There I was, munching on a Nathan’s hot dog (relish, sauerkraut, brown mustard) and feeling the warm sun on my back, and I thought, “Why do I feel nostalgic about Coney Island, a place I had never visited until I was in my 40s?” Admittedly, my first visits were inspired by traveling to the “Mother Ship” Nathan’s, on Surf Avenue near the boardwalk. And, although perhaps I haven’t really earned my nostalgia for either Coney Island or Nathan’s, I have certainly earned it for hot dogs, which were like the Proust madeleine of my childhood.
Nostalgia is such a funny feeling, set off by a view, a smell, a breeze. It sometimes has almost nothing to do with real memories—I realized that I am even nostalgic for places I remember hating, like the summer camp of my pre-teen years.
But my nostalgia for Coney Island and my feeling that I know it deeply may be heightened by its presence in a shared popular culture, in photos, books, music, movies, and television about Coney Island over the past decades–and now by social media (including yearly coverage of the Coney Island Mermaid Festival, the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating contest, or the Polar Bear Club’s annual winter submersion in the Atlantic). Some, not I, even have nostalgia for the circus sideshows, politically incorrect performances featuring “freaks, wonders, and human curiosities!” (I am not sure which of these descriptions fit for Cary Grant, who was hired as a barker there in the 1920s and walked on stilts to advertise Steeplechase Park.)
Coney Island has long been the inspiration for many artists and writers; they saw their images and memories refracted in the fun house of mirrors that the old resort elicited. People like Woody Guthrie—especially his ode to Mermaid Avenue, where he once lived (“where the lox and bagels meet . . . where the beer flows to the ocean/where the wine runs to the sea”)—and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (“The pennycandystore beyond the El is where I first fell in love with unreality”) wrote vividly about their debts to the place.
Coney Island was a colorful background character in stories from The Great Gatsby to the powerful novel (and film)The Warriors. It inspired the music of Cyndi Lauper and Beyonce, to name just two. Writers from Neil Simon to Woody Allen to Spike Lee dug deep for stories of their child-and-adulthood on the edge of the city. Both the possibilities and the dead ends of Coney Island are deeply embedded in the American psyche.
Back in the day, Coney Island was described as “heaven at the end of a subway ride.” In fact, during the 1870s and 1880s, the area was a high-class resort. The construction of a railroad brought visitors in the late 19th century, and by 1907 there were sixteen electric streetcar lines from various areas of New York City to Coney Island, as well as an elevated line, steamboats, and ferries. A subway completed in 1919 enabled millions to reach Coney Island for five cents. This transformed the area from a playground for the upper and middle classes to a destination for the masses. After World War II the crowds at Coney Island declined, both because a mobile population found other, less crowded places on Long Island and in New Jersey, and also because fires destroyed part of Coney Island’s famed parks, including Dreamland, Luna Park, and Steeplechase Park.
Then, largely because of greed and ambition, the area became a tumble of rusted hulks in abandoned lots, and many thought that the good old days would never return. How the area became what the New York Times called a “catch basin for many of the city’s poorest residents” was a combination of accident, grand vision and political expedience.
Developers moved in to build residential complexes. Under the aegis of Robert Moses when he was head of the Mayor’s Committee on Slum Clearance, thousands of mass-produced units of public housing were built in Coney Island.
But famous presidential dad Fred Trump spent years during the 1950s and 60s planning to demolish what was left of the parks and to build luxury housing, pushing the poor to the outer fringes of the neighborhood. In September of 1966 Trump threw a demolition party in the old and abandoned park. While the drinks were served and models in bikinis mingled, Fred Trump offered guests bricks to throw at the stained glass Funny Face, the symbol of the park. After years of battling, Trump failed to have the park rezoned, but the damage was done, and the area became a tumble of rusted hulks in abandoned lots, and many thought that the good old days would never return.
Little by little, in the 1980s and 1990s, plans for redevelopment and expansion of the parks grew. Today Coney Island is (especially on sunny weekends in the summer) a mass of people from every corner of the word—-families from Africa, ancient and leathery exercisers from Russia, tourists from Iowa, locals from every borough on the subway line (and, last year, a large dog in sunglasses to protect its eyes). Every time I visit Coney Island I feel the pull of the constantly evolving cast of characters sunning themselves on the boardwalk, the old men fishing off the piers, the strange and wonderful signage, the classic contours of the Cyclone, the Whack-a-Mole and the Tickler, and all of the other games and rides and colorful characters populating them. The Wonder Wheel is still here; it is one of three original rides remaining at Coney Island that are protected as New York City landmarks (the others are the Cyclone and the Parachute Jump.
In the past, Coney Island has been exalted, ridiculed, and feared. It has attracted the most creative of dreamers and the greediest of developers. But it has also always been sui generis. It has contained multitudes, both the familiar and the exotic and everything in between. And, although very changed, it still stands—and feels timeless. All one has to do to conjure its remarkable past is to stand on the boardwalk, feel the vibrations of the Cyclone clacking on its wooden frame, and breathe in the salty air—and the whiff of hot dogs—on Stillwell Avenue.
Coney Island: Lost and Found, by Charles Denson: A “heartfelt chronicle” with photographs, maps, and memorabilia.