June 13, 1884. The world’s first roller coaster opened on this day in 1884 at Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY. Built and later patented by LaMarcus Thompson, the “Gravity Pleasure Switchback Railway” boasted two parallel 600-foot tracks that descended from 50 feet. The cars traveled at six miles per hour. Riders paid five cents each for their rides. The roller coaster was a sensation, and soon amusement parks all over the US and the world featured them.*
If you’re thinking of visiting Coney Island on a weekday in early June, it’s safe to assume you’ll be spared crowds of summer tourists, school holiday makers, and amusement ride thrill seekers. Instead, you’ll share its long herringbone paneled boardwalk with strolling locals, joggers, cyclists, and probably a few sightseers. Come lunchtime, you won’t even have to line up at Nathan’s Famous original hot dog stand for a 2000-caloric mega meal for two…
A neighbourhood that seems to be more renowned for its annual events, theme park attractions, and a Russian immigrant population, it’s a place that has a charm that harkens to the good ‘ol days.
Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating contest on July 4 will celebrate its 97th year here; enthusiasts brave freezing temperatures of the Atlantic in the annual New Year’s Day Polar Bear swim; and three amusement rides, Cyclone rollercoaster, Wonder ‘Ferris’ Wheel, and Parachute Jump, are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
On an ordinary day, it’s fun to see the rides, hear the Russian chit-chat, and photograph the vintage storefronts and ticket booths that add colour to a neighbourhood home to much grey and brown.
Coney Island is located in Brooklyn – it’s the final stop on the yellow Q subway line that connects it to Manhattan. The Atlantic Ocean lines the peninsula’s shoreline, and it shares a fringing boardwalk with the next ‘hood over, Brighton Beach. Interestingly, Coney Island “was formerly an outer barrier island, but became partially connected to the mainland by landfill.”**
In much the same vein as other outlying water facing neighborhoods of major cities, Coney Island was intended as a vacation spot in the 19th C. From the onset, amusement rides and themes parks defined the neighbourhood, and became a major contributor its economy. The first carousel was built on the Island in 1876.
The first hotel opened at Coney Island in 1829 and by the post-Civil War years, the area was an established resort with theaters, restaurants and a race track. Between 1897 and 1904, three amusement parks sprang up at Coney Island–Dreamland, Luna Park and Steeplechase. By the 1920s, Coney Island was reachable by subway and summer crowds of a million people a day flocked there for rides, games, sideshows, the beach and the two-and-a-half-mile boardwalk, completed in 1923. ***
The hot dog is said to have been invented in Coney Island; Nathan’s opened in 1916, and achieved instant success. This could have been in large part due to the hot dog eating contest that has been running ever since its grand opening, perhaps?
Coney Island started to suffer in the mid 20th C: the impact of WWII, an influx of local gangs, and a low income housing project urban-renewal plan, all contributed to driving away tourists; they sought out other vacation spots like Long Island. Though the Boardwalk’s New York Aquarium has stayed open since 1957, all the original amusement parks were closed down by 1964. Efforts to revive the industry for a while after were unfounded.
The majority of Coney Island’s population resides in approximately thirty 18- to 24-storey towers, mostly public housing. Since the 1990s there has been steady revitalization of the area. Many townhouses were built on empty lots, popular franchises opened, and Keyspan Park was built to serve as the home for the Brooklyn Cyclones baseball team. Once home to many Jewish residents, Coney Island’s main population groups today are African American, Italian American, Hispanic, and Russian and Ukrainian immigrants.**
In 2003, Mayor Michael Bloomberg took an interest in revitalizing Coney Island as a possible site for the 2012 Olympics. When the city lost the bid for the Olympics, revitalization plans were rolled over to the Coney Island Development Corporation (CIDC), which came up with a plan to restore the resort.**
Since then, issues with developers, designs for new amusement parks, and rezoning plans for hotels and housing have been circulating. A new roller coaster was built in April 2011 as part of the area’s restoration efforts. Today, many of the old theme parks have reopened and their rides are in operation.
To me, the area looks to have the potential but I’m not certain of future development plans. In the meantime, the hot dog eating Contest as well as traditional theme park rides will continue to promote it as a tourist attraction. The male record for most hot dogs eaten is currently set at a whopping 68 hot dogs; female – at an unbelievable 41. I tried one of the ‘dogs – they were good… but are they really that palatable? I just can’t imagine what goes on over Independence Day. I’ll watch it on Travel Channel if I happen to catch the shenanigans while channel surfing.
*answers.com **Wikipedia ***history.com