By Lou Powsner
After World War II, we came home from overseas, to marry; to return to college at LIU; to help my elder father with his Powsner’s Men’s Shop. We did it all by subways then, and found civilian energies helping our dad “modernize our Men’s Shop” that he opened in 1924, after bringing Lou Posner east to Coney from Lou’s Dakota birthplace. Little did we know how long we’d stay in Coney…nor how it would change…how woefully! Friends would ask, “How can you stay there? Aren’t you afraid for your life now that the city planners had made a poverty funnel into it?” When a guy had come home from a world of real war, in the wilds of the Western Pacific; the invasions of Peleiliu; the perils of Okinawa, Coney did not frighten us – yet. Just two stores away, Max Weinberg was stabbed to death, one sunny Memorial Day. Around my corner, facing Dime Savings Bank, a tailor hanging up clothes, noted a holdup-youth with a gun aimed at his wife. He wheeled with his own rifle, but the holdup man shot him to death. That wasn’t the wild west, where Lou Powsner was born. It was the Coney that was planned by our city then – or was it plotted? While many corners of America were exploding, Coney was endangered, and we better learn now that it is not just an empty strip of land, to plan. It instead is a thickly loaded land of people, majoring in unemployment, and the hungers and thirsts, for which our city planners endowed them. When John Lindsay was the mayor, it seemed that his planners wanted to shift New York’s poverties out of Manhattan, to isolate in Federal houses, helplessly in the two-fare zones, far from labor centers, started by prior Mayor Robert Wagner. That era’s city planners designated many Coney Island blocks of Coney and Rockaway, to pile unemployed people into 20-story “no-income” projects. Now the mayor invoked a new “community-planned housing committee.” His office selected the ten – designated by color of skin – five whites and five blacks and chaired by a selected city engineer of alleged repute. Neighbors were surprised that the mayor’s office ignored Lou Powsner, then a young voices versus “urban rescrewal.” But when the same mayor sent Lou an invitation to visit Gracy Mansion, with other community folks, we wired a decline, saying that we could not attend a visit to the mayor we had supported, when we had written an election column, “Why are you a Democrat for John Lindsay?” Alexander Cooper then designated ten new Coney blocks for more urban renewal, urging us to decline which five blocks should be low and what five should be mid-income, and bring our answers in next meeting in one week. It was an easy decision to make, and we were ready one week later, on a night unfortunately following the shooting of Martin Luther King Jr. That evening America was wildly volatile. Detroit reported explosions and L.A. was vividly aflame. Harlem was burning. Coney was under heavy police patrol, as we came to a storefront on Neptune Avenue, to convene that evening. Chairman Alexander Coopee called for one of us to bring their plan to the wall map. No one volunteered except Lou Powsner, who walked slowly to the large map, and pointed to five blocks of mid-income on the five westernmost blocks, then the five easternmost to be low. Suddenly there was a voice of outright protest. “Hey man, you ain’t gonna make us sit in the backs of no bus, no more! We want to be on top of Sea Gate!” Cooper tried to contain further outbursts, but we had to explain, “I had no color of skin in mind. I just feel that people with no, or low income, should live closer to the train station, a one-fare zone, to get to work, or to get to find it…while mid-income can more readily afford the two-fare zone.” But the architect chairman decided to compromise, one block of low across from one bloc of mid. We did it his way, and it never succeeded. Mid-income families preferred living in areas among other earners – or in suburbs. But another city commission further intervened, designating “two Coney Islands,” by separating Coney West as a poverty center, while the Eastern side of Stillwell Ave became the designated middle-income area, containing the poverty “to the other side of the tracks,” where there was no industry, and more costly to escape the poverty marshes seeking employment. In that era, Channel 7 did an hour-piece about that “present-day Coney,” filming the late; great Al Sinrod, and the equally great Ida Israel, a pair of long-time community devotees. At the close of that program, Al Sinrod sitting on Coney’s traditional boardwalk, looked out to the white sands, then the film shifted to the upright Half Moon Hotel, then the lengthy sparkling boardwalk, where the greatest American football collegians stayed, trained, and later played the very first North-South Colliate football game ever played (and the last, when the largest section of stands collapsed under a heavy overflow crowd, on New Years Day, 1937. That game is played now every year in Montgomery, Alabama). As the film closed, Al Sinrod stated that the three things that Coney Island needed the most, “…jobs, jobs, and jobs!” He should have said “Amen!” because God never heard the words, nor fulfilled them. Nor did city planners. Neither has the city administration. Now Coney has the wealth of a large army of potential employees – but they can’t sing for their suppers. They offer strong arms for decent labors. See them! Hear them! Plan them, Mr. Mayor! Bread can’t come to the table summers only. People need to eat daily and nobody can plan a new Coney Island for only 11 weeks each year. Why not plan for factories along the back bay, a waterfront asset, for easy clean shipping? Coney had an iron steam boat to Wall Street, and another ferry up the Hudson River. God endowed the Coney Island that city planners ignored. So must it be.