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Volume 5, Number 2
Fall 2007

Succession and Renewal in Urban Neighborhoods: The Case of Coney Island*


Raymond M. Weinstein

University of South Carolina Aiken

    Sociologists for some time have used the concepts of succession and renewal to describe two different, but sometimes complementary, processes of neighborhood change in urban areas.

    McKenzie (1924), part of the well-known Chicago School of urban sociology in the 1920s and 1930s, coined the term "invasion and succession" to explain the fundamental way one ethnic or racial group replaces another.  A few people from one group invade a neighborhood inhabited largely by members of another group, long-time residents begin to move out, more from the invading group move in, and in time the new group succeeds the old.   The process of change was likened to a lakeside sand dune, whereby particular species of grasses and insects were the first inhabitants but over time the environment would change, new species of plants and animals would inhabit the sand dune, and eventually the latter species would replace the former.  Another kind of invasion and succession, McKenzie (1924, pp. 297-98) argued, are changes in the land use or economic activity of a community. 

    In the late 1950s Hoover and Vernon (1959) advanced the idea of a "neighborhood life cycle," a model describing the inevitable stages of growth and decline for urban communities, the last stage being one of renewal.  Changes typically occur over a period of from 50-100 years in population density, economic function, commercial development, social class composition, type and condition of housing, and racial or ethnic composition.  Five distinct stages were identified not unlike that for a biological organism from the beginning of life to its end.  Birch (1971) later modified Hoover and Vernon's scheme and added a stage that necessarily precedes the initial development of a residential area.  Invasion and succession in neighborhoods and the six stages of the life cycle were described at length by Choldin (1985, pp. 331-351).

     In Stage 1 there is simply a plot of open land, often on the urban fringe, a rural area with a low population density but with a potential for development. 

    Over time Stage 2 is apparent, the beginning of residential development, often single-family houses, with calls for investment in infrastructure. One particular ethnic or racial group typically occupies the neighborhood. 

    A period of full occupancy occurs somewhat later and marks Stage 3.  There is continued building of new residential structures, perhaps multi-family dwellings, increased density with the group's compatriots or co-religionists, a rise in rents and property values, maximum use of public and private land, and an eventual “peak” in both development and population. 

    As years pass Stage 4 sets in, a period of downgrading with the aging of the housing stock, falling rents, decreased density, influx of lower income and/or different ethnic or racial groups, and little or no new construction. 

     In Stage 5 there is a thinning out, quite often the making of a slum community.  Buildings deteriorate or are abandoned, younger people move out, older people remain behind, stores and shops close down, dwelling vacancies increase, the new ethnic or racial group succeeds the old, and no new residential construction tales place. 

     Stage 6 can witness either a crash, a complete collapse of a neighborhood, or a renewal, a pattern of gentrification with new and more luxurious commercial and residential development. 

    The present paper is an application of the sociological concepts of succession and renewal to Coney Island, a world-famous neighborhood in New York City.  This neighborhood offers social scientists an excellent case study of the general principles and model involving change in urban areas.  Coney Island has an interesting history and in the past two centuries went through many economic and social changes.  The neighborhood suffered rapid ethnic and racial succession in the 1960s, passed through Stage 5 and thinned out considerably in the 1970s, crashed in the 1980s, and in the late 1990s saw the beginnings of a Stage 6 renewal.  Today, in the first decade of the 21st century, the face of Coney Island is undergoing a profound redevelopment.  While no one can predict how successful its efforts will be in the near or distant future, an examination of this one neighborhood's experiences affords us an opportunity to judge how well sociological theory conforms to urban reality. 

Coney Island from Trough to Peak

    Until about 1900, the term "Coney Island" referred to a five-mile stretch of beach on the Atlantic Ocean at the southern end of the borough of Brooklyn.  Discovered by Henry Hudson in 1609 and part of the land sold to the English in 1643 by the Dutch West India Company, the island was mainly inhabited by rabbits or "conies" and remained an isolated settlement for over two centuries.  Coney's development as a seaside resort began in the 1830s with the construction of a shell road across the creek that once separated it from the mainland, the opening of the first hotel, and steamboat service from lower Manhattan. Restaurants, barrooms, bathhouses, and sanitoria were built along the beach on the western part of the island. After the Civil War, with improvements in water and rail transportation and the erection of several large hotels on the eastern half, Coney began to lose its rustic character.  Steamboat and railroad lines carried middle- and upper-class weekend passengers from midtown Manhattan directly to the rear doors of the hotels, and developers devised more and more exciting attractions to draw and keep them at the water's edge (Kasson, 1978, pp. 31-33).

    By the 1880s, Coney Island was divided in two by Ocean Parkway, a wide thoroughfare, and developed into four distinct areas, later into residential neighborhoods, the characters of which remain to this day.  The eastern tip, named Manhattan Beach, with its fashionable hotels and spacious homes, was decidedly well-to-do.  Next to it was middle-class Brighton Beach, with less expensive hotels and homes.  On the other side of Ocean Parkway was working-class West Brighton Beach, the mass amusement section.  The West End—a hangout for thieves, con men, gamblers, prostitutes, and crooked politicians—gave Coney an unsavory reputation.  Around the turn of the century the lower-class western tip of the island became Sea Gate, a fenced-in residential community determined to separate itself from the crime, crowds, noise, mayhem, and day-trippers just outside its environs (Weinstein, 1992, pp. 135-144).

    By the early 1900s, a 12-block area within the two-mile expanse of West Brighton Beach contained four great amusement parks (Sea Lion Park, Steeplechase, Luna Park, and Dreamland) plus hundreds of other rides, games, and outdoor attractions.  The parks were based on different cultural ideas and business formulas, original styles of outdoor entertainment later copied by the Disney people and other amusement corporations and can be seen in today's theme-oriented "lands" and "worlds." Coney Island was now internationally famous and the name became synonymous with the burgeoning mass amusement industry.  The words "West Brighton" fell into disuse, were taken off street maps, and replaced in everyday speech and on official documents with "Coney Island."  The new Coney designation never again referred to the whole five miles of the island's sandy beach and four distinct areas (Weinstein, 1998a, 1998b).

     In the 1910s a permanent residential community was developing in the western half of the island adjacent to the parks and rides.  This period can be called Stage 1 in Hoover and Vernon's model.  The neighborhood had a rural quality to it, containing mainly small houses and summer bungalows spaced apart.  Italian immigrant families moved in first on avenues and side streets west of the Stillwell Avenue railroad terminal, just west of Luna Park and north of Steeplechase.  To the east of Luna Park and north of Dreamland, all the way to Ocean Parkway, stood an area of ramshackle housing called "The Gut" that served the dwelling needs of the largely black stable hands at the three nearby racetracks and the area's Jewish vendors and waiters (Weinstein, 1984, pp. 183-85).  Coney Island was pushed into Stage 2 in the 1920s with the extension of the New York subway and the citywide building boom.  Now mainly Jewish immigrant families moved in, settling in the newly-constructed three-story storefront buildings and large apartment houses on avenues and streets to the west of the Italians all the way to Sea Gate.  In the 1930s and 1940s residential Coney Island, now in Stage 3, had evolved into a stable working-class and lower middle-class Jewish and Italian neighborhood.  With its full occupancy, dual ethnic character, and moderate-income families, the year-round island community near the beach and boardwalk was similar to other parts of Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens.  The island's amusement section, Coney's main economic activity, also stabilized into New York City's premier summer resort. 

    Coney Island reached its peak around 1957.  A large new hospital opened on Ocean Parkway.  A high-rise apartment complex, the Luna Park Houses, was under construction on the vacant lot where the famous park once stood.  The amusement area was thriving.  A modern aquarium was unveiled on the former site of Dreamland.  Coney still had a larger concentration of outdoor rides and games than anywhere on earth.  Attendance at Disneyland in California, opened just two years earlier, was no match against the tens of millions of seasonal visitors who flocked to the island's remaining park, Steeplechase, the other attractions, and the sand and surf.  Writers of articles and books on Coney Island at the time were decidedly upbeat about its future.  Gillman (1955, pp. 288-289), a doctoral student in history who grew up in the area, wrote that Coney Island was no longer a haven for crime, vice, and public disorder but rather a place where the boardwalk has been widened, white sand added, concessions cleaned up, nightlife restored, and signs of "culture" like summer theatre at Brighton Beach have appeared.  And McCullough (1957, p 338), nephew of the founder of Steeplechase, predicted optimistically that: "The path on which the new Coney has been launched leads to a more decorous, a cleaner, a quieter, a more fashionable future, an upper-middle-class future.  Today, with its large permanent population, the resort is already considerably more staid than it has been for many years." 

The Invasion and Succession

    The 1960s brought dramatic changes to Coney Island, both to its residential and amusement sections.  The downgrading of the neighborhood, now in Stage 4, took everyone by surprise--local residents, seasonal visitors, city politicians.  The fall was sudden, swift, and steep, like the drops in Coney's four roller coasters. 

    By 1960, Coney Island's minority population had grown to 13 percent, up from a mere two percent a decade earlier.  The population change began slowly in the 1950s when young families moved to the suburbs and were not replaced by other whites.  The change accelerated in the early 1960s when the city awarded most of the land in The Gut, an area of substandard housing, to Fred Trump and other private developers for construction of middle-income cooperative apartments.  Gut residents, predominantly black and Hispanic welfare families, were relocated en masse to Coney Island's nearby bungalow colony, the area between the amusement section and Sea Gate.  In 1964, the first of twelve 24-story apartment buildings housing 6200 families from all over the city opened.  None of the 536 displaced minority families could afford to purchase a co-op in the new houses (Weinstein, 1984, pp. 291-96).  Residents in the new middle-class area between Ocean Parkway and Stillwell Avenue, including Trump Village, preferred to call their neighborhood West Brighton Beach.   Coney Island from Stillwell Avenue to Sea Gate soon was designated a poverty zone.

    The invasion was perhaps welcomed by the absentee bungalow landlords, who benefited from the year-round rentals guaranteed by the city, but not by the Jews and Italians next door who had lived there for decades.  The exodus of whites continued throughout the 1960s, the influx of blacks and Hispanics all but assured by the housing vacancies.  Coney Island's crime rate and arson incidents soared, business operators could not get or afford insurance, rides and games closed.  The final blow to the island's historic amusement industry came in the spring of 1965 when for the first time in 68 years Steeplechase, the last of the great amusement parks, failed to open.  The 1970 census underscored the continuing trend--35 percent of Coney's population was now minority, almost triple that of just ten years earlier.  The new decade witnessed a persistent slide, the thinning out characteristic of Hoover and Vernon's Stage 5.  Shops and businesses along Mermaid Avenue, the main thoroughfare, were boarded up, synagogue buildings taken over by Baptist or Pentecostal churches, scores of two- and three-family houses bulldozed, the amusement section contracted to a fraction of its former self.  The official 1980 data left no doubt as to the validity of McKenzie's theory about a neighborhood's inevitable path to succession.  Over 69 percent of Coney's year-round residents were minority.  And more than a third of the total population was below the poverty line. 

The Crash and Hopes for Renewal

    Both the crash and succession, the convergence of Hoover and Vernon's and McKenzie's urban theories, came to Coney Island in the 1980s.  Blacks and Hispanics, now a whopping 93.5 percent according to the 1990 census, had succeeded the whites.  The island's economy was in shambles, with 43.1 percent of the people in poverty, much of the old housing stock gone, the erection of overcrowded low-income projects, the virtual disappearance of small businesses, the neighborhood taken over by drug dealers and criminal gangs, vacant lots and rubble everywhere, a blighted amusement area, an inoperable and rusting Parachute Jump, a boardwalk badly in need of repair, a beach covered with litter and relatively few bathers.  Within a span of only 25 years, Coney's population, economy, and social life changed completely. 

    During the early 1980s, Coney Island entrepreneurs and local politicians took notice of the recent success of the gambling metamorphosis at Atlantic City, a seaside resort whose history and development paralleled that of its New York counterpart.  Talk of changing the law to permit gambling at Coney, and luring Las Vegas casino and hotel chains to set up branch facilities in the run down amusement section, buzzed around the island for years.  But talk it remained, with no plans drawn up or master strategy unveiled. 

    The mid-1980s, however, brought real hopes for a renewal.  Foremost among them was an ambitious plan to build on the vacant lot that was once Steeplechase and some adjoining property a $350 million state-of-the-art amusement park with the same name.  The technologically sophisticated park was to restore the Parachute, now a national landmark, the symbol of Coney Island for over half a century.  The park's planners, former Disney employees, mapped out 47 rides and attractions that conformed to and sentimentalized Coney's historic past.  Catchy titles such as the Luna Shuttle, Dreamland Puppet Theater, Pavilion of Fun, and Old Coney Parachutes were coined to evoke nostalgia for a time long gone but clearly not forgotten.  Unfortunately, the dream never materialized.  There were problems in raising the required capital, investors thought the risk too high, and few were willing to gamble on Coney's future.  May 1993, the expected opening date, came and went with no new park.  In 1994 New York's new mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, killed the deal and instead opted for a baseball stadium on the former Steeplechase site (Gallante, 1989; Glave, 1990; Weinstein, 1992, pp. 161-162; Wikipedia, 2007). 

    In the 1990s, hopes for a revived amusement section were coupled with plans for construction of townhouses along Mermaid Avenue and the numbered side streets, to replace the two- and three-family structures that were bulldozed a decade or two earlier under a questionable urban renewal policy.  The idea was to re-create a sense of community to a once thriving neighborhood that fell on hard times, to have the black and Hispanic succession groups feel the same way about Coney Island as did Jews and Italians before the invasion.  In 1998, Mayor Giuliani used the city and state's earmarked $67 million for his favored sports stadium. 

Renewal and Redevelopment

    The turnaround finally came at the beginning of the new century.  Today's Coney Island without a doubt is in a state of renewal and redevelopment.  In 2001, KeySpan Park opened on the former Steeplechase site as the home of the Cyclones, a minor league baseball team.  In May 2005, the Stillwell Avenue-Coney Island Subway Station, a major terminus for four lines, once one of the dirtiest and most decrepit stations in New York, was unveiled after a $280 million overhaul in an art deco style.  The new 76,000-square-foot roof that arches above the tracks, with its 2,600 solar panels, generates 60 percent of the station's electricity.  Platforms, ramps, and stairways in the rebuilt elevated terminal are all new.  Subway riders young and old are moved by the 370-foot-long translucent glass mural on the mezzanine level featuring nostalgic images of Coney Island (Shelby, 2005). 

    In September 2005, Thor Equities, a real estate development company, which for years had quietly bought up property between Surf Avenue and the boardwalk in the old amusement section and now owned 14 acres, went public with its new plans.  The proposed $2 billion project called for a large Bellagio-style beachfront hotel, a rooftop landing pad for blimps, a spa, an enclosed water park, gigantic rides, an indoor mall and amusement area, open-air cafés, arcades, bowling alleys, movie theaters, and 50-story luxury apartment buildings.  The boldest ride put forth was the Freakenspiel, a merry-go-round and water fountain with a pyrotechnic elephant on top, a look-alike for the famous 122-feet high wooden Elephant Hotel that stood in Coney Island in the 1880s and 1890s before it was destroyed by fire.  Groundbreaking was set to begin in 2007 with completion expected in 2011.  If Thor has its way, yesteryear's summer resort for New Yorkers would be transformed into tomorrow's year-round playground for all America (Sargent, 2005; deMause, 2007). 

    Thor's audacious redevelopment plan for the amusement section, proposals of the sort eagerly awaited by Coney Islanders for decades, has not escaped scrutiny or controversy.  The plan is at odds with recommendations from the Coney Island Development Corporation (CIDC), a group made up mostly of local business owners and city functionaries.  The key issue is Thor's insistence on the erection of luxury apartments with retail stores within the area zoned only for amusements, to reduce risk and provide stable sources of revenue, and CIDC's opposition to any zoning changes which allow housing in Coney's historic amusement core.  Thor's commitment to remake Coney Island with integrity to its former image, despite repeated assurances, has been questioned in light of its previous real estate dealings in Brooklyn and elsewhere.  Promises were broken and property purchased for redevelopment was subsequently sold for huge profits after rezoning was secured.  CIDC favors a strategic plan that would bifurcate redevelopment on the island.  West of Stillwell Avenue, on vacant blocks around KeySpan Park, mixed-income housing, retail stores, and a community center would be built.  East of Stillwell, Coney's current amusement zone, would remain unchanged to prevent neighbors from complaining about the loud noises blaring into their apartment windows all night and most of the day (deMause, 2007).

    A standoff between the advocates of housing and the proponents or protectors of amusements is not new to Coney Island.  It dates back to the early 1900s, when permanent residences were first built just west of the amusement area, cutting off future expansion of mechanical rides, outdoor games, and gated parks.  Residents of Brightwater Towers, middle-income high-rise apartment buildings on Surf Avenue near West 8th built in the 1970s, directly across the street from amusements with loudspeakers, took their complaint of "unnecessary noise" to court and lost.  The judge ruled that Coney's historic role in crowd entertainment takes precedence over later residents' aural sensibilities.  Previous battles, however, are but skirmishes compared to today's war with Thor over what should be put up and where.  Given the huge amounts of money at stake, the great scale of the projects proposed, the availability of much vacant land, and the imperative to rezone or not to rezone, a truce or victory may set Coney's future in stone for the next century.  A stalemate might ensure decades of public conflict and undeveloped properties all over the island.

    Thor's tactics to secure rezoning have been described, not unjustifiably, as "hardball."  In late 2006 they bulldozed amusements on the property they owned even though construction on their projects would not begin for several years.  Rather than lease the property for amusements until then, Thor publicly threatened to leave it idle for ten years or longer, until a new mayor was sworn in who was more amenable to their ideas for the island's renewal.  Thor went so far as to evict businesses they owned along the boardwalk.  City officials, cognizant of what they already invested in the new baseball stadium and renovated subway terminal, are understandably apprehensive about a possible "ghost town" environment in the heart of Coney Island.  The current Thor rancor is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that at a recent debate by a panel of experts over the transformation of Coney Island the big-time developer wasn't even invited (Wikipedia, 2007; Shott, 2007).

    In August 2007, New York's mayor officially rejected Thor Equities' rezoning proposal.  The Bloomberg administration will not permit the construction of housing of any type in Coney Island's historic amusement zone.  Instead, the city offered the real estate company several blocks of vacant land near KeySpan Park for the construction of its planned high-rise luxury apartment buildings.  However, it remains to be seen whether the highfalutin developer will play one of the island's famous games of chance and build million-dollar condominiums in working-class and welfare-heavy western Coney. 

Sociological Theory and Neighborhood Change

    The application of sociological theories of neighborhood change to Coney Island in this paper demonstrates the importance and usefulness of the concepts of succession and renewal. 

    In the late 1950s, when Coney Island reached a peak according to Hoover and Vernon's theory of the neighborhood life cycle, the residential community by the sea, other than being located near the greatest collection of amusements in the world, was no different than many other neighborhoods in New York City.  White residents, largely Jews and Italians, were moving out to the suburbs while blacks from the South and Hispanics from Puerto Rico were moving in to the five boroughs.  In Coney and elsewhere, the invasion was noticeable but still only a small percentage of the city neighborhood.  But, invasion does not necessarily lead to succession.  Some neighborhoods stabilized around 20-25 percent minority and remain racially mixed in proportions relative to the city as a whole to this day.  Coney Island, on the other hand, was another story.  In the 1960s and 1970s, in the cyclical stages of downgrading and thinning out, it succumbed to racial and ethnic succession exactly as McKenzie in the 1920s theorized a neighborhood would. 

    McKenzie (1924, p. 298) stated that one of the more important conditions which initiate invasions is "sudden demands" for special real estate sites.  This certainly was true for Coney Island when, in the early 1960s, the city hastily relocated 536 minority low-income families to the area just west of the amusements, to bungalow housing vacant most of the year.  Ironically, the relocation that paved the way for the upscale redevelopment of one neighborhood contributed directly to the severe downgrading and eventual crash of a nearby neighborhood.  McKenzie also noted that "resistance to invasion" depends on the "type of invader" and the "solidarity of the present occupants."  According to the theory, the undesirable invader makes entry at the points of high mobility and low resistance.  As McKenzie (1924, pp. 298-299) had predicted in general four decades earlier, the black and Puerto Rican newcomers to western Coney took up residence mainly on blocks west of 19th Street, where Jews were vacating in droves and Jewish landlords were not opposed to renting to minorities.  The Italians in their colony from Stillwell to 19th, fiercely loyal to their paisani and ethnic community life, resisted the lure of the city's quick cash and steadfastly refused to rent to those with different cultures and colors. 

    McKenzie (1924, p. 299) was correct in his argument that the commencement of an invasion leads to changes in land value and, if values decline, this becomes the basis for a neighborhood's social disorganization.  Long-time Coney residents who remained behind in the 1970s, unable or unwilling to move to a better neighborhood, needed no urban sociologist to quote Chicago School ecological theories to them.  They witnessed firsthand the retrogradation of their once prized communal resort into a hellhole of crime, drugs, prostitution, poverty, abandoned buildings, boarded-up businesses, silenced amusements, and littered beaches.  McKenzie (1924, pp. 299-300) claimed the "climax stage" of the invasion process is reached when there is wide variation in the type and value of buildings constructed.  In the 1980s and 1990s, a good deal of new construction occurred on vacant lots in the western part of the island, but the hodgepodge of high-rise low-income projects next door to strips of attached one-family townhouses did little to please the eye or facilitate community life. 

    The two types of invasion that McKenzie (1924, pp. 297-298) talked about, changes in use of land and changes in residential occupants, clearly came together in Coney Island.  The influx of minorities, succession of non-whites over whites, lowering of median family income, and rise in crime and vice caused the amusement section to decline precipitously as well.  Land that was once used for amusements was being used in the late 20th century for the construction of new housing or allowed to lie idle during the traditional Memorial Day-to-Labor Day season.  The idea of changes in land use, however, is not a one-way street going downhill.  In the first decade of the 21st century, a great reversal of land value is taking place at Coney.  The scale of new construction along Surf Avenue in the amusement zone and Mermaid Avenue in the residential area will be moving uphill in the near future.

    McKenzie's ecological theory concerning changes in land use connects nicely with Hoover and Vernon's notion of renewal in Stage 6 of a neighborhood's cycle.  The land in a slum community---vacant lots, dilapidated buildings, substandard housing, closed businesses---simply becomes too valuable to justify its continued use as a slum (Choldin, 1985, pp. 335).  Moreover, the inhabitants usually are too weak politically to hold on to the land or to prevent outside real estate developers from making deals with politicians for use of the land that may be at odds with the interests of local residents.  Coney Island in the late 20th century illustrates this point well.  The neighborhood had a well-known history, a prime location because of its oceanfront and sandy beaches, much vacant land available for redevelopment, poor people living there with little political power and few community-organizing skills, considerable substandard housing that can easily be taken via eminent domain and bulldozed, and accessibility to public transportation that fans out over the whole city.  The rabbit isle Henry Hudson anchored his ship on is a developer's dream, a place no real estate mogul with a fistful of dollars could pass by.  One can only wonder why The Donald, Fred Trump's prodigal son, who raised up several hotels and casinos along the boardwalk in Atlantic City, has not sought an erection behind Coney Island's boardwalk. 

    One version of Hoover and Vernon's Stage 6 renewal is gentrification, the process of private capital reinvestment in and redevelopment of old and decaying city neighborhoods.  Typically, young urban professionals who prefer to live near their work forego the suburban lifestyle of their parents.  They buy and renovate small homes, row houses, or brownstones near the central business district of a city.  Inevitably, as neighborhoods begin to turn around and landlords raise rents, the "yuppies" displace the poor who have lived there for decades (Choldin, 1985, pp. 343-347).  In the case of Coney Island, the yuppie pattern of gentrification seems to have played a minor or no role at all.  Unlike other parts of Brooklyn, Coney Island did not have the 19th century brownstones or historic single-family homes young white professionals were anxious to snap up cheaply and fix up dearly.  Thor Equities and CIDC advanced different plans to gentrify a neighborhood that fell on hard times.  They expect to bring in higher classes of people by redeveloping the whole of Coney, by tearing down existing substandard structures and replacing them with high-rises for the wealthy and one- or two-stories for the middle-class.  Perhaps the 2010 and 2020 censuses will reflect a more balanced ratio between the island's white and minority populations.  Young and old Jews and Italians with moderate and high incomes may very well wish to return to a renewed Coney with flashy old-style amusements and cleaner beaches redolent of what they, their parents, or their grandparents experienced barely a generation or two ago.

The Old Verses the New Urban Sociology

    The ecological approach to cities and urbanization, associated with Robert Park and Ernest Burgess and their students at the University of Chicago during the interwar years, has been termed the "old urban sociology."  Emphasis was placed on the Concentric Zone Model to explain patterns of growth and development.  Concepts such as invasion, succession, natural areas, urbanism, competition, transition zone, and decentralization were used to show how people and groups adapted to and changed their physical environment. 

    After World War II, however, the ideas and methods of the Chicago School were roundly criticized for being too deterministic.  New frameworks about the composition of urban groups and emerging patterns of suburbanization began to take hold (Hutter, 2007, pp. 63-87).  In the 1960s and 1970s, the urban riots, polarization of the races, failed government intervention programs, suburban migration of whites, inner-city minority populations, etc., all took a bite out of the old ecological assumptions about "natural forces" being the cause of urban patterns. 

    By the 1980s, a "new urban sociology" emerged, a political economy perspective on cities.  Here emphasis was placed on the spatial use of land based on social conflict according to a Marxian model of society.  Capitalist economic forces merge with political decision-making processes to determine which and how different parcels of land are used and developed.  The city is viewed as a "growth machine."  Real estate developers, bank officials, local politicians, corporate executives, government agencies, and chambers of commerce all share a common interest: a pro-growth mentality and a pro-business agenda.  Urban politics and the profit motive, decisions by people and for people, not unseen ecological forces, dominate a neighborhood's landscape (Hutter, 2007, pp. 120-147). 

    The case study of Coney Island, a neighborhood in transition for over forty years, underscores the utility of both the old and the new urban sociology as frames of reference for the analysis of a neighborhood's changing use of land and residential occupants.  McKenzie's theory of invasion and succession not only fitted to a "T" the reality of Coney's racial and ethnic change five decades later, but eight decades later it is the only remaining concept from the much-criticized Chicago School that is still widely accepted by sociologists.  Hoover and Vernon's neighborhood life cycle, with a focus on natural forces affecting growth and development, is an ecological theory consistent with the old school as well.  The conditions laid out in the 1950s for Stages 4-6 likewise a priori elucidated what Coney would actually experience in the coming decades, a nasty slide from full occupancy to a flat out crash and then a bounce off the bottom for a renewal all but certain. 

    Similarly, the political economy approach currently popular among sociologists could not describe better what is going on today in Coney Island.  Billion dollar construction proposals thrown on the table, New York's mayor and local politicians jockeying for pet projects to be built on their watch, bank loan officers ringing up anticipated interest payments, architects and accountants and attorneys marking down future commissions, outside developers and community groups squabbling over zoning variances, etc., are all part of the machine driving Coney's Stage 6 rebound.  Politics and economics will determine if the invasion of new capital results in the succession of new industries on the island.  Economics and societal processes will decide if the 21st century witnesses a second invasion of white ethnic families into Coney, a modest change that could lead to their dominance in civic institutions and eventual succession over the current non-white population. 


    It can safely be concluded that Coney Island a decade from now will be a very different place than it is today.  No sociological theory, however, can predict which course it will take or what developments will occur.  An atmosphere of change is now part of the salt air at Coney. 

    Ocean waves are about to deposit shiploads of money on the sandy beach along with sea shells and plankton.  Local residents and business owners are in for a roller coaster ride on the tracks of redevelopment.  Thor executives and old Coney aficionados are racing round-and-round in bumping cars.  Big investors may stay on the construction carousel to try to catch the gold ring or flip properties and parachute off the island with bags of profits.  Coney Island's pathway to a better life may be through a Tunnel of Love or a House of Horrors. 

    Perhaps it is only the Gypsy fortuneteller on the boardwalk, turning over tarot cards or gazing into her crystal ball, who knows for sure what lies ahead for the centuries-old amusement isle. 

*The author wishes to thank John B. Manbeck, formerly Director, Kingsborough Historical Society, and Brooklyn Historian for helpful comments on this paper. 


Birch, David L. 1971. "Toward a Stage Theory of Urban Growth." Journal of American Institute of Planners 37:78-87. 

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