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 I am pleased to report that the wonderful beach remains as it was, but the grittiness of the surrounding area has been replaced by a shining bright and polished glow that makes it much bigger and better than I remember.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.
If you continue walking toward the Parachute Jump, you will see MCU (Municipal Credit Union) Park, home of the Brooklyn Cyclones (a minor league team affiliated with the New York Mets). It is a beautiful new park (opened in 2001 as KeySpan Park) and is a wonderful setting if you want to see baseball played something like it used to be in good old Brooklyn, where a team called The Dodgers used to play.
The famous Wonder Wheel is surrounded by other rides and attractions.
Turn back and head east along the boardwalk, and you will come to Deno's Wonder Wheel Park. At the center of it all is the famous Wonder Wheel (a Ferris wheel), and there are many other rides and attractions to keep kids and parents busy for as long as they want thrills and excitement. Admission to the park is free (how about that?) and rides are three dollars a pop. Parents can save money with "kiddie packs" for ten or twenty rides, so it is an inexpensive place to let go and enjoy everything more than once.
If you continue walking past Deno's you will see a few more shops, and then you will need to go back up to Surf Avenue to reach the even more famous Cyclone, which is an old-fashioned wooden coaster supported on what is a surprisingly sturdy frame. Having stood strong since 1927, the ride is well-maintained and open every day at noon. The Cyclone is reminiscent of the old Coney Island and attracts new visitors and people like me who remember their first time on the harrowing sloops and sharp turns against a backdrop of sand and sea.
A short walk from the Cyclone is the new Luna Park. This is the inaugural summer for this amusement park that takes its name from the old one that burned down in the 1940s. There are nineteen rides, games, and attractions in this sparkling new venue that boasts a more family oriented atmosphere to attract visitors throughout the summer. Four-hour ($26) and six-hour ($30) wristbands are available for those who cannot get enough, and there is also a LunaCard available that is sort of like Disney's FastPass, helping you to avoid waiting on long lines for rides. There will be performances on the weekends by clowns, jugglers, and magicians to keep the large crowds entertained.
A reminder of the sideshows of the past still found at the Coney Island of today.
Not far from Luna Park is Sideshows by the Seashore located on Surf Avenue. They proudly proclaim, "They're here, they're real, and they're alive! Freaks, wonders, and human curiosities!" So, if you are into this kind of thing, you can get to see some of the performances to keep you amazed and enthralled. If you really want to know even more about the history of this famous place by the sea, go upstairs in the same building to visit the Coney Island Museum. It is fascinating for new and returning visitors to get a glimpse of the way things used to be for an old-fashioned kind of price of ninety-nine cents.
If you want to visit the New York Aquarium, you need to turn around and walk east along Surf Avenue for a few blocks (it is on Surf Avenue at the corner of West 8th Street). Set on 14 acres along the ocean front, the New York Aquarium can be enjoyed on its own or as part of your day at the beach. Featuring over 300 different kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and fish, there are sea lion shows, interactive exhibits, and even an opportunity to witness shark feeding (don't get too close now).
As you come back down Surf Avenue and turn left on Stillwell and walk towards the beach, you will pass more souvenir shops. Everything you want is available: little surfboard key chains, T-shirts, and even the replicas of the Cyclone that will set you back twenty bucks but let everyone back home know that you visited one of the most famous beaches in the world.
One of the playgrounds right on the beach.
Speaking of the beach, you should not forget to get down to the water. Walk along the close to three miles of pristine sand and clean surf and get great views of all the ships going in and out of New York harbor and the coast of New Jersey across the way. The beach features not just sand and surf but also sports action (basketball and volleyball courts) and has playgrounds right on the sand. There is also a wonderful palm tree sprinkler as a place to be cool and wet before or after a briny swim. The beach is protected by lifeguards everyday during the summer season (Memorial Day – Labor Day).
The palm tree sprinkler brightens up the beach.
If you are planning a trip to New York City this summer, there is no reason why you should not take a day away from museums, theaters, and shopping in the hot city and venture to what New Yorkers still consider to be their best beach. Easily accessible by subway (D, Q, N, and F trains), you can get to Coney Island in about an hour if you are staying in a Midtown hotel.
The Coney Island Fun Guide used to promote the area includes a poster that proclaims: More Ooohs. New Aaahs. After my return visit, I can say there is more than a little truth in that advertisement. Hopefully, you will get a chance to go to Coney Island this summer for either the first time or a return visit. There are many things to make you "Oooh" and "Aaah," so come to this lovely place by the seashore where you can relax and have fun like a real New Yorker, even if it is only for the day.
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