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 I am pleased to report that the wonderful beach remains as it was, but the grittiness of the surrounding area has been replaced by a shining bright and polished glow that makes it much bigger and better than I remember.