“If Paris is France, Coney Island, between June and September, is the world.”
So said George Tilyou in 1886. Tilyou was a founding father of Coney Island’s amusement district, setting up Steeplechase Park as a family attraction full of mechanical rides and sideshow excitements. This was the area’s heyday, the turn of the century through to the 1920s, when the area became known as the “nickel empire” and seethed with Sunday crowds of hard-working immigrants on their one day off. It cost a nickel to get there on the subway, a nickel for a dog from Nathan’s, a nickel for the rides.
Before Tilyou brought his vision to life the area was originally a resort for the upper class, then a new race track and boxing arenas brought in a broader crowd, and “associated gambling dens, dance halls, and brothels brought a hint of the illicit“. All this history hangs heavy in the air at Coney Island; it’s not hard to imagine those long-gone days.
Look familiar? Coney Island has a Luna Park too, used as a garish literary motif in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 follow-up, Closing Time. Turns out Heller grew up in Coney Island and his writing often returned to its landmarks of his childhood.
The telling part of Tilyou’s analogy is its timeframe. When I visited the iconic south Brooklyn beach, it was very much an October Monday. The sun still shone and the Wonder Wheel still dissected the skyline, but the atmosphere was overwhelmingly one of melancholy, an abandoned funfair. The decrepit boardwalk creaks with every step, and wayward planks will trip you if you don’t watch your feet as you stroll. Looking inland the skyline is composed of gritty brick housing projects behind the abandoned old rides. A string of retirement homes inhale the sea air off the promenade, so you’re as likely to pass a wheelchair as a bicycle. Those enjoying Monday’s noonday sun were generally of the older persuasion; let down your guard and you’ll cop an eyeful of vast expanses of dimpled, undulating white flesh, or, if you’re slightly luckier, a leathered mob of weathered regular sunbathers.
I passed many older couples out walking. One woman slowed as she approached me; I steeled for small talk and squinted in the glare, trying to catch her eye beneath a faded visor. But before she reached me she stopped short, spread her feet for steadiness, and leaned over from the hips as if peering through the boardwalk cracks for some lost treasure below. Then she held the bridge of her nose lightly and blew snot onto the ground.
An estimated million people per day visited Coney Island in the 1920s, but the area was ravaged by the Depression and spiralled into decline in the 40s when Luna Park caught fire and was closed. Since then Coney Island has struggled, castigated as an eyesore and constantly threatened with destruction by development proposals. But there have always been those who fought for the area’s heritage, and in recent years projects like the Mermaid Parade and the opening of Lola Star’s Dreamland Roller Rink in the magnificent old Childs building (now, sadly, shut down again, though you can watch a great video about it here) have rallied a dedicated community hoping for a Coney Island renaissance.
“All Coney Islanders have sand in their shoes. Once it gets in, it never gets out.
Coney Island may be down at heel but that’s not to say it doesn’t posess charm and beauty. The beach is no Coogee or Bondi, but you can still imagine it a crowded patchwork of beach towels and umbrellas on searing summer days; a many-sunburned-limbed creature imbibing beer and hotdogs and ice-cream from the parade of storefronts on the boardwalk. Sideshow games like the massive “SHOOT THE FREAK” sign kinda sum up the atmosphere – a jarring jaunt back to a bygone era, before political correctness and hyper-litigiousness. A time of hand-painted signs and coconut-scented suntan oil and strings of coloured light globes. Here’s hoping Coney Island gets a second heyday soon.