A reprise of an outing we did almost five years ago – a day trip out to Coney Island – was originally scheduled for June 3rd. While we still hope to keep that date, it will be confirmed later when there’s some clarity on the virus crisis. But all details will be specified later. This outing will be augmented from our first experience in that we hope to add a visit to the NY Aquarium to it and, maybe, even walk over to Brighton Beach.
STEP RIGHT UP AND COME ON OUT TO CONEY ISLAND Coney Island: it’s that place which still exists on that funny little spit of land jutting out from Brooklyn – but looms large in legend and imagination and has weathered the vicissitudes of New York City’s demographic and social shifts, fashions in urban planning and the impact of wars, technology and advances in transportation. Coney Island has meant many different things to many different generations of New Yorkers and it continues to morph and surprise and, yes, delight with its unexpected offerings for each new era. We will tour this landmark place to learn about its history, its future – and to dip your toe in the ocean as millions have before you. Our tour guide is Kim Rancourt, a New York guide extraordinaire, who has a profound interest in Coney Island where he is a board member of “Sideshows by the Seashore” (Coney Island U.S.A) and is an impresario of many musical and other events there.
Coney has been drawing crowds for as long as it has been popular to relax by the seashore- which is to say, just about forever. In the late 1800’s there were grand hotels along the waterfront and Coney was a fashionable place for the city’s wealthy to go for a beach vacation. When the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company electrified the steam railroads (including the Sea Beach excursion railroad) in 1915 and also connected Brooklyn to Manhattan via the Brooklyn Bridge, Coney Island boomed by offering an easy, affordable day trip for the City’s exploding working classes (who were just beginning to be given one half-day off per week). The “working man’s Riviera”, with its fantastical, dream-like amusement parks, adrenalin-rushing thrill rides and its location by the ocean offered a compressed vacation-like experience. Three large, themed amusement parks – Steeplechase Park, Luna Park and Dreamland – operated side-by-side offering slightly different experiences. Amusement park rides, including the steeplechase (a mechanical horse ride along steel rails), the Cyclone roller coaster, the Wonder Wheel, the parachute jump, specifically Coney-style carousels, bumper cars and haunted houses all offered a frisson of fear and excitement and the potential for young men and women to come into “accidental” physical contact with each other.
The tall, red, fountain-like steel structure which now looms over Coney Island is the original parachute drop and is now a nationally landmarked sepulchral sculpture. In the movie Annie Hall, the Woody Allen character’s family lives in a ramshackle frame house nestled underneath the Tornado roller coaster (demolished to make way for Keyspan Park, home of the Brooklyn Cyclones baseball team). The somewhat sinister, leering trademark of Coney Island – a character with a huge open mouth, a billion teeth and a period, parted in the middle, hairstyle, – is called the “Tilley” after George C. Tilyou who created Coney’s first Steeplechase ride and then created Steeplechase Park. The aptness of the trademark has stuck through the years as a symbol of Coney Island suggesting equal parts vintage appeal, abandonment and portending threat. Unlike the corporate entertainment found in Las Vegas, for most of its history Coney was a symbol of the honky-tonk, small-town, fake, cheap and garish and was, of course, full of razzamatazz, snake charmers, tattoo artists, bearded ladies and two-headed calves.
But changes in American society after World War II changed everything. Air conditioning – especially in theaters – created a way for people to get out of the summer heat without going to the beach. Everyone in New York’s massive middle-class seemed to have automobiles and were leaving the city for the suburbs – and other beaches. The TriBorough Bridge (completed in 1936) made it easy to get out of town, particularly to the relatively recently completed Jones and Robert Moses beaches with their extensive waterfronts, swimming pools and other recreational offerings.
The wildly powerful and visionary NYC urban planning czar Robert Moses was no fan of Coney Island. During the same period when he was creating public beaches out on Long Island, he was also decimating Coney Island by moving the boardwalk back and demolishing many historic structures. The City was in decline during this time and maintaining Coney Island was hardly a priority and Moses was given pretty much free rein. During this post-War period, Luna Park had a fire, Moses demolished Dreamland and relocated the New York Aquarium to its site (where it still is) and he had the entire Coney Island Peninsula rezoned for residential use. (Look at the map at the very bottom of the post; the areas outlined in dotted lines were among those demolished.) Many, many units of much-needed senior and low income housing were built. Later, the City re-zoned an area of Coney to be exclusively used as an “amusement area.” But by this time, Coney Island was forlorn and by the early 1960’s, the last remaining amusement park – Steeplechase Park – closed, its rides were sold off and the property was sold to the developer Fred Trump (father of the Donald, born with a silver spoon in his big mouth) who wanted to build luxury high rises.
But for generations after Moses, the slow pace of the City’s urban planning bureaucracy, its semi-regular financial crises, jumbled in with the machinations of various special interests and a succession of developers (all with a plan to “save” Coney) had the effect of preserving Coney in a sort of urban amber. And the real impact of all of this so-called activity was – not much. In the meantime, what was left started to be rediscovered by people who stayed in the City or chose to move here and, yes, wanted a day out at the beach. You could still take the subway to Stillwell Avenue, get a hotdog at Nathan’s and take a walk along the relocated boardwalk. So, while the City dithered, the public enjoyed Coney as it always had. Still others, aware of Coney’s unique and precious history, started to research and document its role in New York City’s life. Although severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy – much of its boardwalk was destroyed and many small businesses were flooded – Coney Island rallied. Its current manifestation – as the home of the Brooklyn Cyclones (a Mets farm team), the Mermaid Parade, a new boardwalk and sort of a “new” Astroland – has shown us that there, always, seems to be a “Tilley” arising from the ashes in Coney Island.