Coney Island: America's Greatest Playground

Step right up, ladies and gentlemen! Right here in this very post, for your enjoyment and reading pleasure, we reveal the fantastical, the perverse, and the unbelievable history of the one, the only … Coney Island!

In 1884, it had the only hotel in the world shaped like a giant elephant. In the 1920s, it was home to Violetta the Limbless Girl and Toney the Alligator-Skinned Boy. And in 2003, it was the only place in America where you could fire a paintball gun at a human target for the paltry fee of $3. Yes, Coney Island has always been one of a kind.

America's playground didn't spring from the foreheads of entertainment entrepreneurs fully formed and ready to corrupt the masses. Instead, its beginning unfolded much like the history of New York itself.

In 1609, Henry Hudson happened upon a barren sandbar separated from the New York mainland by a shallow creek. What would one day become Coney Island was just a spit of land infested with wild bunny rabbits. According to legend, the fervor with which the rabbits enjoyed themselves impressed early settlers, who decided to name the island in the animals' honor: (The word "cony" is Middle English for rabbit.) Half a century later, English colonists purchased "Rabbit Island," along with the rest of south Brooklyn, from the native Canarsee Indians for the bargain price of some wampum, two guns, and three pounds of powder.

Coney Island remained as barren as the day Hudson found it until pleasure cruises and sea bathing became popular in the early 1800s. Eager to capitalize on the new American infatuation, entrepreneurs opened Shell Road, connecting the burgeoning borough of Brooklyn to Coney Island via a toll road paved with oyster shells. In 1829, Coney Island's first hotel opened, soon followed by more hotels, clam shacks, and bathing pavilions. Within 30 years, Coney Island had become a full-fledged resort, attracting New York's wealthy as well as its working class.

During the 1870s and 1880s, the upper crust moved on to distant, fancier beaches, and Coney Island became a blue-collar getaway. It was democratic, sure, but slowly it succumbed to gambling, drinking, brawling, and prostitution. Partial credit for the demise belonged to John McKane, Coney Island's exceptionally corrupt police chief (who was also the superintendent of a large Sunday school). Under his charge, the resort was nicknamed "Sodom by the Seaside." Garbage boats regularly dumped tons of rotting vegetables, tin cans, and even dog and cat corpses just a mile off shore. When the tide came in, so did New York's refuse.

Fortunately, by the turn of the century, Coney Island had cleaned up its act -sort of. Lager was still the drink of choice, and ladies of the night still came cheap, but with McKane serving time in Sing Sing for election fraud, law and order was largely restored. Fine restaurants and hotels sprung up to cater to a more sophisticated crowd, and hundreds of thousands of people began piling onto Coney Island's beaches. By 1906, Coney Island had become so popular that, in a single day that September, more than 200,000 postcards were mailed from the resort.

Coney Island owed most of these visitors to one of its own inventions -the amusement park. While the sideshows thrilled and astounded, the new roller coasters let couples touch each other more freely than was permissible in polite society. Each of Coney Island's three big amusement parks offered strange and novel diversions. Steeplechase Park featured the Blowhole Theater, where hidden air vents blew up ladies' skirts, and clowns zapped gentlemen with electric prods. And at Luna Park, infant incubators (holding real premature babies) showcased the cutting edge of science and entertainment. Last but not least, there was Dreamland with a miniature village known as Midget City, which was inhabited by 300 little people. Legend has it that when Sigmund Freud and his protege Carl Jung visited Dreamland, Freud declared Coney Island the only part of America that interested him.

In 1922, Coney Island hit its high. The resort's famous Boardwalk opened, and the $1.9 million construction cemented Coney's reputation as the world's favorite seaside retreat. Even through the Depression, it remained vibrant and popular, a cheap thrill for cash-strapped New Yorkers -a nickel to ride the subway there, a nickel for a hot dog, and a nickel for each of the rides.

It wasn't until World War II that Coney Island's star began to fade. By that time, young lovers didn't need the Barrel of Fun to rub against each other; they had cars and movie theaters instead. Affordable automobiles meant that people could drive to clean beaches and new amusement parks farther away. And Coney Island, so reliant on fantasy, couldn't compete with the more convincing illusions created by television and the movies. Plus, movie theaters offered visitors another novel new invention -air conditioning.

At the same time, New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses began moving forward with plans to turn Coney Island into a public park by bulldozing dozens of acres of entertainment area. As a result, the grand amusement parks began to close, leaving scars of blighted property behind. The nearby run-down neighborhood became housing projects, and later, arson became an almost-daily occurrence. The last wooden pavilion on the Boardwalk burned down in 1970.

Other crimes on Coney Island ranged from brawls to full-scale riots. Ten days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, angry mobs looted stores up and down the park's two main thoroughfares. Most notably, a group of rioters hurled a vat of mustard at police officers who were trying to herd them onto the subway; 21 people were hospitalized and 47 arrested.

By 1975, Coney Island had hit rock bottom. Only about 16 blocks of the original park remained, and even that was surrounded by vast wastelands of empty property. Abandoned cars and rubble littered the streets. The once majestic Loews's Theater, renamed the Shore, showed porn. Longtime Coney institutions were boarded up, and underneath the Boardwalk, drug addicts, prostitutes, and homeless people filled the beach.

Throughout this period of decline, interested parties -from city officials to real estate developers to longtime Coney Islanders- proposed grand revitalization schemes. Unfortunately, zoning complications stymied most of the plans, and Coney Island sank further into despair. Preservationists managed to save a few landmarks (Deno's Wonderwheel, the Cyclone roller coaster, and the Parachute Jump), but many others were torn down or left to natural deaths.

(YouTube link)

Still, Coney Island found ways to hang on. Although the physical structure continued to decay, efforts to preserve the landmark's cultural history gained momentum. In the 1980s, Dick Zigun, the self-appointed mayor of Coney Island, founded Coney Island U.S.A., a nonprofit company dedicated to the dying arts of 19th-century American pop culture. To that end, he started Sideshows by the Seashore in 1985, ensuring that Coney Island remained a place where you could see a man hammering a nail into his nose on purpose.

Renewed interest in Coney Island has shown some results in the past few years. For one thing, baseball is back in Brooklyn. In 2001, Keyspan Park opened up in the shadow of the Parachute Jump and since has become home to the popular Mets farm team, the Cyclones. But the construction of Keyspan Park illustrates a point that Coney Island purists tend to stress: For everything new in Coney Island, something old and nostalgic dies.

The Thunderbolt, photographed in 1995.

In the case of Keyspan, it was the dilapidated wooden Thunderbolt roller coaster. Built in 1925, the towering ride sat next to the new stadium, which then-mayor Rudy Giuliani touted as the revitalization of Coney Island. Early one morning, after the official groundbreaking of Keyspan, bulldozers stealthily started work demolishing the ride. The mayor claimed the Thunderbolt was a hazard ready to collapse on its own. And yet, it took bulldozers several days to bring the old coaster down.

Today, a large corporation stands poised to turn Coney Island into a swath of luxury beachfront condos by leveling the remaining entertainment area and sweeping away the last vestiges of its popular past. There's not much left to tear down, though. Coney Island is a fraction of what it once was. But it's what it once was -the nostalgic Coney Island of the past- that makes people so concerned about its future.

(Image credit: Wikipedia user Psychocadet)


Coney Island has long been dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure. But the fact is that some of those pursuits have been pretty weird. Here are a few highlights from Coney's lengthy, sometimes less-than-illustrious history.

1903: Thomas Edison Electrocutes Topsy the Elephant. Why? After a drunk trainer fed Topsy a lit cigarette, the elephant went crazy and killed him. Also, Edison had a point to make. He was terrified that Nikola Tesla's alternating current would prove more popular than his direct current. If he had to electrocute an elephant with Tesla's invention to make it look dangerous, so be it. Edison even filmed the ordeal.

1907: Steeplechase Park Burns Down. Its founder, George C. Tilyou, pledges to rebuild it -bigger and better. In the meantime, he charges a 10-cent admission to see the smoldering ruins.

1916: First Nathan's Famous Hot Dog eating Contest. Legend has it that the event took place among four immigrants arguing over who was more patriotic. The winner ate 13 hot dogs in 12 minutes.

1982: The Mermaid Parade Makes Its Inaugural Romp Down Surf Avenue. The annual tradition, started by the self-appointed mayor of Coney Island, Dick Zigun, is a glorious affair, consisting mostly of scantily-clad women dressed as mermaids. When the sea creatures flop onto the beach, they "unlock the ocean," thus opening the summer season.

2003: "Shoot the Freak" First Appears on the Boardwalk. The simple "game" features a guy outfitted in lacrosse gear, running back and forth in what appears to be the backyard of a trailer park, trying to dodge the bullets of a paintball gun. You wield the paintball gun.


The article above, written by Linda Rodriguez, is reprinted with permission from the March-April 2008 issue of mental_floss magazine.

Be sure to visit mental_floss' website and blog for more fun stuff!

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