Coney Island, a tawdry three-mile protuberance in the belly of Brooklyn, has always been a rhinestone in the rough. From its earliest days as a seaside resort in the 1840s, it was known as “Sodom by the Sea.” Until the turn of the century, Coney Island was a playground for the rich and famous, who came to see the horse races in nearby Sheepshead Bay and enjoy the delights of the oceanfront hotels; but their incoming ferries and carriages were greeted by prostitutes and gamblers. When, by the 1920s, four BMT subway lines to Coney Island were completed and the masses could escape from the constricting heat of the inner city for a nickel ride, a visit to Coney Island was hardly the same as a visit to sanitized Jones Beach. The more passive seaside pursuits were always overshadowed by the omnipresent razzle-dazzle and flim-flam.
I can remember the mixture of awe and excitement I felt on trips to Coney Island as a young child in the 1930s. Getting there was an adventure in itself. The arduous journey was made by auto (no air-conditioning in those days), the large families jammed in together, along with blankets, bags of food, thermos bottles, and other beach sundries. To save the cost of changing clothes at the Municipal Bathhouse, most passengers wore their heavy, itchy woolen bathing suits under their clothes.
But having once arrived, the surge of sights, sounds, and smells was overwhelming: the wheezy carny music that always sounded like Grandma’s Victrola winding down; the smells of onions and burgers frying in slightly rancid oil; the staccato popping at the shooting galleries; the thunderous roars and shrieks from the roller coasters; the hucksters and barkers crooning their adenoidal messages through cracked brown megaphones—all of these flooded our senses with pulsating exhilaration and wonderment.
Most Brooklyn children first experienced real fireworks at Coney Island. Every Tuesday night during the summer season—and, of course, on the Fourth of July—a booming pyrotechnic extravaganza lit up the southern sky at 9 P.m. It was a tradition that continued for decades with a brief hiatus during World War II. But the real anxiety gripped us kids as we were forced to walk past the sideshow freaks. 1 recall trying to avert my eyes, but morbid fascination exerted too great a pull. I was especially terrified by the pinheaded twin girls and the boy with snake skin.
The beach itself proved to be a combination of bountiful joys mixed with assorted minor dangers. Playing in the surf and the cooling ocean spray was great fun. So was building castles and fortresses in the wet sand. But it was hardly a genteel experience, despite Parks Commissioner Robert Moses’s giant NO signs, which were posted at all entrances to the beach and forbade just about everything that everyone was doing on the boardwalk, under it, and on the beach. Getting from the boardwalk to the water was a painful journey. The sand was searingly hot and far from pristine. Broken glass, bottle caps, splintered boardwalk jetsam, and seashell shards paved the way. Mercifully, most of it was covered by a mosaic of blankets and towels, as well as supine Tarzans and prostrate Miss Americas who apparently didn’t mind getting sand in their bathing suits. Threading one’s way back through this human maze, which included an army of white-coated vendors hawking ice cream and candied nuts, was disorienting. On one August day in 1937, the New York Times reported that there were a million people at Coney Island, 125 lost children, 40 peddlers arrested, and 57 others apprehended and sentenced for beach violations.
In those days, Luna Park—like Steeplechase, a separate enclosed amusement area—added to the surreal quality of the surroundings with its hundreds of towers and minarets. It looked like an Arabian Nights fantasy designed by Captain Nemo. Opened in 1903, it was fading fast during the depression. Peeled paint, crumbling towers, and unreplaced light bulbs added to the eeriness. But even in its heyday, it evoked a quality of tinseled melancholy. The Russian author Maxim Gorky once spent a whole day being squired around Coney Island on his visit to the United States. As they were leaving Luna Park, he was asked by his hosts what he thought about it. He reflected for a moment and simply said, “What a sad people you must be!”
In the early and mid 1940s, a series of fires devastated Luna Park’s buildings. Finally, in 1949, it closed its doors to make way for a parking lot and, later, a huge subsidized housing project. All of the hotels, save one, also had been torn down by the 1940s. Only the Half Moon hotel still loomed forlornly at the western end of the amusement area, a sad postscript. It received a surge of notoriety in 1941 when Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, an informant on “Murder, Inc.” (the Brooklyn-based crime syndicate), managed while in custody to “fall” to his death from an upper floor before he could testify.
For teenagers and young adults, Coney Island was a hedonistic heaven. For starters, we didn’t have to go there with our parents and eat homemade American cheese sandwiches that fused in the heat with the Tastee Bread and the blowing sand. Nathan’s Famous on Surf and Stillwell avenues became our alimentary Valhalla. It was nickel paradise: juicy hot dogs, chow mein on a bun, barbecued beef sandwiches, and orange drinks—all at five cents each. Thick cut french fries and sweet corn-on-the-cob were a dime, but the creamy frozen custard at the stand just west of Nathan’s across Schweikert’s Alley was also a nickel.
Further east, Feltman’s, a sprawling indoor-outdoor garden compound, was a more expensive family restaurant. Hot dogs, which were invented by Charles Feltman before the turn of the century, cost a dime there, and shore dinners (seafood) could be had by really well-heeled visitors. Feltman’s closed in 1954, probably because of the disappearance of big spenders and the popular prices of the enterprising Nathan Handwerker.
Getting to Coney Island by public transportation was also fun. The drab chocolate-colored BMT subway trains that went to the seaside were transformed on weekends into pleasure conveyances, filled with the sounds of harmonica solos, vocal harmonizing, and squealing kids racing up and down the aisles. (When the Transit Authority overhauled these cars many years later, it was discovered that their original color had been red, but the decades of grime had taken their toll.) After Decoration Day (now Memorial Day), the Coney Island Trolley Line would convert to “open air” cars that had open railings instead of panels and windows on their sides. The cool ocean breezes that greeted the happy riders were the closest thing to air-conditioning.
But the really great rides, of course, were in Coney Island. Luna Park offered such rides as the Dodgem cars that careened into each other, propelled by electric trolley poles that sizzled with blue sparks and crackled with each collision, the Ferris Wheel (the colored cars unexpectedly lunged free halfway up, the white cars didn’t), and the Shoot the Chute water ride. For the fearless Luna Park had the Cyclone, the Thunderbolt (both roller coasters), and the Loop-the-Loop, with cars that turned its riders over and over in the air. Steeplechase Park had such rides as the earthquake stairs, the rotating barrel, and the iron racehorses, which carried their mounts around the elliptical track surrounding the park that gave it its name. The 250-foot Parachute Jump, a popular attraction at the World’s Fair of 1939, was rebuilt in 1941 on the Steeplechase pier and has dominated the Coney skyline ever since. The 25-story-high, mushroom-shaped tower dropped its cable-guided seats in simulated free fall for a few seconds, and then, with a wrenching jolt, the parachutes opened and descended to the ground with their ashen-faced passengers. It made national headlines when the chute of an amiable out-of-town couple jammed while they were dropping. They had to sit there patiently overnight until their rescuers could figure out how to get them down.
Steeplechase, which had a huge funny face of a man over its entrance leering at the throngs below, was very special. A flat fee bought not only a good number of rides but, for pubescent young men, the joys of voyeurism. Strategically placed air jets sent the flimsy summer skirts of shrieking young women billowing up to reveal glimpses of shocking pink unmentionables. Steeplechase outlasted all of its competitors, but it came to a convulsive end in 1965 after a series of devastating fires and financial setbacks. In 1966 it was sold to Fred Trump—Donald’s father—for $2.5 million.
During World War II, Coney Island became a hugely popular diversion for soldiers and sailors, as well as our allies. Visiting French servicemen voted “Ile de Conee” among the top three attractions in New York. Home on a brief leave, I found the area somewhat subdued at night. The boardwalk lights were painted black on the sides facing the ocean, and we sat in the darkness peering out at the Atlantic as we munched our beloved franks.
Coney Island peaked as a recreational area just after the war. July 3, 1947, was a record day: 2.6 million people were reported to be at the beach (though these “official” figures were wildly exaggerated). Autos were in short supply, and the subways, too, were carrying record numbers of riders. But soon the GI bill’s low mortgages helped the suburbs to mushroom, and President Eisenhower’s road-building programs made recreational areas all over the region accessible.
In the early 1950s, the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce and the Coney Island Board of Trade were in dispute about future plans for the area. Some, like Robert Moses, wanted to make the area more residential and cleanse it of its honky-tonk atmosphere. When an assistant district attorney accused a sideshow act called “Tirza, the Wine Bath Girl,” of being “lewd and licentious,” and tried to have its license revoked, Tirza, a comely blond, appealed for help to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, where I was working as a reporter. My editor asked me to get the facts.
Tirza’s act involved a not-very-revealing, languid striptease under a fountain of magenta-colored water. To rig up this contraption, Tirza told me that she had to be accredited as a licensed plumber. She claimed to be the victim of discrimination because the owner of a nearby batting range wanted to force her out so he could expand. A quick check revealed that the assistant D.A. was, in fact, the son of the batting range mogul with a somewhat Anglicized name. So Tirza survived that scrape, only to fall victim to changing times, changing tastes, and inept dancing.
One of the best sideshows in Coney Island was free. The Coney Island Magistrate’s Court on West Eighth Street opened for business every summer in the 1940s and 1950s to handle the parade of miscreants who violated the local laws or regulations of the amusement parks. Each year, Magistrate Charles E. Ramsgate, relishing the assignment, volunteered to preside. The court docket reflected in microcosm the human elements of Coney in the summertime: the droning voice of the court attendant sent a stream of seashore brawlers, gymnasts, peddlers, ballplayers, vagrants, undressers, and peeping toms before the judge, who meted out justice tempered by humor.
A blushing young lady was arrested for undressing at the beach. “Your Honor,” she pleaded, “my bathing suit was filled with sand, and I took it off while I was wrapped in a blanket.”
“That will cost you five dollars for impersonating an Indian,” intoned the judge in mock seriousness.
Almost every day, the judge would be required to deal with the women who vacationed with their families in ramshackle bungalows along Mermaid Avenue and the small alleyways off Surf Avenue. Forced to share kitchen facilities, the matrons were regularly hauled into court when quarrels degenerated into blows.
When a derelict gentleman named Duffy was arrested for sleeping in the Stillwell Avenue subway station, he, apparently a frequent visitor in Magistrate’s Court, greeted the judge like an old friend.
“I’m not a vagrant this time,” he said proudly, and produced a bankbook with five hundred dollars on deposit and traveler’s checks for forty dollars.
“That’s just great, Duffy,” grinned the judge. “I’m giving you thirty days to count your money.”
The human comedy was very much part of the fabric of Coney Island. But by the 1950s the color was beginning to fade. Despite the annual Mardi Gras, baby parades, hot-dog eating contests, and air shows overhead, Coney was slipping inexorably into decline. The new aquarium shored up the cast end a bit, but new zoning codes enacted by the city shrunk the amusement area to make way for public- and middle-income housing. By 1965, Coney Island had a population of 100,000 year-round residents. Surf Avenue became the Maginot Line behind which the amusement park, with its back to the ocean, sought to stave off the onslaughts of change.
The concessionaires and the merchants held on to hopes that the 1964-65 World’s Fair would bring a new boom to Coney Island. But 1964 was their worst season in 28 years. Two years later, on Memorial Day weekend, a mob of four thousand youngsters-mostly teenagers, some from the nearby housing projects-rampaged through the area, forcing businesses to close down early and lick their wounds. Two hundred cops were brought in to quell the disorder, and twenty mounted police helped scatter the crowd. Later that same summer, the newspapers carried stories about Parks Commissioner Thomas Hoving’s struggle to deal with the mounting garbage at the beach, a problem that had been growing for years. The mess after the Fourth of July holiday was so bad that the sanitation department had to be brought in to help.
But three decades have gone by, and Coney Island is still hanging on: the Cyclone rumbles on, the shooting galleries are popping away, and Nathan’s is still doing famously. The nickel paradise? That vanished like the Indian on the five-cent piece.