The Death of Steeplechase

We have discussed the idea behind Luna Park and the new Luna Park. Let’s move on to Denson’s death of Steeplechase.  I think it is ironic that Denson has a photo of Pzifer’s company outing at Steeplechase, a link to our industrial Brooklyn.  However, for me I  was shocked at  Fred Trump’s display of destruction of Steeplechase, were you surprised?  Denson’s story is full of various emotions such as loss, greed, spite, loneliness, betrayal and fear of those remaining in the 1960s. What were your feelings reading about the death of Steeplechase?

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13 responses to “The Death of Steeplechase

  1. Diane Whitney

    This struck me as a sad commentary on our inability to value what has been laboriously built up by others – and at the same time, on the transient and destructible nature of human endeavors. Ancient monuments fall (Ramses 2, Buddhas of Bamyan) and we raise new ones in their places which may in turn, be destroyed by others who do not share our priorities. Nothing lasts forever, and we fool ourselves into thinking we can change that. How powerful man’s greed and ambition are!
    As I prepare for this historic week-long adventure in Brooklyn, in consideration of the readings we have had and discussed, I consider G.M. Tevelyn’s thought:
    “The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, upon this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women as actual as we are here today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing after another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone.”
    Yet we read, we study, we reflect and we hope.

  2. I was mainly struck with the sense of contempt one generation has over the exploits and efforts of the last. Somehow the notion of individual generational exceptionalism seems to cloud the way forward. I think Brooklyn needs to be seen within these lens. As society “progresses” what are the mores, lessons, generational nuances that society needs to keep from one generation to the next? Ultimately, which ones need to be discarded?

  3. Steeplechase might have continued as a viable business, updating its equipment and serving as an older sister to Astroland, but Marie Tilyou was afraid that the park could not maintain its standards with a poorer clientele and racial desegregation. In part, the huge crowds of white, employed people on day trips and holiday moved elsewhere as part of larger demographic trends in US society. The growth of poverty in the city intersected with the residential migration of black and hispanic poor people who could not find lower level positions in white dominated factories because the factories closed or moved out of the city, or hired them last. Tilyou closed the pool in 1964 rather than end racial segregation there. In Greenpoint-Williamsburg, they closed the largest WPA era pool ever built and kept it closed because they were afraid of poor blacks and Puerto Ricans using the pool and flooding into the white Italian, Irish and Polish enclaves in Greenpoint-Williamsburg near the Queens border. Robert Petulo, a VP at the Greepoint Bank, landlord and real estate investor in the area, told me in an interview that he was knifed by an angry Puerto Rican and nearly bled to death in the pool as a boy. He opposed reviving or revitalizing the pool in WB-GP as long as the poverty surrounding the area, poverty associated with minority communities suffering from high unemployment, threatened the home owners in Greenpoint. [Greenpoint and Northside Williamsburg were white communities, the Sicilians and some Poles in Northside, the Orthodox Jews and Hispanics in Southside, and the Poles, Irish, and some Hispanics in Greenpoint. The unemployment rates in black communities in cities in the 1960s were horrendous. I remember some charts showing unemployment rates of 60% plus for black men prior to the Civil Rights Act, and it took another 30 years of government intervention and legal rule making to break the old rules of exclusion of blacks. The relocation of poor residents to housing in Coney Island, and then Trump’s concentrating them in older bungalos together, failed everyone. It isolated poor blacks in substandard housing that was not well maintained in areas where they could not find steady work; it scared whites, who had grown up with racial segregation and racism as cultural norms. Racism then complicated decisions about capital reinvestment. The deserted boardwalks became destinations for drug pushers and addicts; the nightclubs offering C&D as well as alcohol, drugs that destroyed quite a few people in every race. The elderly white residents who remained in the area lived in terror of break ins, muggings, burglary and every kind of theft. As the economies of cities globalize, grow and become strongly networked in service industries and global trade in the 1980s, the poverty of the Westside of Manhattan, the poverty of the East Village, the poverty of the shore beach communities, recedes as property is revalorized for residential housing for the new middle classes and different ethnic enclaves of global migrants. Coney Island is a nice community that went through a dark period in 1960s and 1970s. The dark period ended institutions and shifted population, changed demographics. Its a different world today in which we look back and want to preserve the stuff that made people happy. In my experience, adult New Yorkers older than I am had problems dealing with the race and ethnic politics of the 60s and 70s, and tend to skip those passages of history or shrug it off like, oh those dumb white home owning ethnics like Archie Bunker or like Jonathan Reader’s Canarsie, smart people don’t live with them. The new urban economy is built by smart people. Excuse my crude reductions in a non-scientific comment. I tried to write about how artists ignored the old rules of the ‘hood that defined racial ethnic boundaries by inviting Asian, black and hispanics into the emergent arts space and discourses, ignoring or undermining the assumptions that only white people define fine arts culture and fine arts audiences. The education system in NYC became a multicultural confluence of coexisting and emergent discourses. Hmmm, better have some breakfast and think more about this. I look forward to seeing the ocean. Are we eating Russian out there?

    • Wow, Kim, thanks for posting this. As I was reading about Steeplechase (of which I knew nothing about and had to ask my father who complained about how a date of his threw up all over him after one of the “crap rides” there…), I wondered what exactly was meant by the passive language…”urban renewal”, “racial unrest”, etc. The author seemed to gloss over this piece of history in favor of an emotionally charged story of Dynasty-like proportions, which of course made for a great read.

      At any rate, I wanted to know what exactly WAS going on, a la gentrification and urban decay…the fear of “otherness” so obvious in the story.

      So thank you for posting this historical snapshot!

      I also found this:
      http://www.macaulay.cuny.edu/seminars/napoli08/index.php/Coney_Island_Turning_Points

      Interesting further reading….

  4. The decline of Steeplechase is a sad, sad story. With all the feel-good notions the park promoted, the emerging story of the behind-the-scenes park closing overshadows that vibe with one of discomfort. Amusement parks offer an escape from reality. Denson’s recount brings us back to reality in a harsh way.

  5. I see the demise of Steeplechase as part of the larger decaying of cities in the late 1960s and 1970s. Because of the various problems ascribed to cities, people left them and did not have the fond feelings that Charles Denson has of the area.

    The next generation is always contemptuous of its parents or grandparents generations for being old-fashioned. Why would I want to live in these boring suburbs when I can live in the exciting inner city? Why would I live in this dangerous inner city when I can have a nice home in a quiet, safe suburbs? And so it goes.

  6. I agree with Christina that the Steeplechase story is sad. The loss of the physical structure is not as sad as the idea that the efforts of so many lives and careers are turned to rubble in an instant.

  7. I love everything Kim Reed writes about the inexorable demographic patterns that shape the communities we are studying. However, in this instance, it sounds like the actions of individuals spurred the destruction of the entertainment enterprise. The Death of Steeplechase showed particularly vindictive behavior on the part of Tilyou and Trump that catapulted the collapse of viable community. Apparently there were individuals in the wings interested in continuing the parks but the intransigence of these two powerful people prevented alternative visions from happening.
    As we read in the Kid of Coney Island, Luna Park was built of plaster and lath–hardly construction intended to endure the ages. What could have endured, possibly, was the ever-evolving amusement park at the beach serving and ever widening demographic.

  8. I was interested in how the dynamics of the Tilyou family worked in conjunction with larger demographic changes and historical events to doom Steeplechase. I also was struck by Denson’s response to seeing the destruction and having to avoid the site for a long time. I have had similar almost physical reactions to seeing changes in the city–I stopped taking the 4 train to work so I wouldn’t have to see Yankee Stadium dismantled this year.

  9. Dale T. Adams

    What happened to Steeplechase Park was inevitable if its owners did not want to change with the times. And I believe the greatest change of the times was the rise of the youth culture as a major marketable group in practically every aspect of American consumerism, including clothes, music, cosmetics, automobiles, and especially with amusement parks. Amusement parks such as Steeplechase until the advent of the youth culture were focused on adults—look at the pictures in Denson’s text. But the adult audience was sucked in by TV, and we saw the demise of the motion picture industry as well as the great amusement parks until the moguls saw that the survival of motion pictures was to make films for the teenagers and amusement parks for “families”—i.e., “children”—which, of course, Disney tapped into in a huge way.

  10. Unfortunately, I thought I had this reading but apparently not. It sounds interesting, especially as captured in others’ comments. I can’t believe we’re only two days away from meeting face-to-face. See you soon,
    Karla

  11. At least that rat bastard Fred Trump never got to build his condos.

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