‘Little Coney Island’ On West 110th Street, Harlem, New York 1890’s (Updated)

For a short period, perhaps less than five years, West 110th Street became an entertainment district known as “Little Coney Island,” 1890’s in Harlem, NY.The story of its development and demise is a New York story with real estate, politics, the Police Department, vice and corruption, changing social values, and class conflict.

The Upper West Side rapidly developed in the last two decades of the 19th century and the first two of the 20th century. Very quickly, sparsely-placed wood-frame houses were replaced by brownstones and tenements, and, over time, larger and larger apartment buildings. Development initially followed the new El train, spreading out from the station stops as land was sold and developed.

Up on 110th Street, real estate development proceeded a bit more slowly. Morningside Park was designed, but took a long time to build out, even after Andrew Haswell Green’s money-saving idea to retain the rocky wall between Morningside Heights and the Harlem Plain. On one end of 110 Street, near Central Park, the elevated train’s “” provided a thrill to riders as the train moved from Ninth to Eighth Avenues. There was no stop there until 1903; when it did open, the speed of the trains was decreased on the curve, lessening the thrill of the ride.

On the western end of 110th Street, at the Boulevard (now Broadway) the Lion Palace—owned by the Lion Brewery—developed into a popular entertainment “resort,” as these places were called.

On the western end of 110th Street, at the Boulevard (now Broadway) the Lion Palace—owned by the Lion Brewery—developed into a popular entertainment “resort,” as these places were called. While it’s unclear as to exactly when the Lion opened, by the end of the century the Palace had a summer roof garden and performers were regularly covered in newspaper entertainment listings. It became a popular spot for the nearby Columbia men. Perhaps because of the Lion’s popularity, other such “resorts” began to develop along West 110th Street, creating the entertainment district. Eventually, the vaudeville house on the SE corner became a movie theater (the Nemo), and finally a supermarket in 1964. The structure was torn down in the early 2000s replaced by an apartment building with stores on the ground floor.

Courtlandt P. Dixon bought land and put up wood-frame houses for German and Irish immigrants; some called the area “Dixonville.”

The Dixon family had significant property on West 110th Street, particularly on the block between the Boulevard and Amsterdam. Courtlandt P. Dixon bought land and put up wood-frame houses for German and Irish immigrants; some called the area “Dixonville.”  His son, William P. Dixon, a Yale-educated attorney and socially-connected New Yorker, inherited the various holdings on the west side. The wood-frame structures came to house the saloons and dance halls that became so bothersome to the real estate community. When the sale of some of the Dixon lots took place in 1905, the Real Estate Guide noted that the property had been in the hands of the Dixon family for nearly fifty years.

Here’s an image of the block from the Real Estate Record and Guide published just before the structures were removed and replaced by the apartment buildings there today.

No images from the years when the saloons and dance halls were in operation could be located.

Another group of wood-frame structures may also have served the burgeoning entertainment district. The west side had become a popular bicycling area in the 1890s. Cyclists rode up the Boulevard and the other avenues to the Claremont Inn at 124th Street and Riverside. Other places for refreshment developed along Broadway. Peter Salwen included a photo of “William Schaaf’s Bicycle Inn” at the Boulevard and 112th Street in his book, Upper West Side Story.  This same photo, part of the recently digitized Bracklow collection, is labeled there as 120th Street and Broadway. Wherever it was, it is an example of the small shed-like buildings that could have been turned into places of entertainment.

As real estate development proceeded on the UWS, property owners formed associations to bring some degree of power to bear upon the city government.  The West Side Association formed early, in 1866, and eventually met with some success in getting the streets cut and utilities developed. The Morningside Park Association pushed to get Morningside Park built. Finally it was finished in the 1890s during the economic recession when public work was needed.  The Association also played a role in getting the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum out of the neighborhood.

In 1899 the Riverside and Morningside Park Association formed to help “the material and social advancement of that portion of the city that lies between 96th and 123rd Streets, and the Hudson, and Central and Morningside Parks”. Professor Burdick of Columbia Law School became the President, and other notable West Side businessmen and churchmen were on the Board.

Morningside Heights was dubbed the “Acropolis” of Manhattan.

Morningside Heights was dubbed the “Acropolis” of Manhattan. Planning for the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine was started in 1887, and construction commenced in 1892. St. Luke’s Hospital planned their move to the area in 1892. Columbia College announced it would take over the Bloomingdale Asylum site, completing an initial campus plan in 1894 and commencing classes in 1897. Teachers College acquired their site in 1892, and Barnard College in 1895. Women’s Hospital at Amsterdam Avenue and 109thStreet was developed 1902-1906. The National Academy of Design bought lots on Amsterdam and 109th Street in the late 1890s.

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Shortly after the Cathedral began construction in 1892, West 110th Street from Eighth Avenue to Riverside was renamed Cathedral Parkway in an effort to construct wide roadways leading to the Cathedral. Many continued to call the street “110th Street” much as we still call Avenue of the Americas “Sixth Avenue” today. Both designations were used when the subway under Broadway opened its stop in 1904.

The entertainment district on West 110th Street was in sharp contrast to these lofty institutions. First, the words “Coney Island” were fraught with meaning. That famous Brooklyn beach resort had segmented areas from “low class” to “high class”, with West Brighton becoming known as “Sodom on the Sea” and tolerating all sorts of unconventional behavior. Many entrepreneurs opened “pleasure gardens” —beer halls and concert saloons—where immigrants could enjoy themselves without “bluenose interference.” It was this aspect of Coney Island that people saw on West 110th Street, where a group of entertainment providers flourished.

By the 1890s, New York City’s Protestant reformers were disturbed by the “wickedness” of New York’s entertainment areas, from the Bowery to the Tenderloin. Theaters, gambling dens, and brothels had become a part of New York City’s legend. In a famous sermon at his Madison Square Presbyterian Church, the Reverend Charles Parkhurst described the “disgusting depths of this Tammany-debauched town—rotten with a rottenness that is unspeakable and indescribable.”

Reformers got a new mayor in office, and the state began an investigation that confirmed the role of the police in taking payoffs and allowing illegal activity.  In 1894 the Lexow Committee of the New York State Legislature, operating out of the Tweed Courthouse, exposed the police corruption in fine detail. A police captain named Max F. Schmittberger, in order to avoid prosecution for his own misdeeds in exchange for immunity, described the process of taking bribes, and implicated several higherups. We will meet the captain again on West 110th Street.

1895 brought in Theodore Roosevelt as NYC Police Commissioner, and he made his reputation as a take-charge leader, although with mixed results.  He only stayed for two years before heading to Washington to the McKinley administration. During this time, the state legislature grappled with the issues of Sunday drinking and dancing—not everyone agreed with the esoteric levels of the Reverend Parkhurst’s social purity. The German community wanted to go to beer gardens on Sunday afternoons and listen to Strauss waltzes. The Jewish community wanted to relax on Sundays. Many complained of “the unfairness of shutting down poor men’s recreation while allowing champagne suppers at the Union League Club.” In response, Roosevelt raided Sherry’s, the watering hole of the rich.

The state legislature tried to help Sunday drinkers by enacting a statute that liquor could be served if accompanied by a meal. Then, in 1896, they passed the Raines law that permitted Sunday sales of liquor —but only in hotels, defined as establishments with at least ten rooms. Saloons quickly complied by adding rooms (many already had “backrooms” where alleged illicit activity took place). Soon “Raines Law Hotels” sprang up all over town. Sunday dancing was yet another complicated issue, as the forms of dancing ranged from dancing with strangers in dance halls to dancing at an “academy” where the elders could keep an eye on the young people.

West 110th Street’s Little Coney Island also raised the issue of how young women were behaving during this new era. Young, single working women from the city’s factories, shops and stores wanted to use their freedom to meet others—some young women came to be known as “charity girls”—not sex workers/prostitutes, but young women out on the town, meeting young men, flirting, and getting the guys to pay for drinks. The dance halls provided the place to meet, since women in saloons were all marked as prostitutes. In the early days, the dancing wasn’t as disorderly as it became later. When the arrests were made for dancing on 110th Street, described below, no women were ever listed as arrested.

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In Timothy Gilfoyle’s book, City of Eros, he describes the growth of the sex industry on the Upper West Side when theaters and entertainment developed around Columbus Circle. He further describes Little Coney Island as being under the El on 110th Street, but the Bromley Atlas of 1891 shows no buildings between Eighth Avenue, Manhattan Avenue and Columbus Avenue. He names Waldron’s Dance Hall as having one hundred prostitutes working there by midnight on weekends. Waldron’s was at 216 West 110th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam. Waldron’s played an important part in the 1901-1902 activity described below.

Gilfoyle’s book also displays a map of numerous “houses of prostitution” just south of 110th Street on West 109th and West 108th between Broadway and Central Park.

By 1900, the West Side Association assigned the 110th Street clean-up work to the Riverside and Morningside Park Association.  In June 1900 the Association protested the issue of a “Police Board license” to a Mr. Webber to operate a resort at Broadway at 111th Street, a place Webber said would not be a dance hall, but a summer garden with a small stage for concerts.

The Association is featured in nearly every news article about the raids against “the resorts of ill repute” on West 110th Street that operated on Sundays.

Another group in opposition to “Little Coney Island” was the Anti-Saloon League. The New York Times featured an article in May 1900 about a meeting at the Methodist Church on West 104th Street, noting that in this district there was only one factory, but 511 saloons with “backroom accompaniments”. The article also notes that the neighborhood has “Little Coney Island and a repetition of the evils of the Tenderloin”.

(Note: the “Tenderloin” refers to the area of Manhattan in the mid-20s along Sixth Avenue where the Captain of the 29th Precinct, as he took his position, commented that he had been having chuck steak since joining the force, but would now have a bit of tenderloin, referring to the payoffs he would now gather.)

One of the entertainment venues on West 110th Street was actually named “Little Coney Island” and may have led to the naming of the whole area.

One of the entertainment venues on West 110th Street was actually named “Little Coney Island” and may have led to the naming of the whole area. When William Hammerstein (son was Harlem born Oscar Hammerstein) of the famous entertainment family died in 1914, his obituary noted that he had established “a small vaudeville resort” on 110th Street known as Little Coney Island. However, a newspaper report of a fire there in 1900 referred to it as Philip Dietrich’s resort.

Even before the Riverside and Morningside Park Association began its focus of getting rid of the resorts on 110th Street, the police were raiding various saloons for “excise tax violations.” A report in The New York Sun in June 1899 noted 45 such raids, 23 of them in Manhattan, and focusing on “Maus’s Lion Palace” on Broadway and 110th Street for “running a bar and a concert together on Sunday.” This article made a distinction between the West 125th Street police station that had responsibility for the north side of 110th Street, and the West 100th Street police station that had responsibility for the south side of the street. Two “resorts” on the north side of the street were the Imperial Garden and the Columbus Casino.

In January 1901, the New York Times reported the arrest of Louis Waldron, the proprietor of Waldron’s Dance Hotel at 216 West 110th Street, on the south side of the street, between Broadway and Amsterdam. The charge was that he had violated the Penal Code which forbid the opening of dance halls on Sundays. The operator of a dance hall at the Southwest corner of Broadway and 110th Street was also arrested—a Mr. Edward Austin. Their trial was held later that spring, and a Magistrate Zeller concluded that the New York Supreme Court had ruled that dancing was allowed on Sunday if it were pursued as a “pastime” and not as a “show” that people paid to attend. Waldron declared victory!

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However, throughout the spring, and until the trial, arrests continued every Sunday at Waldron’s and were reported in the newspapers. Later in the spring, after the decision about dancing, the arrests were focused on serving liquor. The police detectives said that once a patron bought a “meal ticket” that did not satisfy the Raines Law, that liquor could only be served with food. An argument between the police and the operators involved sandwiches, and whether or not they met the definition of “meal.”  There were others around town who placed a brick between two pieces of bread to make fun of the law.

The Riverside and Morningside Park Association employed its own detectives who patrolled the resorts along 110th Street. One report noted a fistfight breaking-out between the private and public forces. Arrests were also made at Rophuro’s Dance Hall at the southwest corner of Broadway and 110th Street, where the building was in violation of building laws, as the hall was classified as a “shed” when the permit was issued.

There were no reports of arrests at the Lion Palace, and rarely at other saloons.  It’s not clear if the focus on Waldron’s had some other motive.

The Association even managed to get a law passed in Albany—named the Bennet Bill for the Assemblyman who introduced it—that “dance halls in a county with over 1.7 million inhabitants would not be lawful if the concert hall is situated within a half mile of any cathedral now in process of erection.” The governor was advised by his Attorney General not to sign it, as it was unconstitutional.

The police work in the spring of 1901 was under the direction of Max F. Schmittberger, the Captain of the Precinct at West 100th Street, located then on the south side of the street near Columbus Avenue. This was the same man who had “squealed” in his testimony to the Lexow Commission in 1894 against the higher-ups in the Department. Many of the New York “reformers” held the Captain up as a man who had seen the error of his ways—indeed a bit of a hero against corruption.  His detractors in the Police Department said that he worked it both ways throughout his career, sometimes taking bribes, sometimes not. When he was promoted to Inspector, Schmittberger faced great criticism as an admittedly former corrupt officer, but he was promoted anyway. Later, in 1906, the police department tried to pursue him for corruption again, after transferring him to Staten Island as a punishment. He was never convicted of any crimes, and, when he died in 1917, he had a magnificent funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

While a Democratic Party Tammany-controlled administration was in power from 1897 to 1901, the police appeared willing to work with the “reformers” of the Upper West Side who seemed more interested in their property values than the immorality of Little Coney Island. The Police Commissioner was quoted in March 1901 that he was determined to crush the dance halls at any cost, and was happy with Schmittberger’s Sunday raids. He said he’d received letters from parents who were concerned about their daughters and sons going to the dance halls. Commissioner Murphy was hauled into court himself for his continuing pursuit of Waldron, angering the Magistrate at the West Side Police Court, as to how the police were doing their jobs.

After 1902, all news reports of the raids on 110th Street ceased. The next phase of property development began, and the wooden structures on 110th Street were eventually sold for the increasingly profitable land. By 1910, developers had constructed the solid apartment buildings we still have today.

The Lion Palace continued operation and lasted for many years until movies became a more popular entertainment than vaudeville. When the subway station opened at 110thStreet, one of the images considered for its mosaic sign was a beer stein, but the tulip reminiscent of the old Dutch Bloomingdale was chosen instead.

Photo credit: 1) Bicycle Summer Garden from the Bracklow Collection. 2) Claremont Inn. 3) ax F. Schmittberger.

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