Where to start? It was almost what I expected. The crowd. The sea. The rusting towers above the rusting arcades. The boardwalk speckled with hand-holding teenage lovers. People packing into Nathan’s hot dogs. The scent of sea and fries.
I have tried to explain my attraction to Coney Island. I grew up in the Midwest, landlocked, except for lakes. We had one carnival a year, for a week every July. There we would ride the vomit rides, drink lemon shake-ups, try to win stuffed animals. Once a year, we made it to the state fair, where the rides were bigger, the french fry stands more plentiful, the funnel cakes with so many different flavors. We did not have Coney Island, a sentinel, greeting guests year after year. Inviting them to walk the boardwalks, sit on the shore, play on its rides. I came to understand the history of the island, to see a true boardwalk, and to see for myself if what remained was relevant in 2006.
The beach was nicer than I could have imagined. As wide as Miami’s South Beach. As packed on Memorial Day as a summer day on the Riviera (much less classy, though).
I heard it was the busiest day of the year, and I’m certain they were correct. We exited the subway in a train station, as busy as a terminal in Europe. I had no idea Coney Island was still popular, but I would find it was not popular for the great attractions, for there were so few left. And among those that remained had lines barely exceeding 10 minutes.
The weeds had overtaken the empty lots along the Boardwalk, where amusement parks once stood. Key Park rose proudly from the ashes of some childhood fantasy, crumbled, torn down, and replaced, with a shiny ballpark for the Brooklyn Cyclones minor league baseball team. Graffiti enshrouded abandoned buildings, as kudzu would envelop a vacated southern country house.
The Parachute Jump stood proud, stripped of its original purpose, but too proud to be toppled. Too many memories, first dates, the ghosts of children’s laughter, children now adults, children now passed. Once the Eiffel Tower of the Boardwalk, now a skinny steel dinosaur with no memory of the time it spent as the life of the party.
Over at Astroland, another relic reached for the sky. The Astro Tower, built in 1963, carries passengers 270 feet in the air in a panoramic trip up the retro chic column, still advertising for Astroland. Here, the Cyclone still sped around the rickety wooden tracks, as it has for over 60 years. How could I have passed up a ride? I guess life needs one regret, and this may be mine. But at least I have ridden an exact replica, the Texas Cyclone, before it was dismantled less than one year ago. Along with our friends, we could not pass up The 1920 Wonder Wheel, worth every penny, for the view of the boardwalk, as well as the thrill every time the gondola slid back & forth.
There were so many surprises at Coney Island. I knew there was not much left from the glory days. But there were still superlatives. The bathrooms were cleaner than I expected. The sand nicer. The boardwalk wider. The fishing pier longer. The crowds thicker. The menu at Nathan’s much more expansive, with seafood, and fried foods adding to the normal wiener fare.
The crowds, comprised of every race living in New York. I took joy in knowing that here, in the midst of the most expensive city in the country, was a beach oasis, free for all, where even New Yorkers could play on the beach for the day. Those who told me not to come to Coney Island are primarily those who could afford better, who have been to Florida, who have the resources to travel to California, the Hamptons, Ocean City, the Jersey Shore. They would not understand Coney Island anyway.
When we left New York, there was an article in the Times about how a developer had plans for upscale redevelopment of Coney Island, about how this could be the end of Coney Island as we know it. Sure, it could use a facelift. Sure, a developer would love to gentrify another neighborhood, one built by Russian immigrants, and still frequented by those who speak a language other than our own. But I don’t think a facelift would make it any more fun. Now, the rides compete not with Six Flags, but with television and video games. Coney Island of old is no longer there, but maybe today’s Coney Island is what we need today.
Honestly, I never need to go back, but I would mourn if it was not there. I would mourn for those who would never be able to step foot in the sea if it were not there. I would mourn for those who still spend their summers, every weekend at the shore. I would mourn for those who come here to cool off in the sticky and cruel New York summers, taking advantage of the natural beauty, so difficult to find in the city, but here, just a subway ride away.
By Matthew Stone
Travel to Coney Island, Brooklyn