area of Brooklyn
, New York City
. Also the site of the pioneering, archetypal, and most famous amusement park
complex in the world. Also the name of a hot dog
based snack that originated in said amusement park
complex. Also the name of several restaurant
chains nationwide with food inspired by the area.
In short, an American phenomenon.
The spit of land that is Coney Island was indeed once an island, separated from the 'mainland' of Brooklyn by a creek that is now largely dry. The Dutch named it 'Coney' (rabbit) after the wild rabbits that prowled the beach. It was initially a part of the town of Gravesend when there were six separate towns in Kings County.
In 1829, an enterprise called the Coney Island Company built a road from the town of Brooklyn to the then undeveloped island and built a small hotel, the Coney Island House. In the following decades, the area gradually became popular as a weekend excursion destination for people from Manhattan and Brooklyn. Development was gradual, with small hotels and restaurants, and accelerated after railroads were built linking Coney Island with Brooklyn. In 1865, the Coney Island Railroad was completed, and in 1874 Andrew Culver completed the 'Prospect Park and Coney Island Railroad' (part of which is now part of the route of the F Train). Further developments in the following decade included The Brighton Beach Hotel, The Oriental Hotel, The Elephant Hotel (in the shape of an elephant!), more restaurants, several 'bathing pavilions,' race tracks, the Sea Beach railroad (which now forms part of the N Train) and the Manhattan Beach hotel, which considered the most glamorous hotel in America at the time. The hot dog was invented at the resort in 1867.
In this era before middle-- and upper middle class people had the means to travel out of state, much less around the country of out of it, Coney Island was the destination for New Yorkers on vacation. It was the first beach resort in America. Before there was Atlantic City, before there was Cape Cod, before there was Miami or Tahiti, there was Coney Island.
This era was glorious, but it didn't last long, and in the next decades Coney underwent a transition from an overnight resort for the well-heeled to a day trip excursion for everyone. One factor was the increasing accessibility of places like Atlantic City. Another was several fires in the late 1880s and 90s that destroyed some of the older hotels and attractions. Still another was the increasing accessibility of Coney Island itself, which was becoming less a place away from the city and more a place within it. As Brooklyn expanded southeast, the Culver, Sea Beach, and Brighton Beach railroads were being connected in with the Brooklyn elevated system (see Brooklyn Manhattan Transit), eventually making for an easy and brief trip to Coney from Manhattan. When Brooklyn annexed Gravesend in 1884, this get-away resort was within the second largest city in America, and when Brooklyn itself joined the new greater New York City in 1898, it was within the largest.
The new Coney Island was even more remarkable. Now there were giant amusement parks like Luna Park, Dreamland, and Steeplechase Park. There were roller coasters. There were other rides like "A Trip to the Moon," where passengers boarded a spaceship and were greeted by little green men upon arrival, and "A Trip To Hell," which was opened by a fan of sobriety hoping to scare customers straight. There were fanciful replicas of German Villages and exotic places like Cairo, canals with Venetian gondolas, and shows with midgets and monkeys, not to mention "Coochie girls." Before there was Disney World, there was Coney Island. Luna Park was illuminated by millions of electric lights, making it a glaring showpiece for the new technology. Predictably, this newfound den of excitement brought the animosity of teetotalers.
In the 1900s and 1910s, and beyond, several more fires destroyed much of the existing amusement attractions, setting the stage for the 1920s, where the nature of Coney Island changed again, with the beach itself now becoming the main attraction. For one thing, it was now acceptable for both sexes to be in swimwear. The city built public bathhouses and the now famous boardwalk. Coney Island could be reached via the BMT's subway system from any point in the city for a nickel. The 20s also saw the construction of the Wonder Wheel ferris wheel and Cyclone roller coaster, both famous landmarks that are still with us. In 1940 the Astroland parachute jump tower was moved from the site of the 1939 World's Fair. It is now in disuse, but defines the Coney Island 'skyline.'
The 30s, 40s, and 50s were another heyday, as millions of New Yorkers flocked to the beach at Coney every weekend. There are famous pictures of the beach where literally no sand is visible, as a mind boggling mass of people stretches into the distance far as the eye can see. In the days before air-conditioning and widespread private automobile ownership, a beach in a city of seven million that could be reached for a nickel on the subway was bound to be crowded. The largest recorded crowd was 2,500,000 at one time. This is the Coney Island that most people remember or conjure up, the great public playground.
Coney Island had a place in the national consciousness. Coney Island style amusement parks opened up all over the country, many even calling themselves Coney Island. Restaurants served Coney Island hot dogs, or just 'Coneys.'
In this era, the neighborhoods around the beach fell victim to the urban schemes of Robert Moses, who isolated the beach from the rest of the community and destroyed the old neighborhoods with the Belt Parkway, and then built giant housing projects in their place. These monolithic projects are the defining architectural features today. The contemporary 'skyline' of Coney Island, one of the most recognizable urban scenes in the world, finds the beach, boardwalk, and the Astroland Tower and Wonder Wheel in the foreground, and a sea of housing projects in the background.
In the subsequent decades, as urban decay set in, Coney became less popular. Fires gutted most of the rest of the former amusement parks, and the beachgoing public had farther destinations at their disposal. There were always people on the beach and boardwalk on a summer day and some rides on the other side of the boardwalk, but as a phenomenon, Coney's day had passed. The beach was viewed as dirty and dangerous, and the neighborhood was notorious. On the big screen It was the home of The Warriors gang. The only development was the New York Aquarium, which opened in 1957.
By the late 90s, the beach and boardwalk were again crowded on summer weekends, and more rides were operational. The scene is populated by a new tapestry of New Yorkers, and although it is nowhere near as crowded as it was back 'when Brooklyn was the world,' it is still shockingly crowded (and dirty) to those used to the beaches that are behind hotels. A new tradition, the annual mermaid parade, recalls the decadence and irreverence of the amusement park era, and in 2000 a baseball stadium opened to house the minor league Brooklyn Cyclones. The boardwalk is prowled by the Russian mafia and Russian elderly that now populate the surrounding neighborhood, as well as teenagers and young adults of every nationality. Beach combers can still get a Nathan's hot dog, half a dozen clams and corn on the cob, visit the ever changing freak shows, and win a stuffed animal at some silly carnival game.
The history of Coney Island presented here is nothing compared to the treasure trove of fascinating facts and pictures at the Coney Island History Website http://naid.sppsr.ucla.edu/coneyisland/