[Mitchel's comments at end .... ]
July 1, 2011
A Fight Over Keeping Boards in the Boardwalk
By JOSEPH BERGER
The Coney Island Boardwalk, opened in 1923, has inspired songs (The
Drifters' "Under the Boardwalk"), plays (Herb Gardner's
"The Goodbye People") and fiction (Delmore Schwartz's "In
Dreams Begin Responsibilities"). Now, it is inspiring a question of
Talmudic complexity: Can a boardwalk be called a boardwalk if it is not
made of boards?
Last summer, the city began replacing the wooden boards on two short
stretches of boardwalk with concrete strips as a pilot project for a more
extensive overhaul of the structure, which extends for two and a half
miles along the Brooklyn shoreline.
The change is part of a move away from the tropical hardwoods like
ipe (pronounced EE-pay) that have long been used by the city for benches,
piers and walkways. The woods are tough enough to withstand a fleet of
garbage trucks, but their sources in the Amazon rain forest are being
depleted. Under pressure from environmental groups like Rainforest
Relief, the city has since 2008 been trying to stop using them, and
concrete has become the material of choice for boardwalks.
Officials at the Department of Parks and Recreation have promised
that the section of several blocks of the Coney Island Boardwalk along
the historic amusement area will remain hardwood. But everything else is
vulnerable to conversion to concrete.
The officials say other solutions have drawbacks. North American
hardwoods are not as sturdy or long-lasting. Concrete, already used for
at least one mile of the five-mile Rockaway Beach Boardwalk, so far seems
the cheapest, most durable alternative. Concrete, parks officials say,
costs $95 a square foot, compared with $127 for hardwood.
"It is an oxymoron," Adrian Benepe, the parks
commissioner, conceded in an interview last year when the pilot project
was being considered. "But boardwalk has become eponymous, in the
way Kleenex is for paper tissue. It is a generic term for an elevated
oceanfront walkway, and other communities use concrete."
That stance has ignited fierce opposition in Brooklyn for more than
a year. Now, with the pilot projects complete and the city proceeding to
the full-blown replacement, Community Board 13, whose views are only
advisory, has spurned a plan for the next stage: five blocks at the
Boardwalk's eastern edge, from Brighton 15th Street to Coney Island
Avenue, to be financed with $7.5 million in state money.
About three weeks ago, the community board voted 21 to 7 against the
latest compromise: running a 12-foot-wide concrete lane down the middle
of the 50-foot-wide boardwalk to accommodate the wear and tear of garbage
trucks and police cars. The remaining sides would be built out of planks
made of recycled plastic that cost about $110 a square foot and last for
That plan was supported by Marty Markowitz, the Brooklyn borough
president, who until then had pushed exclusively for wooden boards. Kevin
Jeffrey, the borough parks commissioner, said a decision on how to
proceed would be reached in two or three weeks.
Robert Burstein, 56, a schoolteacher who daily takes five-mile runs
on the Boardwalk, said people flocked to it because they "want
respite from concrete; we have concrete all around us." A lifelong
resident of the Coney Island-Brighton Beach area, he contends that
concrete is tough on runners' knees and other joints and "that's
going to cause injuries, whereas wood is a much more giving
He and an ad-hoc group have gathered over 1,000 signatures opposing
any concrete sections. Mr. Burstein and Rainforest Relief's director, Tim
Keating, argue that other hardwoods, like black locust and white oak, can
be used instead of rain-forest wood and that lumber mills could produce
the required boards at a reasonable price if the city's order was large
Mr. Jeffrey said that North American hardwood his agency had tested
began to splinter in two or three years. Its use would repeat a current
problem on the Boardwalk -- aging boards warp and become dangerous, with
people tripping or getting splinters. He acknowledged critics' complaints
that boards made of plastic are often slippery, but said they could be
given more traction with a grainy coating. They also have the same amount
of give as hardwood slats, he said.
The pilot projects replaced wooden boards with concrete along two
blocks near Ocean Parkway and four blocks along the wider western end of
Coney Island. They used $15 million in federal economic stimulus funds as
well as city money.
Preferring the wooden boards, Mr. Burstein said the parks department
should relieve the strain on the Boardwalk by putting the heaviest
vehicles -- garbage trucks -- on the beach itself. In his vision, trucks
fitted with mechanical arms would ply the beach twice a day, picking up
the 450 litter baskets by extending the arms over the Boardwalk's
In interviews on the Boardwalk on a recent sunny afternoon, natural
wood was lauded for its sensual appeal. Lou Powsner, 90, a longtime
member of the community board who for decades owned a men's clothing
store on nearby Mermaid Avenue, recalled the smells when he visited the
new boardwalk with his parents in the 1920s.
"What I remember is the smell of fresh wood and the salt air,
and it was magnificent," Mr. Powsner said.
He also remembered that the Coney Island Boardwalk -- officially
known as the Riegelmann Boardwalk for the borough president who built it
as a way of offering the public greater access to the beach -- withstood
storms like Hurricane Donna in 1960 relatively unscathed, while a
concrete esplanade in nearby Manhattan Beach was mangled.
But concrete had its advocates, like Mila Ivanova. Ms. Ivanova, a
Ukrainian immigrant from Odessa on the Black Sea who also walks the
Boardwalk every day, said: "It's very good -- wood -- but it's old.
It is shaking. Sometimes nails come up and you fall. Personally, I like
Ruby Schultz, a zestful septuagenarian, said she liked the feel of
real wooden boards yielding under her feet, a relief from the hard
pavement of city streets.
Ms. Schultz, a retired elementary-school teacher, accused the parks
department of failing to maintain the wooden boardwalk so people would
say: "Enough with the broken boards! Put the concrete down!"
Such suspicions were echoed in a way by Geoffrey Croft, founder of
NYC Parks Advocates, a private group, who said the underlying problem was
the city did not budget enough money for repairs, finding it politically
more palatable to use borrowed capital funds for rebuilding.
"We're borrowing for maintenance," Mr. Croft said.
He, too, would like to keep the Boardwalk wood and not concrete.
"A boardwalk is a boardwalk," he said. "A sidewalk is
Replacing the boardwalk with cement as the NYC Parks Department is
now doing is a typically flawed (to put it nicely) approach. Why should
garbage trucks ride on the boardwalk to begin with, thus ruining the wood
planks? Why not hire enough people to clear the garbage by hand, the way
it used to be done? Why not build wheels into all the garbage baskets, so
they can be moved easily by sanitation workers?
We can list dozens of "Why nots": For one, why not budget
slightly more funds to repair the boardwalk more frequently, little by
little, which would delay the larger damage? You know, "a stitch in
time saves nine."
How come when it came to Washington Square Park in Manhattan the
Parks Department spent tens of millions of dollars (and more than double
what was budgeted) to unnecessarily move the fountain 23 feet, lower the
stage so it's hard to see and hear performances, and alter the general
character of the historic park, but when it comes to Brooklyn suddenly
"there are no funds" for properly repairing one of the City's
treasures -- its boardwalk? The Mayor and his Parks Dept. officials
continue in their attempt to downgrade everything that makes living in
this city, and especially Brooklyn, special.
Brooklyn Greens / Green Party
Ring the bells
that still can ring, Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack in everything, That's how the light gets
~ Leonard Cohen