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SPEAK OUT - The sad saga of the Old Coney Island

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If there was ever a ‘Night of Decision’ in Coney’s urban renewal, it came the night of the slaying of the Rev. Martin Luther King.

All over America, eruptions burst into headline stories – Detroit started to burn. One incident followed another in the volcanic, turbulent bowels of California, once named “the city of the Angels,” now simply “LA: Los Angeles.”

Here in Coney Island, the offices of Mayor John Lindsay set up a community housing committee, consisting of eight local community persons to serve under his architect, the young Alexander Cooper of the Columbia University staff.

Prior to our appointment by Mayor Lindsay, we had spoken to an architectural group at Columbia’s school of Architecture.

And then we were nine – but in order to maintain racial balance on the committee there had to be an equal number of African Americans to whites - so now we were ten in all.

During the prior meeting in an empty Neptune Avenue store front, Cooper told us, “When we meet next week, same time, we want you to bring us your plans for ten new housing developments. They must be five mid-income buildings and five low-incomes.”

He enumerated on his map, which blocks must be determined and indicating which would be demolished. Some of them contained industry, meaning loss of jobs. He gave job relocation no mention. Only housing; low and mid-income.

That infamous night we came to the Neptune storefront, opposite PS 188 to listen, as Cooper stood tall in front of his area map posted on an empty front wall.

“Everybody do your homework assignments raise your hands.” I lifted my left hand and pushed my sea back a bit… “Powsner. Anybody else?” No one else responded. He asked Powsner to come forward, “Where would you put the mid-income and then where the same amount of low?”

We put the 5 upper income unites in the westernmost corners, and filled in the lower incomes all to the east.

Others in the room erupted, “No man. You can’t do that man. We want to be on top of Sea Gate. No more back of the bus for us man. No more. We want to be on top of Sea Gate.”

We explained apologetically, “it has nothing to do with Sea Gate. I just thought that middle income people might more readily afford to live in a double fare zone; paying for a bus furthest from the train terminal, and then again for the subway at easternmost Stillwell train terminal. Low income people closest to the train station can lower their daily expenses by living in a one-fare zone, or to send their kids to school.”

But Cooper, architecting out of fear, set up a compromise, starting in the west, with one unit of low and one of mid-income. He was swallowing the political pill, “cool it man,” cool it he did almost.

The night before the issue was to come up in City Hall, the pastor of Our Lady of Solace called all sides to a meeting at the hall of the Phillip Lehman Post of the JWV.

The officials wanted to hammer out an agreement before the City Hall show-down the next day. When things seemed cool, we went out to our car, waiting for Rev. Vlahakis, a Greek minister who had asked for a lift home on the rainy night.

As we turned our windshield wipers on, the Reverend noticed smoke coming out a rag, stuck in the gas tank of the auto in front, which belonged to Dr. Herzenberg who had yet to enter his car. Had he turned on the engine, he might have made the morning headlines – or obituary. Fortunately we were able to warn him.

The next day, before the session of the NYC Board of Estimate Hearings opened, the side room was opened, and Herman Badillo, Bronx Borough President, invited all of the Coney Island people in to privately agree to favor Alex Cooper’s compromise plan.

We walked out, not promising a thing. When the session opened, our Borough President Abe Stark was absent. His deputy, John Hayes, opened the hearing on Coney Island and Low Powsner was the first called, “Are you in favor of the compromise offered as stated Mr. Powsner?” We could not agree to this compromise lead-off pitch and promptly replied, “No sir. I do not believe that mid-income people will pay twice as much to live in the balcony, than those living in the orchestra. I do not believe it will sell.” It passed without our consent, but most mid-incomes are further subsidized to this date.

Planners. Bring back the jobs we once had. Use our waterways for new industries. Then all housing will be desirable again.

In the new Coney Island envisioned by Mayor Bloomberg he picked a staff of people to re-propose a new Coney Island. As a member of the community board here for some 40 years, we were never able to bring our histories of the past before that board, instead offering us a brief untapped interview in their Wall Street office with their committee of one.

They do not know nor do they care about how prior administrations broke up the old Coney Island, using the Stillwell terminal as a rich vs. poverty divider; the rich living in the one fare zone, and double faring the poor, isolated from all industry except crime. And we have so many tales of that to come.

Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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