Monday, September 5, 2011

Coney Island

In 1645 the Dutch who had settled New Amsterdam [Manhattan] allowed a group of religious dissenters [led by a woman] to settle an area--Gravesend-- known today as Coney Island.  A few theories circulate regarding how the name Coney became ascribed to this particular island with a famous boardwalk along the stunning beaches caressed by the Atlantic Ocean. My personal favorites are that it is either a bastardized version of the Dutch word for rabbit, konjin, because so many wild rabbits inhabited the area, or an Irish sailor, Mr. O'Connor, named the island after one of similar size near his home port. 

From the 1860s until the mid 1900s, large hotels, bathhouses, horse racing, amusement rides, circus shows, and hot dogs drew hundreds of thousands of tourists on the trains and ferry services built to bring them to play, in all senses of the word, by the sea. Neither disasters--fires, storms, amusement ride accidents--nor anti-morality statutes--prohibiting gambling, ballyhoo, and exotic dancing--deterred the economic growth here. You gotta love the irony of religious dissenters settling an area that became the hotbed of frivolity, seediness, and political corruption [Tammany Hall].

I visited Coney Island by bicycle a week after Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene's visit. Cycling through the beach town felt a little like visiting a old show girl long past her prime. Although weathered with faded tattoos, sagging wrinkled skin, and smeared lipstick, a twinkle in her eyes promised a few good stories of some luscious years back in the day.  I cycled up to the infamous wooden Boardwalk, which was first constructed in 1923 [and cost $3 million], by the stadium where the Brooklyn Cyclones currently play minor league baseball. Behind the stadium towers the remnants of the abandoned Parachute Jump. The Parachute Jump came to Coney Island in 1941 after its debut as an amusement ride at the New York World's Fair.  James Strong originally designed the ride as a military training device, but it quickly gained popularity as an exciting amusement ride.  The Parachute Jump operated on Coney Island until the mid-1960s. Over the years since then, plans have vacillated between historic preservation and demolition. Due to its size, either option is expensive.  So, it now stands rusting as a monument to the grandeur of another era.  

While I took these pictures, an older gentleman next to me sighed in disbelief at what had become of the ride. He was recalling a time when people came to the boardwalk dressed in a tuxedo or ball gown; then, as if on cue, a kid in a ripped tank top and flip-flops sauntered by, surrounded by a stinky cloud of illegal smoke. Times have changed. . .a little.

Coney Island could be called Carni-Island for all its visual stimulation. On one side of the Boardwalk, it is a cross between the state fair and Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes; on the other side, the beautiful wide beaches appear to be populated with casting extras from a few current reality TV shows.  

The Boardwalk retains her charm, though, with some established places. In 1916, Nathan Handwerker, a Polish immigrant, took his wife's frankfurter recipe and opened a hot dog stand here.  The rest, they say, is history. Many famous New Yorkers have had their picture taken with this famous hot dog.  The Boardwalk still has stalls with games and food. The food offered at the "Grille" is actually all fried, including Oreos.  And of course, a few thrill rides and seedy characters also maintain the carnival feel.

The rest of Coney Island reminded me of the old Gulf coast Florida beach towns I grew up near, complete with tacky tourist souvenir stores.  The westernmost end of Coney Island is a gated residential area called Sea Gate; just around the corner, though, a gem of a spot has the best views of the Verrazano Bridge.  Unlike the Florida beach towns, though, I did not feel these were great neighborhoods to visit at night.  

Traveling east along Neptune Road, the Brighton Beach area brings a sensory overstimulation.  Amidst the screeching elevated trains, honking horns, and thumping car stereo bass, people scream expletives at anyone and everyone; cars and bicycles dart to and fro, disregarding stop signs and bike lanes as merely suggestions; and the smell of the sea is overpowered by the smell of vomit, stale beer, and grilled onions from the neighborhood restaurants and markets.  Near the retro-designed McDonald's, one food store advertised that it specializes in Asian, Mexican, and Russian foods.  Indeed, Coney Island is a melting pot of culture,entertainment, and history.