“The only thing about America that interests me is Coney Island.” —Sigmund Freud
When I lost my job last May, after leaving the office and wandering the streets of Midtown in a teary haze but before getting drunk alone at 2:00 PM and deep-cleaning my apartment, I biked to Coney Island. I had long fantasized about going to Coney Island. I’m not quite sure why—I had been there before, on a weekend summer day like everyone else, and had been underwhelmed by the hordes of people and the grimy bathrooms and the hot dogs that seemed no different than hot dogs you could buy anywhere. Even still, something about Coney Island had come to represent pure freedom to me. I thought about it every morning when, while waiting on the Manhattan-bound F train platform for the metal cage packed with other reluctant and exhausted people, an F train going the other way would stop and open its doors. “This is a Stillwell Avenue-bound F local train,” the announcer would say, and I would think briefly about dashing down one set of stairs and up the other to board that train instead. It didn’t matter what I would do once I got to Coney Island; what mattered was what the journey would symbolize—freedom from routine, responsibility, convention.
Biking is the best way to get to Coney Island, if you’re able to do so. There’s a bike path on the Ocean Parkway—the country’s first bike path, dating from 1894—that leads from Prospect Park straight to the Coney Island boardwalk. The path is one of New York’s finest: no cars, two lanes divided by a metal rail, wooden benches should you want to stop and catch your breath. As you ride deeper out into Brooklyn, through Midwood and Sheepshead Bay and Gravesend, you forget that you’re still technically in New York City: the houses and the trees look like paper cut-outs from a children’s book. On that day in May, the scenery was a far cry from my drably carpeted office, and I felt a comforting sense of liberation. I may have been kicked out, but now I was free.
The feeling did not last long. When I reached the beach I locked my bike to the fence and went to sit on the sand. After a few minutes I realized I had no idea what I was doing there, and the next few months seemed to stretch out bleakly in front of me. I got back on my bike and returned home.
Coney Island as we know it began to take shape in the mid nineteenth-century, when the long, crooked island was divided into three parts, each belonging to a distinct social class. Manhattan Beach, at the east end, became a sort of Newport for the wealthy, while Brighton Beach in the middle attracted—fittingly—the middle class. West Brighton, on the west end, was a magnet for working people, and quickly became—to the annoyance and embarrassment of swankier developers and reformers advocating for the benefits of fresh air and saltwater bathing—a place for cheap, gaudy, thrills.
One of these was the Elephant Colossus, a 150-foot tall and 150-foot long wooden elephant structure that housed a concert hall, cigar store, museum, a gallery, and various kiosks. Its imposing structure greeted immigrants to the United States, whose ships would pass by Coney Island before dumping their seasick passengers out at Ellis Island. For a better view, visitors to the Colossus could peer through its glass eyeballs or climb the stairs to the howdah on the elephant’s back.
There were also primitive roller coasters that cost only five cents per ride, the newly invented hot dogs served with vast quantities of beer, sideshow attractions and shooting galleries, concert halls with dancers outfitted in flesh-colored tights and low-cut bodices, and, of course, ocean bathing, which allowed both men and women to strip off at least some of their clothing and enter the water—together.
In 1895, a series of Sunday blue laws were passed that banned music concerts on Sundays, scandalous outfits every day of the week, and all bars that were easily visible from the street. But in West Brighton, no one paid any attention. Coney Island remained a beer-soaked and sensual weekend paradise, where a nickel could buy an hour’s diversion and morals standards could be forgotten, or even ignored, if only for an afternoon.
In the early nineteenth-century heyday of Coney Island’s amusement parks, the three parks—Luna Park, Steeplechase, and Dreamland—each had their own flavor. Dreamland was the last to open, in 1904. Painted all white, it was designed to be the more elegant park relative to its neighbors, with a Venetian-style gondola ride. Much more disturbingly, it also featured a “Midget City,” an actual city in miniature inhabited by people with dwarfism for spectators to gawk at. Sigmund Freud visited Dreamland, and is reported to have said that the only thing about America that interested him was Coney Island.
The Dreamland era was short-lived, for it burned to the ground in 1911. The fire began in a ride called Hell Gate, which took its riders through rapids and whirlpools. A number of light bulbs exploded, and in the panic a worker kicked over a bucket of tar. Nearby, a three-year-old lion named Black Prince also panicked, and broke loose from captivity. He enjoyed only a few moments of freedom before he was shot twenty-four times by a group of police officers.
During the Depression, though few could afford the Coney Island attractions, the public still descended upon the beach in larger and larger numbers. This was in part thanks to the extension of the subway in 1920 and the opening of the boardwalk in 1921: people could now reach the beach at Coney Island in just forty-five minutes from Times Square and for only five cents. Families would pack their own lunches and leave behind their crowded, sweltering tenements for the crowded, sweltering beach, which at the very least was cooled by the breeze and offered an opportunity for bathing. Food stands would water down their lemonade so that they could sell it more cheaply. Sometimes people would even sleep on the beach, out in the open air.
There’s a Garry Winogrand photo I love called “Coney Island, New York City, New York,” from 1952. It shows four people at night on the sand, underneath a bridge of some sort. Three of the people are sitting: one man with his back against a pole and his knees bent up, one woman with her legs bent under her who is looking off to the side, and one man whose head is turned away from the camera. The fourth, a shirtless man in the center of the photo, is standing, hands on his hips, facing the camera directly as though to challenge the photographer. But we cannot see this fourth man’s head; it’s cut off by the bearings under the bridge. The decapitated man has puffed up his chest, his towel draped insouciantly over his elbow. We can’t see his facial expression. The effect is disturbing, but he is free from our gaze.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 2009 musical Love Never Dies, a sequel to The Phantom of the Opera, is set in Coney Island in 1919. The song “Coney Island Waltz” is a mournful ode to the dreamy island’s siren call:
Glistening and glimmering
Drenched in light
See it smile
Beckoning and shimmering
Like a dream
Every fantasy set free
Summer rising by the sea
During a press conference about the show, Webber remarked, “Of course, Coney Island today is nothing at all,” a statement met with outrage from Coney Island locals and New Yorkers fiercely attached to the nostalgia of their childhood beach days.
It’s true: attractions like the elaborate and joyful Mermaid Parade and the ballsy, masochistic Polar Bear Club’s New Year’s Day Swim do still bring plenty of visitors to Coney Island, as do the boardwalk and the restored amusement park rides—now awarded landmark status—in the summer. West Brighton is home to a large Eastern European Jewish community, with countless places to buy borscht and fur jackets and Russian-language newspapers. But the Elephant Colossus and Venetian gondola rides are no longer.
On a weekday morning a few weeks ago, I took a vacation day off from my new job and headed out to Coney Island again. This time I had to take the subway; the wind chill had brought the temperature into the low teens, and the streets were iced over from the blizzard the day before. The subway was largely empty, other than the puddles of dirty water that had run off from people’s boots and a few scattered newspapers glued to the floor. When the train emerges from underground on this route, the scenic view is mostly one of school bus parking lots, storage facilities, and more construction sites than you would think possible. There’s one massive cemetery with graves in perfectly ordered rows that seem to go on forever.
Seeing the Coney Island boardwalk in the winter feels almost embarrassing, as though you’re glimpsing it in a moment meant to be private. The signs for THUNDERBOLT and THE TICKLER and SEASIDE SWING and NATHAN’S HOT DOGS are as garish as ever, but without any customers and against the gloomy backdrop of any beach in winter—the sea a dismal grey, the sand a mousy brown—they look silly and out of place. Every few minutes, I would see a single person walking quickly, as if to get off the boardwalk as soon as possible. They all had wrapped their scarves up around their faces and pulled their fur-lined hoods over their heads. In front of a sign saying “Coney Island Beach” stood a lonely plastic palm tree, undeterred by the snow and ice.
In the off-season the rides don’t run. But the F-train, I noticed, is in some ways a curious mirror image of the nearby Thunderbolt roller coaster. From Neptune Ave you can see both of them, the subway on the right, the roller coaster on the left—both massive, curving structures upon which metal cars carry people along the same route, over and over again. The sound the cars make on the wooden tracks is similar, thTHUMP, thTHUMP, and if you close your eyes the arriving Manhattan-bound F train almost sounds like the Thunderbolt, only without the passengers’ screams.
Unlike so many, I never visited Coney Island as a child. I’d never even heard of it until my later teenage years, so any sense of nostalgia I have for it is entirely self-created. Maybe it’s just the feeling of the end of the subway line. But somehow for me it ‘s something more—a reminder that there are ways of living outside the routine of boarding a train and sitting in a cubicle and boarding the same train back home.