The history of Coney Island, like the rides themselves, is extremely colorful. In fact, when one reads about all the different plans to demolish the area over the last several decades (and destruction caused by fires and bad weather), it seems like a small miracle that there is still so much to see there.
The early history of the area goes back to the local Lenape Native American inhabitants, who called the area "Narrioch," whose meaning has been called "always in light," describing how its beaches face the southern sunlight. I certainly found this to be the case as I walked in the sun for several hours during a weekday pre-season trip to visit Coney Island.
The entire area of what is now southwest Brooklyn encompassing the park was purchased from a Native America elder in 1645 for a gun, blanket, and a kettle.
I parked at the Coney Island Aquarium, which is located right next to the iconic Cyclone roller coaster. While much of the park has changed over the decades, the Cyclone still stands stall and is still fully operational.
The area around Coney Island was originally developed as a high-end resort in the 1830s, with grand hotels, private bathhouses, and theaters populating the area. As rail and sea transportation was expanded through the mid to late 1800s and into the 20th Century, much larger numbers of people started coming to the area just for the day. The area became more and more popular up until around World War II. After the war, the advent of air conditioning, and increased mobility due to more people driving cars, made Coney Island less attractive as a destination.
Developers, including Robert Moses and later, Fred Trump (Donald's father), changed or tried to change the area through various building initiatives. In the 1960s, Fred Trump mounted a campaign to rezone the area in order to build luxury apartments, and even went so far as to organize a "funeral" for amusement parks, where reportedly bikini-clad women handed out hot dogs, and then rocks to throw through the stained-glass windows of the pavilion that stood there. But he eventually lost the legal battle to re-zone the area, which remained zoned only for amusements.
Many of the boardwalk vendors were closed at the time of my visit, including Paul's Daughter, opened in 1962 as Gregory and Paul's and later run by Paul's daughter Tina, hence the name. The building features beautiful signage, and "Mama Burger" and "Papa Burger" on the roof. During Hurricane Sandy, Mama Burger went missing and was found later on the roof "burgerless and unconscious" according to Tina, but otherwise ok.
One of the Coney Island icons is the over 100 year old "Funny Face," which appears in many locations throughout the area. While a bit creepy, I like the fact that they keep his image alive after a century.
One of my favorite structures at Coney Island is also one of the newest: the Thunderbolt rollercoaster that opened in 2014, replacing older roller coasters of the same name. The bright vibrant orange color of the tracks, arranged in loops and curves, takes on a very sculptural appearance.
Further west along the boardwalk can be found the famous Parachute Jump ride, which was built for the 1939 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows and moved to Coney Island in 1941. Similar devices were used by the military in different countries to train their soldiers how to operate parachutes. The Parachute Jump ceased operations in the 1960s, and decayed over the years, but was restored and repainted so now it's a vibrant red that really stands out against a blue sky.
In 2015, a public art wall project called Coney Art Walls was opened, featuring works by world renowned artists, as well as new artists and artists connected to graffiti and street art. It reminded me a bit of Wynwood Walls in Miami, but on a much smaller scale. The art fits perfectly with the Coney Island vibe and adds a lot of life to the area.
Nearby is Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs, a landmark restaurant opened in 1916. The hot dogs are still just as delicious as ever...
...and the hot dog eating contest Wall of Fame (with a real dog that found its way into the frame)...
At 12th St. and Surf Avenue stands the home of Coney Island USA, an arts organization that organizes the famous Coney Island Mermaid Parade, as well as keeping the carnival sideshow tradition alive by presenting "Sideshows by the Seashore" in the summer months. This landmark building, which also houses the Coney Island Museum, was originally built in 1917 as part of the large Child's Restaurant chain as a restaurant for the working class. The Spanish Revival architectural style was meant to suggest a Mediterranean resort-type atmosphere.
Most of the places I visited were at one time or another slated for demolition. The boardwalk was relatively deserted on the day I was there, which gave the area an even more nostalgic aura.
While Coney Island was crying out to me to be shot in color, the graphic shapes throughout the neighborhood and shadows cast by the structures also lend themselves to black and white photography.
Sadly, I only had one day to photograph at Coney Island, but I plan to return. I just hope it can manage to survive and even thrive despite its rocky past.
Selected photos from my Coney Island shoot are located in the In The City gallery.