It’s summertime, and the livin’ in New York City is . . . hot and muggy. If you can’t make it out of town for a visit to the Hamptons, or the Caribbean, or the south of France, at least for the cost of one swipe of a MetroCard each way you can still get to a beach and not even leave the five boroughs. I think calling Coney Island “the playground of the world” (as the sign near the Wonder Wheel proclaims) is an over-statement, but it can be a fun day trip. I will note that the sea breeze is a real thing on these sticky August days, refreshing you even if all you do is walk along the water as the waves lap your ankles.
Coney Island was in fact once a barrier island, but became attached to the Brooklyn mainland via landfill. The source of the name “Coney” is uncertain – it could be due to a large number of wild rabbits, or coneys, but also could derive from someone’s name. Native Americans called it Narrioch, meaning “always in light” because of the abundant sunshine on the beach. After the Civil War, it became a popular seaside destination, and large piers were built. However, it was with the addition of rides that Coney Island began to take on the familiar persona of an amusement park at the beach. The United States’ first roller coaster, Switchback Gravity Railway (apparently they had yet to figure out how to create memorable names), opened in 1884. While the early 20th Century led to Coney Island’s heyday with the creation of Steeplechase Park, Luna Park, and Dreamland, it also began to develop a reputation as a somewhat seedier place as well – “Sodom by the Sea.” This didn’t keep it from becoming the #1 tourist attraction in the country (in fact, it could have helped), with 100,000 visitors a day, on average (to compare, Disney World’s Magic Kingdom averages about 56,000 a day, the most of any current theme park). Following World War II and some demolition (unsurprisingly, sponsored by Robert Moses) Coney Island began a steady decline that reached a nadir in the 1970s and ’80s. A steady revitalization began in the early years of the 21st Century, and despite serious damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Coney Island is looking better these days than it has in a long time.
Recently I spent a day at Coney Island, taking the 4 subway from the Upper East Side and transferring to the N at Union Square. It was a solid 90 minute journey, so bring a good book – or a good companion – if you plan to make the trek. Getting out of the Stillwell Avenue subway station, you can’t miss Nathan’s, the home of the famous (or nauseatingly infamous) hot dog eating contests every July 4th. My personal preference is for pizza (you can’t go wrong with either Grimaldi or Totonno) but my friends and family who like hot dogs love Nathan’s (just please don’t try to eat 70 of them in 10 minutes).
Once you get to the boardwalk, there are many competing places to eat, but I’m personally more interested in the rides on one side of the boardwalk and the Atlantic ocean on the other.
The Wonder Wheel is my favorite ride, built in 1920. It’s 120 feet tall and many of the cars are not fixed to the rim but swing back and forth as the wheel goes around -it’s thrilling.
From the top of the Wonder Wheel, I noticed lower Manhattan shimmering off in the distance like a mirage.
Of course the most famous ride in Coney Island is the Cyclone, a wooden coaster built in 1927 that is both a New York City landmark and on the national Register for Historic Places. I’ve ridden it a few times, and it still delivers plenty of excitement and the very real possibility of whiplash.
Walking back along the beach rather than the boardwalk, it is fun to walk along the ocean’s edge and feel the cool breeze. The beach can be packed, particularly on summer weekends, but it is kept clean and the sand raked, and there are lifeguards. On the day I was there, lifeguards were keeping people out of the water because both sharks and sting rays had been sighted!
If the idea of a seaside apartment to live in or use over weekends appeals, real estate values are beginning to improve in Coney Island – but still there are many apartments readily available to buy, averaging about $417/sq ft. Neighboring Brighton Beach has been rapidly increasing in value, with apartments there now at $665/sq ft, on average, and it is possible that Coney Island will follow this trend as more money is poured into its revitalization.
There is much more to do on Coney Island (the NY Aquarium and the minor league baseball team the Brooklyn Cyclones, to name only two), but one of my favorite ways to end a day there is with a drink on the boardwalk. It’s hard to know which is more fun: people-watching on the boardwalk, or gazing past them to watch the ocean as the sun begins to set. A day at the beach combined with a day at the amusement park – and all without leaving New York City.