More than Meets the Eye
Coney Island and the famous Steeplechase Pier
By Christopher Ditto
March 5, 2002
Coney Island may be a wintertime ghost town but local fisherman and scuba divers are quick to point out that there is more going on under the Coney Island pier than just about anywhere else around.
While the Cyclone roller coaster sits idle, the hot dog stands remain shut and the parking lots empty, the one sure place to find people in this cold weather is on, or perhaps under, the Steeplechase Pier.
"There's everything from 40 pound stripers to turn of the century bottles under there," said Bob Freedman, who works at the Sheepshead Bay dive shop No Limits. Without hesitation, Freedman is able to rattle off a lengthy list of items recovered from around the pier's pilings. "A machete, a porthole, fishing rods, radios, cell phones, several firearms, one kid even brought in a whole load of WWII fifty-caliber shell casings."
The firearms, Freedman assured, were not in operable condition.
But unless you are lucky enough to snag something valuable with a fishing hook or crab net, Freedman explained, diving is going to require a neoprene dive hood and a thick wetsuit. Water temperatures near the Coney Island shore hover around forty degrees.
Stretching 700 feet from the Coney Island Boardwalk into the Atlantic Ocean, the Steeplechase Pier welcomes visitors with a single sign stating simply, "Pier Closes at Dusk." The pier can be found behind the newly constructed KeySpan Park, home to Minor League Baseball's Brooklyn Cylcones.
According to Freedman, the pier is a popular scuba diving site for the types of locals he describes as adventure seekers. "The fisherman with their lines make diving around the pilings dangerous," said Freedman, "but that's all just part of the game." For most scuba divers, the game ends when lifeguards begin patrolling the beach and enforcing the pier's no swimming rule.
Longtime Coney Island diver Bob Lyons does not believe diving around the pier is as good as it was just a few years ago. According to Lyons, it has been very difficult to find artifacts around the Steeplechase Pier since dredging covered the undersea area with a thick layer of sand. "You used to be able to find all sorts of old things from the old pier, bottles, old coins," said Lyons. "Now you're more likely to find beer cans and maybe a cash register."
Above the water, Steeplechase pier frequenters are just as concerned as the divers with what is happening beneath the water's surface.
Gregor Paransky, an 82-year-old Coney Island resident, drove his electric wheelchair onto the pier last Monday in windy 37-degree weather to fish with nine fellow Russian-speaking friends.
"We catch herring, only herring," said Paransky, "but fish come only when sun go down below water." Paransky, who calls his wheelchair his "Mercedes," says that he salts the fish that he catches after he gets home and eats them later.
The pier's dusk closure rule, according to the fishermen, is not enforced in winter. The Community Affairs office of the 60th Precinct Police Station, which patrols the Steeplechase Pier, says that crime on the pier is not a problem in winter. Each April, between 60 and 100 additional officers are assigned to Coney Island because of the increased tourist traffic.
Last Monday afternoon, the nine fishermen and a few occasional joggers were the only visitors to the pier. The fishermen usually fish side-by-side but occasionally one will venture to the other side of the pier.
When a lone fisherman caught a five-inch fish, the other eight fishermen quickly reeled in their fishing lines and hurried to the other side of the pier to join him. "We go where fish are," said one smiling fisherman who wore two nylon jackets and a tightly synched hood. "My friend come yesterday and no fish. Today there is fish."
Though the Russian-speaking fishermen on the pier swear that only herring can be caught, Freedman claims that both divers and fishermen who use fine monofilament nets occasionally catch lobsters and blue-claw crabs. "Late in August," said Freedman, "you also get your fluke, flounder, and big bass."
Michael Wright, of the Prospect Park Anglers Recreational Fishing Club, calls the Steeplechase Pier a "damn great fishing spot" and recommends Tiny Sport & Tackle, at 1724 Mermaid Ave., as a local fisherman's resource.
Fishing has been a popular community pastime along the Steeplechase Pier since it was first constructed in 1897 as part of the famous Steeplechase Park amusement park. The park was named after its star attraction, a curving 1100-foot long metal track that supported eager patrons riding wooden horses. At its peak in the early 1900's, the 15-acre park attracted a large percentage of Coney Island's 90,000 daily visitors.
The park closed its doors permanently on September 20, 1964 after Coney Island experienced its worst tourist season is 25 years, a fact blamed on rising crime and competition with the World's Fair hosted in Flushing Meadow, Queens.
Today, the pier's only decorations are "No Diving" and "No Swimming" messages crudely stenciled every six to ten feet along the handrails. The warnings were added by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation in response to a court case that resulted in the highest affirmed personal injury award in New York State history.
In September 2000, New York Appellate Court upheld a combined $38 million award for Virgil and John Brown, two Staten Island brothers who on Memorial Day, 1992, dived from the pier into five feet of water and became paralyzed from the neck down.
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