cap and the wood deck, says Paul Lewis of LTL Architects, the architecture firm that was hired as part of a collaborative team charged with restoring access to the beaches. The storm surge separated the wood deck from the concrete pile cap underneath it, sliding it around like a surfboard. According to Azzollini, the wood timbers were not bolted into the pile cap, providing support to the deck only “based on gravity.” Now, the newly rebuilt pier has reinforced concrete beams, which are twice as long as before and bolted right into the pile cap. The pier’s deck was rebuilt using recycled plasticized lumber, a plastic composite that has a longer lifespan than the tropical hardwood previously used. The city is banking that the changes will extend the life of the sixth version of the Steeplechase pier well into the future.
The new pier also features new design elements that enhance its role as a public space. Even though the design for the pier was made under a highly constricted one-month timeline, LTL Architects considered how the pragmatic elements of the pier, like the street furniture, railings, and shade structure, “could be elevated through design,” says Lewis. And this summer’s pier regulars are taking notice. Teresa, a home attendant from Brooklyn, said she liked the modern-looking light fixtures and the added wood railing, which makes the pier more senior citizen–friendly: you can now lean on the pier gate and enjoy the view. That's a boon to the pier's popularity with the aging post-Soviet population from the surrounding neighborhoods, for whom the Atlantic Ocean is a reminder of the Caspian and Black seas.
The new features were designed to decrease some of the inherent tension between the pier’s most active users. The shade canopy, which casts the words “CONEY ISLAND” onto the pier, was built to provide some respite from the sun for the casual users, and is also built high enough that fishermen and -women can still cast under it. Six bait-cutting stations, added along the railing, cantilever off the railing so the fish scales go into the water rather than onto the pier and its benches.
For sunbathing and people watching, the new pier design features a “chaise longue” or a large sunbench, which can be used by families and larger groups. Two sets of benches line the pier, pulled away from the railing and oriented so that a user can look out to the ocean. The old design had all the benches facing inward. According to Jeffrey, additional seating was added to respond to the needs of the growing senior population. The benches, hand railing and chaise longue all use repurposed decking and timber from the old pier, giving a new life to portions of the older version of Steeplechase pier.
One of the most striking additions to the pier is the added elevation at its end. Originally built as a ferry dock, the pier’s direction was reversed when the ferry stopped running, according to Lewis. But the redesign of the pier allowed the design and construction firm to add a firmer “sense of destination” to the pier, he says, because “the raised platform provides a payoff”: an even better view of the Parachute Jump and the colorful curlicue features of the Coney Island skyline. With ample historical precedent, Steeplechase Pier’s latest destruction became an opportunity for the new vantage.
When the pier was built in 1904, it was less a fisherman’s escape than a gateway to the first amusement park in Coney Island: George C. Tilyou’s Steeplechase Park. The theme park was in many ways the blueprint for all subsequent amusement parks throughout the world. In their classic 1941 history of Coney Island, Sodom By The Sea, Oliver Pilat and Jo Ranson reminisce about the park’s many amusements:
It had a merry-go-round and the merry-go-round’s vertical cousin, the Ferris wheel, and various other rides, including a sort of steeplechase on iron horses to carry out the name of the park; mirrors that made fat men look thin and thin women look funny; a swimming pool and a dance floor, penny arcades and rows of nickel games.
Tilyou constantly had to add new attractions to compete with two major rival parks nearby, Luna Park and Dreamland. Dreamland had negotiated a contract with the Iron Steamboat Company, one of the main purveyors of ferry service to Coney Island from Manhattan, and a round-trip ferry ride included a free ticket to Dreamland. As Brian J. Cudahy writes in his book, How We Got to Coney Island, “The shortest distance between New York City and Coney Island is a water route rather than a land route.” Before the consolidation of the subway service system in the 1920s, waterborne vehicles played a key role in getting New Yorkers to Coney Island.
Tilyou added his own pier, Steeplechase, the same year Dreamland opened, to attract other ferry operators to land at his amusement park. Like everything else in Tilyou’s empire, the pier came with an admission fee; fisherman were welcome to use the pier, but they had to pay 35 cents. That same year, Steeplechase Park burned down in a fire, though the pier was not affected. Not one to pass up a buck, Tilyou simply erected a sign that read, “On this site will be erected shortly a better, bigger, greater Steeplechase Park. Admission to the Burning Ruins — 10 Cents.” In Coney Island, destruction has always been viewed as an opportunity.
When Dreamland, in turn, burned down in 1911, after just six open seasons, Tilyou saw another opportunity. He pounced on the steamboat contract while the fire was still burning. Cudahy writes:
On the day after the fire, with the ashes still smoldering on the site where Dreamland once stood, Bishop’s boats deposited Coney Island-bound patrons at Tilyou’s Steeplechase Pier, the third and last major ocean pier to be built at Coney Island. An Iron Steamboat ticket to Coney Island now included free admission to Steeplechase.
Steeplechase Park would exist for another fifty years, but broader policy changes in the city in the 1920s removed the pier from the purview of the Tilyou family. In 1921, the city condemned all private beachfront holdings in order to construct a continuous public boardwalk. When the Steeplechase Pier reopened in 1923 as an integrated extension of the boardwalk, it was under the jurisdiction of the borough president’s office. For the first time, Steeplechase Pier was a truly public space, providing free access to the water to Coney Island’s visitors.
The idea of seizing private, profitable space for the good of the public seems unthinkable now, but was embraced by city government at the time. The Iron Steamboat Company was able to maintain a contract with the city, albeit at a renegotiated rate, but the advent of subways meant that the steamboats would soon be irrelevant. The consolidation of Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation in 1924, which took possession of several bankrupt surface and elevated transit lines, meant that visitors could now get to Coney Island from all over Brooklyn and Manhattan, using one consolidated transit system, for only a nickel. The BMT was a private corporation, but it would itself be taken over the city a decade and a half later. In the late 1920s, Steeplechase Pier was more likely to be visited by boats smuggling liquor than by ferries.
But these changes helped Steeplechase undergo a fundamental transformation, from a point of entry to Coney Island to a destination itself. After struggling with falling revenue and ridership through the Depression, the Iron Steamboat Company ceased operations altogether in 1932, and with the end of ferry service, Steeplechase’s conversion was complete.
The pier’s reinvention as a public, admission-free space ensured its relevance and value into the future. It would continue to be intertwined with a variety of public projects and entities for the next several decades. In 1936, the repair was re-decked and repaired as part of a larger WPA–funded project to modernize the city’s piers. Two years later, control of the pier was transferred to the city’s Parks Department.
The Parks Department would encourage the public usage of the pier, such as by sponsoring an annual fishing contest. In 1955, the contest drew 1,200 anglers. But fire continued to plague Coney’s amusement area. A 1939 fire destroyed boardwalk concessions, as well as the entrance to Steeplechase Park. The pier was spared the flames. The pier did not fare so well in a 1949 storm, which caused severe damage. Robert Moses — at the helm of the Parks Department at the time, and a devotee of public beaches — spearheaded a $190,000 reconstruction project. In 1957, however, there was yet another fire. The pier did not escape this one. The New York Times reported:
Two-thirds of the 1,290-foot pier destroyed by fire … a two-story frame building at the pier’s tip floated out into the Atlantic Ocean … It was used as a fishermen’s snack bar and a haven in cold weather. On the second floor were Parks offices.
The pier reopened a year later, following a $200,000 rebuilding. The new pier was shortened to 950 feet long, and included the now-iconic 223-foot T-bar at its end. The last four decades of the twentieth century are typically viewed as a time of declining amusements in Coney’s history. Steeplechase Pier, as always, embodied the area’s fate.
The closure of Steeplechase Park in 1965, and the subsequent aggressive demolition of the site by Fred Trump, meant a decline in visitorship to the pier. The perception of crime began to eat away at the casual use of the pier by families and seniors, especially early in the morning or after dark, though young people, homeless people, and others who had nowhere else to go continued to gather on the pier. The surrounding water had become known for high levels of pollution. While the 1972 Clean Water Act eventually turned this situation around, it took a couple decades of restoration before fishermen returned in large numbers. Even to this day, some people disdain Coney Island as a fishing spot because of its still less than pristine water and its abundance of bottom feeders (like the sea robin) in the place of prized sporting fish, like striped bass.
In some ways, the pier’s construction has always reflected certain fundamental fixations in New York City. During the paranoia and chaos of the 1980s, an ambitious plan included the replacement of old Douglas fir planks with new ones made from greenheart wood from South America, which were flame-resistant and could withstand the weight of police cars on patrol. However, the plan to have the pier fully restored was slowed by the austerity measures and budget cutback enacted in response to the city’s fiscal crisis. Five years later, as the area was continuing its slow comeback, the December 1992 nor’easter struck. The Times reported:
A spokesman for the National Weather Service labeled it "one of the worst coastal storms ever," while residents marveled at its intensity. … A portion of the Steeplechase Pier, a tourist attraction at Coney Island in Brooklyn, toppled.
But by the time Hurricane Sandy hit, the immediate amusement area surrounding the pier had undergone a number of major changes. After almost 30 years of vacancy, a minor-league baseball stadium was built on the twelve-acre Steeplechase Park site in 2001, though not without controversy. In May 2013, as part of the broader celebration of beach reopenings after Sandy, the city commemorated the addition of the historic B&B Carousell to the newly renovated Steeplechase Plaza. The Parachute Jump underwent its own renovation.
The changes to the amusement area have continued after the hurricane. Most recently, a new roller coaster, named after the wooden Thunderbolt torn down unceremoniously by then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani in an attempt to clean-up the area in 2000, was added to the Coney Island skyline. While the renovation of Steeplechase Pier was part of the essential post-Sandy rebuilding effort, it is also part of the ongoing project of redeveloping the boardwalk and amusement area. Meghan Lalor, Parks Department press officer, explains that the piers renovation is part of a broader focus of revitalizing New York City’s waterfront — one of Michael Bloomberg’s many development fixations. “Even though the pier predates all new construction, this is another way to bring people out into the water,” she said.
The pier may no longer be the gate to Coney Island, but it still connects the land and the ocean. It is a through line connecting the Coney Island of today to the rambling amusement park of the early 1900s. A 2007 meditation on piers published in The Economist lamented that, though piers were quite popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, “almost no new piers are being built now.” Later, the article identifies Steeplechase as one of only seven remaining major piers in the United States. “No construction is more appealing,” writes The Economist,
or more redolent of mortality, than a jetty that sticks out from the shore. It tells men they can walk on water, and suggests they can stroll as far towards infinity as their engineering can take them. Piers symbolise escape from the everyday, from the shore, from work, from life itself.
This sentiment is echoed by Jeffrey, the parks commissioner. Steeplechase Pier, he says,
allows people to get on and over the water without getting in the water. What is unique about Coney Island is that you can both get in the water and over the water. In the context of open space, the pier affords that in a significant way, to a tremendous usership. People all over the world know Coney Island.
This ability to get over the water and enter an interstitial space is one of the reasons why the pier continues to have value as it begins its twelfth decade of existence. Of course, there is a tension between creating a global icon of New York City glamour and continuing to provide a space that citizens of Brooklyn can use. Commissioner Jeffrey states that, “on a busy day…in this section of the boardwalk, you can get 600,000–700,000 people.” While a good deal of these people are tourists or day trippers from other boroughs — at least in the summertime — a large percentage are working class people from the surrounding public housing developments as well as other parts of Brooklyn.
So far, though, it seems the renovated pier is meeting the diverse needs of this population. “The best part about the project,” says Lewis of LTL’s role in the renovation, “is that I get to take my kids out there and see it be used in ways that we both anticipated and that we haven’t anticipated at all.” For example, he says, “I have not anticipated the sheer quantity of fishing and how it occurs all over the pier.” It is no surprise that urban fisherman flock to Coney Island; Steeplechase Pier (and to a lesser degree, Canarsie Pier, to the west) offers an opportunity for Brooklyn residents who do not have access to ocean-going boats to participate in recreational salt-water fishing.
The role of the pier has never been, and never will be, purely practical. A key element of Coney Island’s charm has always been its ingrained weirdness, its irrational and uncontainable spectacle. People have always been drawn to Coney partly so they could actively participate in this sideshow drama. Lewis adds, “We also saw some guys doing parkour wearing wolf masks, jumping from the pier onto the beach. … It is a great place.”
In his book about Times Square, Marshall Berman, a Marxist philosopher and professor of political science at City College, wrote about two dual concepts: “the right to the city is a basic human right” and “the right to be part of the city spectacle.” To Berman, Times Square was, and to an extent still is, a space that belongs to everybody. He is careful not to write off today’s cleaned-up version, because it continues to be a shared public space, nor romanticize the 1970s version, when crime made the area uncomfortable for many users. At the same time, he is wary of corporate control of access to the street, which cuts into the fact that “New York’s everyday life depends on the simple but complex practice of sharing space.”
Though different in scale and reach, Steeplechase Pier is a public space that belongs to everybody. It has benefited from new development projects in the Coney Island amusement area and from the area’s financial recovery in the last twenty years. It is important that it remain a public space that everyone — seniors, families, the homeless, teens, women, disabled individuals — is able to enjoy.
By 10 a.m., some of the fishermen begin to make their way home. Others continue out onto the pier. One group of men, who had brought their fishing poles out with them, sip malt liquor from tall cans wrapped in black plastic bags. Marijuana smoke, laughter, and reggaeton beats fill the air around their circle. This music mixes with the sound of the ’80s hair metal blasting from the speakers mounted on the Parachute Jump back past the boardwalk.
Yaakov — an elderly, wheelchair-bound man who has lived in Brighton Breach since emigrating from the Soviet Union in the early 1980s — soaks in the sun with his home attendant, Teresa. “I like it here because it is an entrance to the ocean,” says Teresa, speaking in Russian. “And you feel the water, not the sand.” Yaakov speaks approvingly of the renovations, also in Russian. “You can see that they tried to make it more comfortable for the people so everyone can enjoy the pier.” In particular, Teresa and Yaakov are impressed with the use of salvaged wood on the railings and benches. They jokingly compare the comfortable, modern pier to the dismal public works they observed in the Soviet Union.
Louis, a middle-aged man with a tattoo of a scorpion on his shoulder who takes the N train down from Astoria two or three days a week to fish, sees a different side to the renovation. An avid user of the pier for many years before Sandy, Louis has waited anxiously until he could return to his favorite fishing spot. He says the catch has not been good this season, he suspects because of disruption to the environment caused by the reconstruction. All Louis has caught so far this morning was a small fluke, too small to make into anybody’s dinner. He tosses it back. He casts again, careful not to hit any strollers as he swings his rod. Though it is getting to be late in the morning for fishing, Louis looks determined to keep at it until he catches something. “I like the improvements,” he says, “but ever since they added more benches, it’s gotten more crowded.” Tourists, he says. But what is he to do? “Everybody got to share the pier.”