Fans of Coney Island are rejoicing at the city’s commitment to the bright future of “America’s Playground.”
The Coney Island plan is a great start to a new heyday. Along with new amusements, hotels and entertainment, the renovation of Asser Levy Park, and its band shell across the street from the New York Aquarium and one block from the beach and Boardwalk, is another welcome manifestation of this commitment, and fully in keeping with the park’s musical heritage.
Artistic performance is a hallmark of many of our city parks, and music at Asser Levy dates back to the 1880s. Not only the site of the free Seaside Summer Concerts for 19 years, which have brought acts like Paul Anka, Gladys Knight, Hall and Oates and the B-52s to Brooklyn, the park has been part of Coney’s amusement district dating back to the days of John Philip Sousa!
This eastern gateway to Coney Island belongs to us all. In the 1960s and ’70s, community organizer Sidney Jonas held popular concerts here, and for a colorful glimpse into its Coney-style commotion, check out its monument to a 1924 reunion of Teddy Roosevelt Rough Riders, who camped in the park, stayed out late at nearby amusements and hooted and hollered into the wee hours.
As it stands, Asser Levy Park is in dire need of renovation, a woefully under-used dust bowl. Plans promise to make it more inviting for both local residents and visitors, improving drainage, retaining its forest of old-growth trees, creating new walkways and lawns, upgrading its 9-11 memorial, adding a state-of-the-art comfort station and creating a showpiece, handicapped-accessible playground. The seasonal, open-air band shell will host concerts only in warm months, but have community uses all year, from a covered kiddie play area to a winter outdoor ice rink. Possibilities abound!
The vocal, misguided few who oppose the renovation basically want a poorly drained, low-amenity, and under-populated park. But improving the park means making it more usable by more people. We must of course, as Borough President Markowitz has said, respect concerns like those voiced by local synagogues that services are not adversely impacted and local concerns about parking. To that end, the city has assured that programming will not overwhelm the neighborhood, traffic is being dealt with as part of the Coney Island plan, and ambient sound will actually improve, since a new audio system will target sound directly to the audience.
Some may want Coney to remain frozen in time, but for those who seek a better day, the renovation of Asser Levy Park is something we should be celebrating. Yes, there will be more people. We hope so. That’s the goal! This is Coney Island, not a suburban quiet-zone. We badly need this renovated park and bandshell if we are going to save Coney Island — and as a major advocate and spokesman for culture and entertainment, believe me, the future is now.
Dick Zigun is the founder and artistic director of Coney Island USA.