“My name is Michael Greco, and I am a direct descendent of the Greco Romans.” Mr. Greco stood before an overflow crowd in a fluorescent-lit conference room on the fifth floor of 253 Broadway on Monday afternoon, for an otherwise routine meeting of the Public Design Commission. “They built roads, bridges, aqueducts, great structures. My ancestors would be rolling in their grave if they saw this.”
To the 50 or so people packed into the conference room with Mr. Greco, the Rigelmann Boardwalk on Coney Island is their modern day Apian Way, and the New York City Parks Department is a band of marauding Visigoths. Instead of pickaxes and torches, the city is attacking with slabs of concrete and faux wood beams made from recycled plastic.
As part of the mayor’s PlaNYC sustainability program, the administration promised to stop using tropically harvested hardwoods. Since 1975, the city has cycled through seven different species of tropical trees in its park benches and boardwalk slats, moving from one wood to another as they were harvested to near extinction.
The solution, the city decided, was to replace the boardwalk with concrete. Even though this will be only on a 1,000-foot section on the eastern most section of the boardwalk in Brighton Beach, the decision has enraged Coney Island locals, amusement enthusiasts, historic preservationists, even the rainforest defenders who first attacked the city for its worrisome woods. They fear it is only a matter of time before the proposal colonizes the entire beachfront.
“One day, you’re going to come to Coney Island and just gasp—‘Oh my god, it’s not that beautiful anymore,’” Carolyn McCrory said, eyes wide. “You’re going to feel it in your bones.” She was wearing an orange peacock dress, and her curly golden tresses added to the carnival air in the meeting, a mix of working class and Wonder Wheel.
Randy Ortiz feared for his bones, too. He wore a leather vest with the famous smiling Tillie on the back that identified him as a Coney Island dancer, part of troupe that throws house parties on the boardwalk every Sunday. Mention of the dancers elicited cheers from the audience. “Concrete is bad for your knees and your back,” he said. “A lot of us aren’t as young as we used to be.” The dancers also would spread out sand to aid their moves, which simply will not glide, he feared, as it would on wood.
His concerns may be overstated, as the city is no longer proposing wall-to-beach concrete, but instead a 12-foot strip running down the middle of the boardwalk, bounded on both sides by 19 feet of what is called High Friction Recycled Plastic Lumber, which looks a surprising amount like the real thing, and is actually cheaper.
The critics counter that there is no reason the entire boardwalk cannot be made of this material, or even a locally harvest, sustainable hardwood like black locust. The Parks Department insists it cannot order the wood in sufficient quantities. Representatives for two lumber companies came to say they could deliver the wood, and one even came from West Virginia to say so, though he has a clear economic interest to do so.
At the same time, the city never quite provided a satisfying answer as to why there had to be a huge swath of concrete on the boardwalk, except to insist that this was the only way, and it was needed for emergency vehicles, even though they tend to use the surface roads. “We’ve explored all the options and this is the best one,” said Alex Hart, Park’s Assistant Deputy Chief of Design. “I wish wood would work, but it won’t.”
Earnestly ambivalent was Tim Keating, director of Rainforest Relief, a group that began pressuring the city to move away from tropical wood in the 1990s. “We have an opportunity to set the standard for the world, and instead we are presenting a backward plan that no one will follow,” he bemoaned. He did say after the hearing that at least he had achieved his primary goal, even if he was disappointed in the outcome. “They’re not cutting down trees in the rainforest anymore,” Mr. Keating said.
The world is indeed disappointed. “I’m from France, and when my family came to visit, we came to the boardwalk and it felt like the real New York,” Samuel Jeanblanc told the commission. “For New York and for the world, I beg you to save the boardwalk.”
“For shame!” cried out one woman, after the commission voted 6-0 to pass the measure.
Two other women left the hearing separately, crying.