Step Into the Morningside Heights rowdy resort district dubbed ‘Little Coney Island’

Since 1892, West 110th Street has also been known as Cathedral Parkway. It’s a heavenly name for a stretch of Manhattan that had a citywide reputation for vice and sin at the turn of the 20th century.

110th Street station on Ninth Avenue El, 1905

“Little Coney Island,” as this quickly developing enclave of Morningside Heights was dubbed by residents, police, and politicians, consisted of a few blocks of newly opened pleasure gardens set in wood-frame buildings that attracted carousing crowds of fun-seeking men and women.

A “pleasure garden” sounds pretty saucy, but it was simply a venue or “resort” where working class New Yorkers, often immigrants, went to drink, listen to popular ballads, watch vaudeville acts, and otherwise entertain themselves with the same kind of lowbrow attractions found on the Bowery or at Brooklyn’s Coney Island, minus the rides.

In a city of tight quarters and without air conditioning or paid vacations for working people, pleasure gardens were popular. Thanks to its breezy open roof and proximity to the Ninth Avenue El, one of the most frequented at Little Coney Island was the Lion Palace, spun off from the Lion Brewery on 110th Street and Broadway.

Little Coney Island’s dance halls and beer gardens existed in wood buildings like these

“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,” wrote Pam Tice on the Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group site in 2016. “It became a popular spot for the nearby Columbia men.”

Soon, saloons, music halls, and casinos sprang up, like Waldron’s Dance Hall at 216 West 110th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, per a 2021 piece by E.L. Danvers on I Love the Upper West Side. The Imperial Garden and Columbus Casino drew hundreds of revelers each night.

Berenice Abbott took this photo of a 110th Street wood house in 1938; it would have been in the center of Little Coney Island

Of course, such a concentration of “entertainment houses” also raised the hackles of neighborhood associations and social reformers. After a fire broke out at Philip Dietrich’s resort in March 1900—during a performance by an act called the Fowler Sisters, who sang the ballad, “Farewell, Love’s Dream Is O’er,”—the crackdown on Little Coney Island seemed inevitable.

First, liquor licenses were turned down. A year later, police raided Waldron’s and a dance hall owned by Herman Wacke on the grounds that it was illegal to dance on Sundays.

“The dance halls that remained open entertained only a few straggling patrons, and these were not allowed to dance,” wrote the New York Times on March 18, 1901. “The musicians sat listlessly around their instruments and watched the police as they sauntered through the rooms.”

A bill passed by the state prohibited the operation of a dance hall serving alcohol within half a mile of a church. The Riverside and Morningside Heights Association petitioned to get rid of Little Coney Island, saying the proprietors violated liquor tax laws and “brought a large number of the worst element of the city to the locality,” per a June 1900 Times writeup.

110th Street and 8th Avenue in 1898, up the street from Little Coney Island

In 1901, a judge deemed a series of law enforcement raids at Little Coney Island to be “police persecution.” But the end was near. Ultimately, Little Coney was a victim of real estate development.

“Here is a section which was notorious a few years ago as New York’s ‘Little Coney Island,'” stated a New York Times story from 1910 about the new apartment residences going up along 110th Street. “Both sides of 110th Street, between Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway, were lined with old wooden houses, groggeries, and summer beer gardens….”

“The cheap resorts managed to exist, however, until the natural order of things the builders saw that the land was better suited to towering edifices of stone and brick, and today but scant evidences remain of the former conditions.”

[Top image: Alamy; second image: Real Estate Record and Guide, 1911, via Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group; third image: MCNY 43.131.1.582; fourth image: New York Times; fifth image: NYPL]

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13 Responses to “Step Into the Morningside Heights rowdy resort district dubbed ‘Little Coney Island’”

  1. aspicco Says:

    “the natural order of things?”
    Prejudiced much?

  2. countrypaul Says:

    Absolutely fascinating, and proof once again that the Brain Police (as Frank Zappa wonderfully called them) can be put down in one area but, like Whack-a-Mole, they just pop up in another, different in detail but ultimately with the same misguided thoughts that morality can be enforced by “lawn odor.”

    One other unrelated thought: why was the 9th Avenue El built at such unusual height over the area? Going around those sharp turns, even with a station eventually in the middle of the S, must have been a bit of a scary thrill ride.

  3. kenny Says:

    1909 Postcard of the Elevated Train 110th Street: https://www.facebook.com/photo?fbid=333552548839979&set=pcb.1051862122065692

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      A beautiful card. And it reminds me of just how sparsely settled Morningside Heights was in 1900.

  4. Carla Golden Says:

    For better or for worse, these cottages (except the one surviving) were replaced by the Marc Anthony (now known as Cathedral Towers) & the Prince Humbert by my great grandfather Dr. Charles V. Paterno in 1911.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Your great grandfather is the genius behind so many beautiful New York buildings! The Paterno, of course, and then Castle Paterno in Inwood.

  5. Emily Berleth Says:

    On Mon, Apr 18, 2022 at 4:04 AM Ephemeral New York wrote:

    > ephemeralnewyork posted: ” Since 1892, West 110th Street has also been > known as Cathedral Parkway. It’s a heavenly name for a stretch of Manhattan > that had a citywide reputation for vice and sin at the turn of the 20th > century. 110th Street station on Ninth Avenue El, 1905 “” >

  6. Alissa B Says:

    I suppose the proprietors didn’t have the means to fight such a law in court. It seems to me that at least parts of those laws could not possibly be constitutional. It’s quite fascinating though. Thanks!

  7. velovixen Says:

    Reading about the campaign against “Little Coney Island” made me think, oddly enough, about the raid on the Stonewall Inn. Like the patrons of the Christopher Street bar, the denizens of “Little Coney Island” probably were harming no one, but some people were bothered by them and got the city to enforce never-before-enforced obscure statutes (e.g., “no dancing on Sundays” or the cabaret laws) against them.

  8. cj Says:

    My old neighbourhood, I never knew this bit of history. Very interesting!

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