With the summer season fast approaching, and the increasing near-certitude that we will soon be able to return to Coney Island, it’s occured to me that, though I’ve done 125 posts about the People’s Playground, and they essentially tell the whole story of the fabled resort, they’re not laid out in a comprehensible order. You essentially have to browse and surf it. So this post will be a platform for anyone who wants to wrap their arms around the whole story, laid out in a more logical way. The links will take you to more in-depth articles.
Coney Island is located in Southwest Brooklyn, at the terminus of several elevated train lines, now part of MTA’s subway system, but each originally built by individual entrepreneurs to service beachside resort hotels and racetracks starting around the 1870s. Like all the islands off Long Island’s south shore, it is a built-up sand bar. It ceased being an actual island in the early 20th century when part of the channel that separated it from the mainland was filled in. Before it was developed, it was a place of great natural beauty. A well-kept secret is that some out-of-the way pockets around Coney Island Creek have remained relatively pristine, with beach grass, dunes, and trees.
Though it was the earliest, most successful, and longest lasting, Coney Island was not the ONLY amusement area in greater NYC in its day. For a time in the early days, there was also nearby Bergen Beach (owned by Percy Williams, later to become one of the great vaudeville moguls), North Beach (located where LaGuardia airport is now), Rockaway Playland (and its predecessors), Ft. George in upper Manhattan (owned by future Hollywood movie moguls Marcus Loew, and Joseph and Nicholas Schenck), and Palisades Park (across the Hudson in New Jersey, also run by the Schencks). Later, in the 1960s, there was a major, but short-lived park in the Bronx called Freedomland.
As it began to develop into an amusement destination, Coney Island absorbed and borrowed MUCH from the great world’s fairs of the late 19th century and early 20th century. Among the earliest attractions at Coney Island were several magnificent sky towers that allowed vistors to see for miles around. The world’s first roller coasters were at Coney Island, Another of the early attractions was the Elephant Hotel.
Coney Island has never been just one amusement park, but several. The first was Sea Lion Park (1895-1901), founded by Captain Paul Boyton. Then came George Tilyou and Steeplechase Park (1894-1964) named after the local race tracks, followed by Luna Park (1903-1944) owned and designed by the team of Thompson and Dundy, then Dreamland (1904-1911) started by a consortium of local businessmen. The summit of Coney Island’s fabulousness as a destination is often said to have been that period (1904-11) when all three parks were operating simultaneously. Dreamland burned down in 1911 but for long afterward it was succeeded by the Dreamland Circus Sideshow. In 1915 Madison Square’s Eden Musée (a fabulous wax museum), moved the best of its collections to Coney. The iconic Wonder Wheel was built in 1920; the famous boardwalk dates to around that time, built by local boosters in emulation of Atlantic City. The still standing Shore Theatre was built in 1925 (it’s located in a hotel that’s presently being renovated). The New York Aquarium (America’s oldest) moved to Coney Island in 1957. Parks of the later years have included Astroland (1962-2009), Deno’s Wonderwheel Park (est. 1983) and the new Luna Park (est. 2010).
The hot dog was invented at Coney Island. The first innovator was restaurateur Charles Feltman; the nickel frank was pioneered by Nathan’s. The Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest may go back as far as 1916, but has verifiably been held every Fourth of July since 1972, and has been the center of international attention since the 1990s.
From 1903 to 1954 Coney Island had its own Mardi Gras parade.
Several notable vaudeville stars performed at Coney Island in the early years. Read about them here. You’ll also find biographies of many of the great sideshow stars of Coney scattered throughout the dedicated section.
Over the decades, fires destroyed much of what had been built in Coney Island. Read about the major ones here.
The revitalization of Coney Island began with Dick Zigun’s Coney Island USA in the 1980s. CIUSA is the not-for-profit that produces the annual Mermaid Parade, the Coney Island Circus Sideshow, the Coney Island Museum (where I frequently have had the honor of speaking), the Coney Island Film Festival, burlesque shows and theatre plays, and much else throughout the year. In 2001, minor league baseball came to Coney with the Brooklyn Cyclones, who play in MCU Park. City rezoning and plans for development made for much controversery circa 2010: I weighed in here, here, and here. In 2011, a century after the Dreamland fire, Coney was badly affected by Hurricane Sandy. I wrote about that here and here. And there is a nice rant about why you should appreciate Coney Island in my annoucement for a play I directed out there in 2014.