As Brighton Boardwalk Goes Plastic, a Dockbuilder Remembers It in the 80s

03/13/2012 2:22 PM |

When the boardwalk was made of boards
  • “When the boardwalk was made of boards”

Despite community opposition, a design commission approved yesterday the city’s plan to turn a five-block section of the Boardwalk into a combination of concrete and plastic, the Times reports. At a lively hearing, residents testified to the romantic and ineffable qualities of real wood, as well as some of its practical benefits. But, from Brighton 15th Street to Coney Island Avenue, the city now has the go-ahead (after a lengthy battle) to replace the boards with recycled plastic lumber, with a 12-foot strip of concrete running down the middle for emergency vehicles (because plastic lumber is too slippery when wet for motorized vehicles). The decision could pave the way for the city to replace more of the boardwalk over time. The city has tried to frame the debate as an environmental one, about saving tropical hardwoods, but opponents have pointed out there is plenty of domestic lumber available. This is really a matter of cost-cutting: many sections of the boardwalk are in dire need of repair, and it’s significantly cheaper to use concrete and plastic instead of actual wood.

My uncle Gary worked on the boardwalk several decades ago. I got in touch to ask about what that was like, and what he thinks of the proposed changes.

When did you work on the boardwalk?
I worked on a half mile stretch of the Coney boardwalk, from the fishing pier to the Aquarium, in the summer of 1980. I was in the Dockbuilder’s Union like my father before me. My partner and I were hired to pry up the worn-out boards and whatever support beams that needed replacing. The thing about the support beams is you have to coat them with creosote, which burns your skin, especially in the sun. We worked there for five months, and replaced the old boards with South American hardwood we called “Greenheart.” You had to drill through it because nails would split it otherwise. It was hard work but I got in good shape doing it.

How was Coney Island different back then?
Coney in that section was run down, with hookers cruising the adjacent streets.

What were the other guys on the job like?
The guys we worked with were a mix of old Norwegians, Finns, and a Native American with a long scar across his face from a chainsaw accident.

How do you feel about the city’s proposal to replace parts of the boardwalk with concrete and plastic “lumber”?
I think plastic decking won’t hold up in the harsh winters and blistering summers. I was proud of the work we did there, and miss the old Boardwalk of my childhood. At least we still have Nathan’s and the carousel.

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart