The Mermaid Parade has come and gone, and July 4, with its flourish of fireworks and hot dog gluttony has passed. So does that mean you should cross Coney Island off your summer bucket list? Not in the least–a new Smorgasburg outpost, an exhibit of two dozen street artists and other signs of renewal are all reasons to take the train to the Stillwell Ave. stop before the warm weather disappears.
Perhaps more than any other Brooklyn neighborhood, from the time of its discovery to its current state, Coney Island has donned an almost impossible number of faces. Its time as a remote, serene island, inhabited first by the Lenape Indians and then the Dutch in the early 17th century, was short-lived, as its unique proximity to both the city and the ocean predestined the area to become the “People’s Playground.”
Its golden age, when Luna Park, Dreamland, and Steeplechase Park bestowed a futuristic, dream-like quality upon the place, like an illustrious Epcot Center of the early 1900’s, was equally brief. (For a primer on Coney Island’s wonder years, check out this detailed history.)
So what is Coney Island today? “It’s a wacky neighborhood, untouched by the long arm of gentrification, and I love it for that,” says four-year resident Max Elbert. It’s true that the amusement area of Coney Island, surrounded by co-ops, housing projects, and senior care residencies, is surviving in an indistinct vortex of what was and what will probably never be again. Stepping onto the Riegelmann boardwalk feels like an attack on your senses. At once you’re cringing, watching kids play soccer barefoot across the wooden planks, while also craving a hot dog piled with mustard and relish and hearing no fewer than three raucous songs coming at you from three different directions. Though the luster of the place may have faded away over the last few decades, its character is unmistakable. On a recent visit, a teenager puffing away on a cigarette suddenly set down his backpack and took out snake, slinging it over his neck and continuing on his way. All the while, a juggler sighed and smiled as a ball got away from him, the air around him smelling of sea salt and sickly sweet confections.
With its tumultuous history, Coney Island had never really prospered into a well-off neighborhood for its residents. Long Wu, whose family moved to Coney Island from China in 1997, attributes this to neglect by the city of New York. “The area was once a proud Jewish immigrant neighborhood, but because the city couldn’t provide the funding and effort to make necessary improvements, the quality of life isn’t particularly good here.”
After Hurricane Sandy struck in October of 2012, the shores of Coney Island were hit hard. Many businesses that had been around for decades were forced to shut down for months as they scrounged up money for repairs. As many as 40,000 people lost their homes to the storm, many of them already living below the poverty line. While the city spent millions of dollars repairing and re-opening the Coney Island beachfront over the next few months, the residents weren’t as lucky. The New York City Housing Authority relocated a small number of families, while others struggled with water-damaged homes, sinkholes at every step, and damaged facilities like hospitals and libraries. It took individuals in the community to actually make a difference, activists who fought to raise awareness of the inexcusable problems that the neighborhood was still facing nearly a year after Sandy. Even so, the struggle in the residential areas of this coastal neighborhood is far from over. Two summers later, many homes and facilities are still awaiting proper repairs. “There’s a spirit to Coney Island despite all of this,” says Wu. “Its people are resilient and bounded together. In many ways, Coney Island reflects the true nature of New York City, a city built by blue-collar immigrants.”
“Coney Island has been speculated to blossom for as long as I can remember, but now it actually feels like that’s happening,” says Elbert. “There’s a bunch of new stores and restaurants opening up (like Wahlburgers and Johnny Rockets, for example) and the Thunderbolt rollercoaster has finally been rebuilt in Luna Park.” Dick Zigun, the unofficial mayor of Coney Island and the founder of Coney Island U.S.A., a non-profit arts center, agrees. “Coney Island is New York City’s beach! It’s the coolest place on earth. We’ve been building and growing, and doing a quality job of it.”
In addition to its amusement and boardwalk restorations, Coney is now also home to a slew of Smorgasburg vendors and an exciting art installation curated by Jeffrey Deitch. For what feels like the first time in years, the neighborhood is on the up-and-up, so whether you’re an annual summer visitor or you haven’t been in years, now is the time to visit. Just remember, leave your hang-ups at home, right alongside your calorie counter, dislike for large crowds, and any belief that you are a full-grown adult. Coney Island really holds some kind of magic, and you can feel its history winking at you from odd places if you know where to look.
Read on for how to spend a summer day at the one and only Coney.