Scrawled on the cornice of a dilapidated building on Coney Island’s Surf Avenue is “Shore Hotel. Nature’s Paradise By the Sea.” But paradise this isn’t. On Coney Island’s main thoroughfare, it sits in the midst of a mish-mash of garish-colored patches of buildings, “Stores for Lease” signs, boarded-up windows, and neon that heralds “Eldorado Auto Skooter,” “Clam Bar,” and “Nathan’s Famous.”
On an off-season walk in Coney Island, New York City’s legendary beach spot is a mix of the timeless and the left-behind-by-time. The beach and boardwalk along the Atlantic Ocean have a wintry peacefulness unattached to events and man’s whimsies about favorite resorts. On the other hand, empty spaces, vacant storefronts, and graffiti speak of a resort long neglected since its heyday in the early 20th century and pre-World War II.
Coney Island’s central neighborhood is perched between a glorious past, recent decades when activity and abuse teeter-tottered, and an unknown future. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Administration wants to rezone this segment of Coney Island and make it into a newly resurgent year-round destination with amusement park rides, new housing, hotels, entertainment, and shops, while the Municipal Art Society and a developer have their own plans, and the public seeks to shape what kind of Coney Island will evolve (see “Whose Dreams Will Revive Coney Island?”). Perhaps curiously, in the midst of experiencing not only the emptiness of this beach neighborhood on a late-winter day but some of its dreariness and decay, I feel optimistic that a resurrected Coney Island will emerge.
When I first got off the Q train, which loops through several neighborhoods of Brooklyn before arriving in Coney Island, I headed right toward the beach. The late-afternoon sun gleamed on the sand. Fewer than a dozen people strolled the long and peaceful beach, easily outnumbered by the seagulls. This is one of the spots where New York City touches the Atlantic Ocean. Those walking had plenty of a partially snow-covered beach to themselves to feel the wind and listen to the waves.
When one walks in Coney Island, it’s easy to feel suddenly in the past. Signs like “piña colada” and “cotton candy” conjured up images of my days at the Jersey Shore in the Sixties and Seventies. The scene didn’t feel of today, even though I know thousands come here each summer to get their beach fix and swim in the ocean.
Three huge rides, which are official New York City landmarks much like buildings, tower above the area: the Parachute Jump, Cyclone, and Wonder Wheel. Looking up at the crown top of the Parachute Jump, which has become a familiar landmark to Brooklynites for generations, I could almost hear and see the screaming, excited riders of years ago. James H. Strong invented the Parachute Jump, which was originally built at the New York World’s Fair of 1939. In 1940, the ride was then rebuilt at Coney Island’s Steeplechase Park, where it gave so many thrills and memories until 1968.
Right off Surf Avenue is the white, wooden Cyclone roller coaster, which some have termed one of the world’s greatest coasters. Built in 1927, it’s one of the last wooden-track roller coasters. In this day of mega parks, there’s something sweet about its size and presence right off the avenue. The 89-year-old Wonder Wheel, part of Deno’s amusement park, is aptly named because the sight of it does spark wonder. A 150-foot-tall Ferris wheel-like ride, it is bright sea green and red, and delicate as a web. You’ve got to love the name of the company that built it: the Eccentric Ferris Wheel Amusement Co.
Nathan’s Famous was a must-stop on my walk, for a Coney Island hot dog. It’s open year-round, at 1310 Surf Ave., near Stillwell Avenue. This is the site of the original Nathan’s, where Polish immigrant Nathan Handwerker started a hot dog stand in 1916, using a recipe for frankfurters that his wife Ida had developed. Today, this hangar-like building, with bright yellow billboard-type signs promoting “frankfurters,” “fresh cut fries,” and “clam bar,” looks much like it must have in 1960 or 1980.
While up and down Surf Avenue it was fairly quiet, on a late afternoon a line of customers snaked back in Nathan’s big, metallic garage-like interior. My hot dog, grilled just right, had enough chili on it that I could almost eat it with a fork. (My mind wondered: Did the man who won the famous Fourth of July hot dog eating contest last year by downing 59 of these juicy frankfurters have them with chili? He can’t have had! Thousands come to the contest each year.) The french fries were thick and delicious.
Knowing that I had more than a few calories to burn off, I continued walking along Surf Avenue. Most storefronts on this March day were either shuttered for the season or vacant. But one suddenly caught my eye: more than 100 varied, colorful candy apples, from caramel to original to toasted coconut, in the window of Williams Candy at 1318 Surf Ave. Williams Candy has been making its sweet offerings for more than 70 years. This small shop is packed with all types of candy apples, caramel popcorn, rock candy, cotton candy, marshmallow stick treats, licorice, and ice cream. During the season, it stays open until long past midnight for lovers of sweets.
I gazed down along Surf Avenue to KeySpan Park, home of the Brooklyn Cyclones, a Minor League team affiliated with the New York Mets, and a place that packs big crowds all season long. On a cold March day, the idea of watching a baseball game within an outfielder’s throw of an Atlantic Ocean beach while smelling the salt air was irresistible. To be sure, strong signs of life persist and thrive in this core of Coney Island, from KeySpan Park and Nathan’s to the New York Aquarium and the honky-tonk attractions. How could such a unique place have been so neglected and ill-served for decades (such as when the city devised a plan to bring casino gambling to Coney Island in the late 1970s, creating land speculation that went nowhere)?
Coney Island’s destiny is now being decided. Will the newest efforts by the city and civic groups protect Coney Island from developers eventually constructing oceanfront condos that make it like so many other places? Will it become Disney Lite or retain the eccentric character that made it famous? Seeing Coney Island’s empty lots made me feel surprisingly hopeful, like it’s an open frontier waiting for the right revitalization visions, the political and civic leadership, involved communities, and the spunk and wisdom – which just may be there much more than in the past.
After my walk, it was time to grab the Q train at the Stillwell Avenue transit station, which New York City Transit renovated in a project completed in 2004. The station is a marvel, an eye-catching green and buff-colored building with a soaring solar-paneled roof. Its system generates enough electricity to meet the needs of 20 single-family houses per year, so that very little artificial light is needed in the structure from sunrise to sunset. Its amazing use of the sun’s power embodies a sense of renewal and rejuvenation.
Hopefully, this quality will abound in Coney Island’s future.
Note: For a look at the proposals to revitalize Coney Island and the Municipal Art Society’s ImagineConey initiative and exhibit in 2009, see “Whose Dreams Will Revive Coney Island?” To explore Coney Island history, visit the Coney Island History Project exhibition space, open weekends Memorial Day through Labor Day. It is located near the Cyclone roller coaster on Surf Avenue near West 10th Street.