At the turn of the 20th Century, with urbanization rapidly progressing northward through Manhattan, a carousing hotspot took hold around West 110th Street and Broadway. Nicknamed “Little Coney Island,” this area became the center for entertainment “resorts” that catered to every segment of the city for about five years.
Brooklyn’s Coney Island – as we know it today for its amusement parks, shows, and other attractions – started to take shape in the early 1900s. Before this, it was the City’s premier seaside haunt from 1880 to 1900. Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group (BNHG) writes that Manhattan’s Little Coney Island earned its name from its counterpart based a number of “pleasure gardens” that allowed immigrants to unwind without “bluenose interference.”
“Pleasure gardens” sound more salacious than they were. In practice, they were beer gardens, dance halls, saloons, and venues for musical entertainment which allowed women to socialize on their own. But these resorts – benign and ordinary under today’s standards – were not a welcome addition to the Bloomingdale Village area of the Upper West Side for everyone.
It was not the flow of liquor necessarily, or the hours-long enjoyment of local music and entertainment. It was not even women enjoying the same freedoms men had enjoyed for centuries. What drew the ire of many of the city’s more prudish and religious residents was that a number of these “pleasure” establishments allowed dancing, particularly on Sundays.
In June of 1900, the New York Times reported that the Riverside and Morningside Heights Association had already waged war on the Little Coney Island resorts. Their main objection was a proposed license for a saloon at 2871 Broadway between West 111th and 112th Streets. The Association feared that dance halls in the area would bring “a large number of the worst element of the city to the locality.”
By March 1901, the war on dancing and other enjoyments was raging and the focus was primarily on Louis Waldron’s dance hall, located at 216 West 110th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenues. After Waldron was arrested in January for playing music and allowing dancing in a public hall, a heavy police presence stationed itself outside of the Waldron’s Dance Hotel and Herman Wacke’s (also on West 110th and Broadway) in March. The police proudly admitted that they were intent on arresting “the first person that waltzes a step” at either establishment where arrests were made a week earlier for the same criminal offense.
The police won this particular battle and ensured the city remained safe from the happy feet of anyone who dared to dance to a single beat after the clock struck midnight on that Sunday morning. But that didn’t stop Waldron or others from venturing to dance on a Sunday.
Arrests were made two weeks later after one man “did four steps of a waltz all by himself.” A law was passed about two weeks after that prohibiting dance halls in Manhattan “where liquor is sold, within half a mile of any cathedral.” This new law posed a huge problem to the pleasure gardens of Little Coney Island based on their proximity to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
Arrests at Waldron’s Dance Hall were a weekly occurrence by May 19, 1901. On this day, Waldron was again locked up along with six male dancers after less than a dozen steps of the waltz were danced.
A city magistrate grew sick of the police harassing Waldron three days later. Magistrate Zeller chided the police commissioner noting that the seventeen prior arrests of Waldron proved him “guiltless” and were the catalyst for the new law declaring that “Sunday dancing is legal.”
This decision did not stop the police from harassing Waldron. Instead, law enforcement found new ways to keep the pressure on him. Two waiters at Waldron’s place were arrested for serving NYPD detectives two glasses of beer on June 9, 1901.
Waldron, understandably, grew tired of the constant “hounding and persecution,” and sought to have the Governor remove Police Commissioner Murphy from his chief law enforcement post on June 10, 1901. While Waldron was successful in having the case against his waiters thrown out with Magistrate Meade humiliating the prosecution and even refusing to hear its case, the court informed the dance hall owner that he could not remove Commissioner Murphy or stop him from future harassment.
Though the raids had ceased by 1902, the peace of mind for Waldron and those with similar businesses was short lived. Another bill was introduced in January 1902 targeting Little Coney Island proprietors. This second proposed piece of legislation sought to criminalize “dancing on successive nights, if liquor is sold … and situated within half a mile of any cathedral now in process of erection.” This law passed, according to BNHG.
The Riverside and Morningside Association kept complaining too. “The Riverside and Morningside Park Association employed its own detectives who patrolled the resorts along 110th Street,” writes BNHG. It also sought the help of the Governor that January and was later joined by the West Side Association in May 1902 in its appeal to the local police captain to suppress dance hall activity.
Ultimately, urbanization won out. Clearing Little Coney Island was underway as of May 1903. “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,” reports BNHG. “When the subway station opened at 110th Street, 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.”