The Mermaid Parade and July 4th, with its flourish of fireworks and hot dog gluttony, may be Coney Island’s two biggest events of the year, but there are plenty more reasons to take the train to Stillwell Ave. 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.”
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.
Where to eat and drink:
Nathan’s: Even the locals recommend Nathan’s, if only for its remarkable staying power. The enormous location that stands on the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenue (and one of your first views of Coney Island when you walk out of the subway) is the original Nathan’s, first opened in 1916. Since then, with the exception of Hurricane Sandy, the hot dog chain had been open every single day of the year, selling its signature crinkle cut fries, bowls of Manhattan clam chowder, pretzel dogs, and of course, its world-famous beef hot dogs. Even if you’re not a huge fan of hot dogs, something about this particular Nathan’s makes them taste exactly how you want them to, and you leave suddenly loving sweet relish.
Totonno’s: For award-winning thin crust pizza, Totonno’s is the place to go. The small Neptune Ave. pizza joint opened its doors in 1929 and has been family-run ever since. They don’t take reservations, nor do they sell slices, but with fresh ingredients imported from Italy and a blessing from everyone from Madonna to Danny Devito, something tells us you won’t have much trouble making an impressive dent in their pie.
Paul’s Daughter: Yet another Coney Island institution, Paul’s Daughter is a beachfront bar and restaurant that’s been around for over 50 years. Nothing makes clams on the half shell (Dick Zigun’s go-to) and lobster rolls with a side of chilled beer taste better than when you’re wolfing them down with a view of the ocean. Even wilder, the clams are shucked fresh right in front of you. Top your meal off with a soft serve as you go on your merry way.
William’s Candy: If funnel cakes don’t quite satisfy your sweet tooth, forgo the technicolor shop, IT’SUGAR, and swing by William’s Candy instead. The family-run confectionary business has been around for 75 years and specializes in old-fashioned goods. Just try walking by their window of picture perfect candy glazed apples, nut-adorned marshmallow treats, and freshly spun cotton candy without getting anything. You will fail. Even if you’ve already eaten two hot dogs that day, you will fail.
Coney Art Walls: You may have read about this online in the last month or so, but have you seen it with your own eyes yet? Partnering with Thor Equities, art curator Jeffrey Deitch has gathered up some of the most prominent street artists today to display their work. At 1320 Bowery, right alongside Smorgasburg, 25 temporary pop-up walls are splashed with the eye-catching work of artists like Swoon, JR, Ron English, and dozens of others. Surrounded by coasters on either side, the outdoor museum is truly a terrifically pleasing array of surrealism, social advocacy, and Coney Island-inspired motifs in stunning, inimitable styles. The walls will only be up until September, so make sure to catch them before they’re gone. Devoted fans of street art might also be interested in checking out the Os Gemeos mural across from the Stillwell Avenue station. It was painted in 2005 and is starting to fade, but the animated, detailed work of the Brazilian brothers is definitely still worth a look. In other tidbit, Max Elbert tells us that Banksy has graced the shores of Coney Island as well. “It’s on the side of a closed deli on Stillwell Avenue and Neptune. The day after Banksy painted the piece, the owners put up a gate over it, so you can’t see it. It’s a robot with a spray can painting a bar code.”
Flicks on the Beach: There are a plethora of outdoor movie screenings to choose from every summer, but why not spend a Monday night on the beach, especially with a bucket of freshly popped popcorn from Williams Candy? Coney Island’s Beach Flicks series plays a variety of films on an inflatable 40-foot screen on the beach at West 10th Street.
Friday Fireworks: If you happen to choose to spend your Coney Island day on your summer Friday, then you’re luck. Every Friday night at 9:30pm., visitors are treated to a fireworks display over the ocean. The best viewing spots are from West 10th and 12th streets, as well as Steeplechase Pier. If you’re really feeling romantic, the Wonder Wheel is an excellent viewing locale as well.
Themed Nights at MCU Park: Even if you’re not a baseball fan, watching a Cyclones game at the breezy MCU Park stadium, with its panoramic ocean views, is a classic way to spend a summer evening. Their themed nights make games even more of a spectacle, and while some of the summer’s zaniest themes have already passed, there’s still Pirate and Princess Night this Saturday (July 18) and 80’s night on July 29 to look forward to. The already reasonable ticket prices ($14-$17) are even less on Wednesdays, when all seats are just $10.
And Don’t Forget…
Coney Island Museum: Run by Coney Island U.S.A., the Coney Island Museum is yet another delight at 1208 Surf Avenue. History buffs will appreciate the museum’s permanent collection of Coney Island artifacts, ranging from original fun mirrors to hundred year old postcards. This summer, the museum also includes Fred Kahl’s 3-D installation replica of the original Luna Park, complete with hundreds of 3-D prints. The Darkside of Dreamland, another featured exhibition by artist Africasso, takes a detailed look at the crime-riddled history of Coney through sculpture, photography, even song and dance. With admission at only $5 for adults ad $3 for seniors and kids, there’s no reason not to pay this community staple a visit, perhaps right after a viewing of the Circus Sideshow right next door.
Luna Park: Seeing as Coney was once the amusement park capital of the world, you can’t come here without experiencing the modern day Luna Park. While the gondola rides are no longer floating around, the park is home to over 20 rides with a fit for everyone, from the friend with zero reservations to the one whose heart stops when her car goes over a pothole. Thrill-seekers should race straight toward the Thunderbolt, a new, high-speed, two-minute roller coaster that decides to get your buzz going straight off the bat with a 90 degree vertical drop. Take a breather before you head over to the Cyclone, otherwise known as the “Big Momma” of Coney Island. This wooden coaster, which debuted in 1927 and is older and cooler than you, sails you across 12 drops and 27 elevation changes. (Trying to understand those numbers will almost make you as dizzy as the Cyclone does.) For those who like a little thrill in their lives without having to picture their untimely deaths, rides like the Soarin’ Eagle (a twisting metallic coaster that mimics the flight of a bird at 41 mph) and the Brooklyn Flyer (a unique set of swings that, at 100 feet, gives you a spectacular view of the park) are definite must-do’s.
Deno’s Wonder Wheel: Ever ridden on a historical landmark? The pinnacle of all Coney rides is, of course, Deno’s Wonder Wheel, located in the adjacent Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park (which mostly caters to little tots). The 150-foot wheel has been a park staple since its construction in 1920, and is known for its carriages that slide in and out as the wheel turns, rather than staying fixed. This ferris wheel would be the tallest structure in the park if not for that intriguing, Eiffel-tower structure looming in the distance. That would be the defunct Parachute Jump, a ride that allowed people to be hoisted up in the air in a two-person canvas attached to cables, and then float down 250 feet with the help of a parachute, like something out of a somewhat terrifying, beautiful dream. Originally built for the 1939 World Fair in Queens, the Parachute Jump is the only remnant of Steeplechase Park that remains standing.
Coney Island Circus Sideshow: It’s surprising that in a place that essentially gave birth to sideshow culture, there remains only one running show. What’s even more surprising is that this show isn’t all that well known. At only $10 a ticket, the Coney Island Circus Sideshow is a disturbingly delightful way to spend an hour. Don’t let the aging décor and slightly uncomfortable bleacher seats cramp your enjoyment; the 10-1 style performance will have you wincing, laughing, and gasping as swords are swallowed, fire is eaten, and steely nails are plunged into body parts. If you’re taking a true bite into the history of Coney Island, this 1920’s-style performance is a must-see. (Just hope you don’t get chosen to participate in the electric chair bit, but hope you do catch the eye of MC Ray Valenz. That human blockhead is a keeper.)
Steeplechase Pier and the Beach: If you can forgo watching a motorcycle gang clanking beers on the boardwalk for just one moment, you’ll remember that there’s an entire beach laid out in front of you. While the area directly in front of the park gets crowded with boisterous children, walking just a bit further to the left or right will take you to a more serene stretch of sand. (Don’t forget that Coney Island is flanked by Manhattan and Brighton beaches, if those are more your vibe.) Before wiggling your toes in the sand, make sure to stroll down Steeplechase Pier, located across from the Thunderbolt. Dutifully renovated after Hurricane Sandy, the spiffy lookin’ pier (which spans the length of three football fields) now features an aluminum canopy, double-sided wavy benches made from repurposed wood, and an observation deck at the last stretch of the pier, raised 30 inches for an even grander view of the Atlantic in front of you, and Coney in back. Stop for a few moments to watch the local crowds fish and observe beachgoers down below.
New York Aquarium and MCU Park: If you’d like to forgo the boardwalk on your visit to Coney Island, the New York Aquarium is only a short stroll down Surf Avenue. Originally opened in Battery Park in 1896, the aquarium moved to Coney Island in 1957 and is one of the oldest continually operating aquariums in the country. California sea lions, sand tiger sharks, black-footed penguins, and walruses all wait to greet you, year round. On the opposite end of the boardwalk is MCU Park, a minor league baseball stadium that’s home to the Brooklyn Cyclones. Check the schedule to see if you can catch a game on the day of your visit. Tickets are ridiculously cheap, and refreshments much less than at say, Mets or Yankee stadiums. (In gangster-related history, Max Elbert tell us that MCU Park was built at the approximate location of the former Harvard Inn, where Al Capone got slashed in the face as a teen and earned himself the nickname “Scarface.”)