Imagine, if you will, how hot New York City would have been during the summers of the early 1900s. My grandfather, living in a sweltering tenement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan (in a small apartment with his parents and seven brothers and sisters), had gas lamps lighting his rooms and there was no such thing as fans or air conditioners. To escape the heat he and his brothers sometimes swam in the East River, but it was like a vacation when they could make their way over to Brooklyn to visit a magical and mystical place named Coney Island for the day.
Coney Island was first known as a glitzy resort and then as a beach for the public: a people's playground where the poor, everyday working class could make their way to the beach, shed their knickers, and jump in the surf. Still, the "old" Coney Island (back when it was truly an island before the water was filled in for connecting roadways) was a bonafide resort for the wealthy, a paradise of hotels, amusement parks, arcades, and the wonderful sandy beach. My grandfather also remembered that during the Depression the hotels and amusement parks closed down, and a more risque side of things popped up: saloons, gambling halls, burlesque theaters, and circus sideshows.
Before I went on my excursion, I remembered the Coney Island I knew as a kid: the boardwalk appeared to be falling apart, the rides seemed to shake and rattle more than they rolled, and the establishments that remained seemed barely able to stand up against the wind. Yes, I still enjoyed shooting pop guns at moving targets, eating cotton candy, and going on some rides, but it was the beach that attracted me most of all. What else does a kid with a shovel and a pail need?
With all this in mind, on a recent beautiful June day, I ventured down to Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York, to see how much it has changed since I was a boy. I am pleased to report that the wonderful beach remains as it was, but the grittiness of the surrounding area has been replaced by a shining bright and polished glow that makes it much bigger and better than I remember.
This is the subway station one block away from the beach.
Coming out of the subway at the Coney Island-Stillwell Avenue stop, you have a short walk down Stillwell Avenue to the boardwalk, but first look to your right and you will see a true New York City landmark on the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenue: Nathan's Famous Restaurant.
The one and only Nathan's Famous Restaurant.
Yes, this is the Nathan's of the Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest (the names of winners over the years are listed on the Stillwell Avenue side wall). You will see people standing at the service windows on Surf Avenue waiting for their orders. Stop to take a picture of the retro metallic silver facade and the big yellow sign before you go, but remember to come back after your tour for a true taste of Americana: Nathan's hot dog.
These shops along the boardwalk offer everything from tacos to ice cream.
Once you get to the boardwalk (now looking as good as new), many more choices await you. I don't remember as many souvenir shops, snack bars, and restaurants being there when I was a kid, especially in the vicinity of the brick bathhouse (where you can use the facilities when needed), but they are there now. Everything seems very clean, spruced-up, and the store clerks, cashiers, and waiters are all friendly and ready to help.
A view of the Parachute Jump from the boardwalk.
When you come up the ramp and onto the boardwalk from Stillwell Avenue, turn right and you will see the impressive Parachute Jump from the old Steeplechase Park as it rises up to the sky. Obviously coated with fresh red paint to make this open steel structure (reminiscent of the iconic Unisphere in Flushing Meadows Park) stand out even more, the 260-foot Parachute Jump can be seen from near and far.
According to my father's recollection, the ride was originally featured at the 1939 World's Fair in Queens and moved to Coney Island later on. He said you had to put on a type of harness connected to a parachute, were yanked all the way up, heard a clicking sound, and then dropped as if you were jumping from a plane. He said, "You were very high up and the drop was exhilirating," and I am sure that it was. The ride closed in 1968, so I never got the opportunity to enjoy its thrills, but the structure remains and is now protected as a landmark.