Learn about Coney Island’s honky-tonk past and its present-day struggles to balance historic preservation and development on a walking tour organized by the Municipal Arts Society. Local historian and preservationist Joe Svehlak will lead the tour, which will happen this Saturday at 10:30 am. It will touch on the new Thunderbolt coaster, older amusement rides, and the memorials at MCU Park commemorating Jackie Robinson and 9/11. Tickets cost $20 or $15 for MAS members, and can be purchased here.
In 1944, Mary E. Dillon was appointed the head of the New York City Board of Education. She was still the President of the Brooklyn Borough Gas Company, Coney Island’s independent gas company since the late 1800s. Miss Dillon had been an employee of the company since 1903, and had risen through the ranks to become the first female president of the utility in 1926. She was the first female president of any utility in the world. She was well equipped for the job, and ran BBG for a total of 23 years. When tapped for the position at the Board of Ed, she was already a long-time member of her local School Board 39.
She still remained president of BBG when she took the position at 110 Livingston Street. Used to being a first, she was the first woman to head the NYC Board of Education, too. Not bad for a woman who had to leave Erasmus Hall High School in her senior year to go to work to support her family. She never graduated from high school, which never stopped her from achieving great heights.
Brooklyn Borough Gas was one of the last hold outs in the great consolidation of utilities. Brooklyn Union Gas, the borough’s giant, had long ago absorbed almost all of the other gas utility companies in Brooklyn and was still looking to grow. Mary and BBG withstood several offers from BBG and other utility giants to consolidate. There are advantages to being smaller, but there are also restrictions. BBG needed several rate hikes over the course of the mid-20th century, and none of them were well-received, especially during the Depression and the early years of World War II.
Under Mary Dillon’s leadership, they had a new headquarters built at 809 Neptune Avenue, at the corner of Shell Road, which was opened in 1930. It was a beautiful state of the art campus, stretched along a large plot of land, and included company offices, a showroom and demonstration laboratory, repair rooms, garages and utility buildings, and the huge gas tanks that stood behind it all. It was the most beautiful utility complex in New York City, and it belonged to little Brooklyn Borough Gas. (more…)
In March of 1926, Mary Estelle Dillon became the new President of the Brooklyn Borough Gas Company. She was the first woman in the world to head a utility company. From her office in Coney Island, she was running a five million dollar company with five hundred employees and a customer base of 170,000 residents of Coney Island, Gravesend, Sheepshead Bay and surrounding neighborhoods. Although the gas company had started back in the days of gas lights and coal stoves, Brooklyn Borough Gas had grown into a modern 20th century utility company, supplying gas to its customers for appliances and home heating.
Miss Dillon knew the gas business from top to bottom, and had really been running the day to day operations of the utility for years. She knew that gas may seem to be a man’s business, but it was used by women. Gas powered stoves and other appliances were the moneymakers for the company. Why not bring women into the gas company itself, by designing a headquarters and showroom where women could come in, examine and buy the latest gas-powered appliances, and learn new recipes and techniques in how to use them? She didn’t have to pitch this to anyone higher except the board of directors. They thought it was a great idea, and plans for a brand new headquarters for Brooklyn Borough Gas were put into motion in 1929, and the facility was completed in 1931.
The new facility was built near the old, on Neptune Avenue at Shell Road. The architects and engineers of the project were the Manhattan firm of Block & Hesse. They were quite busy in the 1920s and ‘30s, designing all kinds of commercial, residential and institutional projects throughout the city. The new facility had a business office where customers could pay bills, or speak to representatives. It had a laboratory for testing appliances, and a very spacious showroom where the newest appliances could be viewed and purchased. The “laboratory” was a huge test kitchen, where classes and demonstrations were given for not only stoves, but washers, dryers, fireplaces, heating stoves and other gas-fueled appliances. The company’s executive and business offices were here too. (more…)
The Brooklyn Borough Gas Company out on Coney Island was the little utility that could. After the Civil War, local gas companies sprang up all across Brooklyn to service a growing population with gas for lighting, heat and other uses. As time passed, the stronger companies absorbed the weaker ones. By the end of the century, most of the remaining gas companies decided to join together to form Brooklyn Union Gas. But not Brooklyn Borough Gas. They were not owned locally, their majority stockholders were a group of men from Philadelphia, and were able to resist Brooklyn Union Gas’ influence.
The company carved out its niche on Coney Island, servicing the communities of Gravesend, Coney Island and Sheepshead Bay. They were content with that, and settled down to strengthen what they had. By 1903, they had a young lady working in the office as a junior clerk. She was the only woman working in any capacity at Brooklyn Borough Gas at that time. Her name was Mary E. Dillon, and she was 17 years old. She had taken her sister’s place in the company when her older sister quit to get married, and Mary didn’t know anything about gas. Her sister had been BBG’s first female employee. For more background, please read Chapter One of this story.
Mary Dillon had determination and she was smart. She spent the next few years taking on any task in the company they offered her, and through that, became both office manager and an expert in all areas of the ever evolving gas business. By 1912, she was assistant to the general manager. She remained in that position until he decided to leave the company in 1919. By then, it was obvious that 33 year old Mary Dillon was the right person to succeed him as general manager.
During the late ‘teens, Brooklyn Borough Gas was trying to expand within its territory. Electricity had made gas light obsolete, but had opened up new technologies for gas production and use. Of course, like any utility, in order for them to change and grow to serve more customers, they wanted a rate increase, and that was not going down well with customers or local officials. (more…)
Utility companies are one of the great constants in our lives. Very few of us live in a world where we don’t have to pay Con Edison, National Grid, or another supplier for electricity and gas. Today, natural gas is used primarily for appliances and heating, but throughout much of the 19th century, gas was THE utility, supplying light, heat and power.
As its use spread throughout the city of Brooklyn, gas companies were established to supply this increasingly necessary utility. Almost every neighborhood had its own gas company, with some neighborhoods served by competing carriers. Each had their own local gas plants, and their own lines which ran below the street and up into individual homes and businesses.
The competition, as you can imagine, was fierce. Everyone wanted to control their neighborhood completely and solely, and most of these companies were looking to expand into other neighborhoods and take them over as well. The more ambitious companies did just that, and by the end of the 19th century, Brooklyn had gone from many gas companies down to only a handful. In 1895, seven of them consolidated to form Brooklyn Union Gas. They reigned in Brooklyn as the largest gas utility until 1998, when Brooklyn Union Gas merged with the Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO) and became the Key Span Company.
Brooklyn Union Gas took over almost all of Brooklyn’s gas utility business. Almost, but not all. There was one holdout – a company that serviced far off Coney Island. This company was not power hungry, and didn’t want to take over other territory; it just wanted to be left alone to service Coney Island, the nearby beach communities and Gravesend. It was called the Brooklyn Borough Gas Company, and it had its headquarters and gas plant on Neptune Avenue in Coney Island. (more…)
Filmmaker Amy Nicholson chronicles the struggle to preserve Coney Island’s carnival roots in the face of redevelopment in a documentary on one of its last old-school rides, the Zipper. ”Zipper: Coney Island’s Last Wild Ride,” which debuts on television tonight on PBS after a theatrical run last year, focuses on the ride’s operator, Eddie Miranda, and how the city’s redevelopment plan affects his livelihood.
In interviews with developers, city officials and local activists, Nicholson wonders whether the new mayor will uphold the Bloomberg administration’s promise to build affordable housing in Coney. The film airs at 10 pm tonight on WNET 13.
Two former Brooklyn Nets are partnering with PricewaterhouseCoopers to give away trees at P.S. 188 in Coney Island tomorrow. The giveaway is part of a Nets program called Trees for Threes, which will give away a tree for every three-pointer the team scores this season.
Former Nets players Kerry Kittles and Albert King will be on hand to give away the trees to local residents, along with volunteers from PwC, the Nets mascot, members of the Brooklynettes and students from P.S. 188 Michael E. Berdy School. The trees will be planted in community gardens, at schools and in yards. The event will happen Tuesday from 4 to 6 pm in the schoolyard at 3314 Neptune Avenue.
Did you know the 1920s Coney Island headquarters of the old Brooklyn Union Gas Company was demolished this past fall to make way for a storage facility? Find out what’s new, what’s old and what’s gone in Coney Island at a weekend history tour by Coney Island History Project.
Local historian Charles Denson, director of CIHP, or poet and artist Amanda Deutch give tours every weekend afternoon. The tours begin under the Wonder Wheel at the CIHP exhibition center, just off the boardwalk. Tickets for the tours must be bought a day in advance on Eventbrite and cost $20.
Coney Island’s Luna Park held a ground breaking ceremony today, above, for a big new roller coaster called the Thunderbolt. The coaster, which is scheduled to open May 22, will be the first at the beachside amusement park since 1910 to include a loop, The Wall Street Journal reported. The ride will go as fast as 56 miles an hour with a 115-foot vertical drop, followed by a 100-foot vertical loop and five inversions.
The original Thunderbolt operated from 1925 to 1982, was sold to a fried chicken mogul and burned down, said the Journal. The ride was later made famous by Woody Allen’s 1977 film “Annie Hall,” and it was torn down in 2000 to make way for the Brooklyn Cyclones stadium.
Coney Island gardeners outraged over the razing of their garden to make way for the redevelopment of the landmarked Childs restaurant filed a lawsuit against the city today, according to a press release they sent us. The 16-year-old community garden on West 22nd Street was legally a park and Parks Department property, according to the statement.
The Boardwalk Community Garden, Coney Island and the New York City Community Garden Coalition filed an Article 78 petition challenging the environmental review and approval of the outdoor amphitheater project, which was championed by former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. They plan a press conference on the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall at noon today to announce the lawsuit.
The New York Aquarium broke ground on its 57,000-square-foot shark hall today in Coney Island, the Daily News reports. “Ocean Wonders: Sharks!” will be wrapped in a sparkling wall made of small aluminum squares meant to resemble a wave. The $127,000,000 exhibit will feature more than 115 species of marine wildlife, including sharks, skates, rays and turtles. Forty-five sharks will live in the exhibit’s three 500,000-gallon main tanks. The three-story building will have a coral reef tunnel that gives visitors a 360-degree view of ocean life, in addition to a roof deck, classroom space and cafe. The aquarium also posted a fun 3-D model and virtual tour of the planned building, which is scheduled to open in 2016.
The aquarium planned to break ground on the new shark hall last year, but damage from Hurricane Sandy forced it to delay the project. Only half of the aquarium’s 14-acre complex has been usable since it reopened last May.
Time for a little holiday getaway. This four-bedroom, four-bath vacation home located in the Sea Gate area of Coney Island has some unusual and whimsical touches. It also happens to be owned by Emmanuel Garofalo, who The New York Daily News called a “known Gambino crime family mobster.”
There are a few chandeliers strewn about, but overall the feeling is cheerful, casual and bright, as one might expect of a seaside lair. There is an iridescent blue and black bath whose coloring recalls fish scales or mermaids. The tile in the master bath appears to be printed with faces from famous Italian art.
There is a parquet floor in the media room, and the entry hall has a leaded glass door and transoms and what appears to be a slate floor. The cabinetry’s pneumatic legs make the black and silver kitchen look as if it’s about to achieve liftoff.