The best way to know where you are going is to remember where
you’ve been. It is in this spirit that we present a snapshot look at
the rich history of Coney Island, with an eye toward the present
and promising future that is taking shape in New York City’s
original destination for fun in the sun.
History of Coney Island: The Past
Long before European settlers arrived in what we today call Coney Island, it was known to the Lenape Indians as the “land without shadows.” The Dutch re-named the sandy ocean-side section of southeast Brooklyn, Konijnen Eiland or “Rabbit Island,” for the large population of furry mammals that inhabited the land along the
From the onset, proximity played a prominent role in the rise of Coney Island as a popular NYC tourist destination. Located just a few short miles east of Manhattan, it presented a perfect seaside getaway for
the fast-growing population. As New York City grew into a cosmopolitan center in the 1800s, having a pervasive influence on both American
and world culture, so too did Coney Island have a powerful impact on revolutionizing the concept of an urban beach resort.
In 1829, the Coney Island Hotel was built, followed by a host of other upscale resorts, ushering in a new era of elegance and opulence to
the area. As transportation options availed themselves, starting with simple carriage roads and boat service and extending to steam railroad service in the 1860s, Coney Island increasingly attracted holidaymakers in droves who were eager to escape the city heat and experience the natural beauty and diverse entertainment options at the beach in Brooklyn.
It was a place where entrepreneurs and opportunists transformed old-world carnival attractions into mechanical marvels, giving birth to a new age of amusement park culture. The earliest carousels (as we know them today) were created in Coney Island, as was what is widely considered the first modern roller coaster in 1884, the Gravity Switchback Railway, drawing lines of trailblazing thrill seekers and setting off a craze that quickly spread around the globe.
By the turn of the century, everywhere you looked the neighborhood was lined along the beach with bathhouses, clam bars, rides and games. Freak shows and alternative entertainment found a home in Coney Island, as did some of the most popular restaurants and hotels in the region, but perhaps nothing left a more lasting impression than the emergence of its wonderful amusement parks.
In 1903, Sea-Lion Park became the first Coney Island amusement
park, joined that same year by Steeplechase Park, with its signature Steeplechase Horse ride. The original Luna Park also opened in 1903, and it soon earned the nickname, “Electric Eden,” with over 250,000 lights brilliantly illuminating the park at night. So early it was in the days of publically available electric utility, the mesmerizing display gave the crowds thronging to the area something they had never seen before. These exciting new attractions, along with the arrival of electrified
steam railroads (and finally the subway in 1915) helped transform the area from a resort for the rich and famous to a neighborhood known
as the People’s Playground.
Places like Dreamland, featuring the regal Dreamland tower and lagoon, Lilliputian Village (staffed by three hundred dwarfs) and a host of unusual side shows, along with Luna Park and Steeplechase Park, made Coney Island the largest amusement area in the nation from the close of the 19th century through the end of World War II. Although Dreamland burned down in 1911, the era was a golden age that forever defines Coney Island’s station in history.
Along with amusement parks, people flocked to Coney Island to enjoy the beach and new dining and entertainment options that were cropping up everywhere. The original Nathan’s Famous opened in 1916 on the corners of Surf and Stillwell Avenues, starting out as a small hot dog stand and growing over time into one of the most iconic food brands
in American history. Child’s Restaurant was constructed in 1917, the beautiful new Riegelmann Boardwalk was completed in 1923 and the majestic Shore Theater in 1925.
The proliferation of modern conveniences follow the war such as
the automobile, which allowed people to easily access the variety of beaches spanning Long Island and New Jersey, and air conditioning, which made it easier to escape the heat in a local theater than heading to the beach, helped nudge Coney Island toward an economic downturn. With a combination of miss-management, misfortune and a wave of social turmoil sweeping the city and festering in the outer boroughs, Coney Island’s glory days slowly came to an end.
The original Luna Park closed in 1946, followed by Steeplechase Park in 1964, and then the last of the old-time amusement parks in Coney Island were gone. Astroland amusement park held the torch from 1962 through 2008, as the area residents who remembered the good old days never lost hope the fun and excitement Coney Island gave birth to would one day return.
History of Coney Island: The Present (Bridge to the Future)
Coney Island is often remembered as the one-time capital of amusement destinations in America, but what we learn by carefully studying the lean years is it’s also home to a resourceful community as rich in pride as it is tradition. Through residential development that almost completely overtook the entire neighborhood, ugly public land battles, manipulation and neglect, Coney Island’s amusement area survived like a seed, deep in hibernation, ready for the climate to once again be ripe to bloom.
Thanks to the passion and commitment of a few notable organizations, including Coney Island USA, the Coney Island History Project, Alliance for Coney Island and Save Coney Island, along with action by the government and investment of entrepreneurs such as Luna Park’s parent corporation, Central Amusement International (CAI), the area has come roaring back. And while there is plenty of exciting new development in Coney Island that’s drawing visitors from New York City and tourists from around the world, the thread to the past still remains strong virtually everywhere you look.
Coney Island is home to three rides protected as New York City landmarks listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The Wonder Wheel (1918), now part of Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, the Coney Island Cyclone roller coaster (1927), owned by the City and operated by Luna Park and the towering Parachute Jump (1938), no longer in action since 1968 but still standing strong since its rousing debut at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
Along with old traditions that have been reborn, such as the Sideshows by the Seashore “freak show” in Coney Island USA, the newly refurbished B&B Carousell operated by Luna Park (the last Coney Island carousel of its kind) or Nathan’s annual July Fourth International Hot Dog Eating Championship, new celebrations and attractions breath life and optimism into the future. Whether you are coming out for the Mermaid Parade, the largest art parade in the Nation celebrating seaside and maritime culture since 1981, catching a Brooklyn Cyclones minor league baseball game at picturesque MCU Park or paying a visit to one of the numerous culture venues such as the New York City Aquarium, there are once again countless reasons to visit Coney Island.
Coney Island’s New Luna Park
Having been awarded a 10-year lease for three parcels of land over
6.2 acres in the beach front amusement zone, CAI built the first new amusement park in Coney Island in over 40 years. The project, opening on May 29, 2010, immediately created 247 jobs for the local community, attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors and brought a world-class amusement destination back to Brooklyn. In the few short years that have followed, Luna Park has continued to grow in stature as a popular NYC tourist attraction, home to dozens of rides ranging from thrilling to mild, as well as numerous games, eateries and retail kiosks.
The summer of 2014 marks the return of the Thunderbolt roller coaster, an exciting new iteration of the legendary ride that operated from 1925 until 1982 (demolished in 2000 as a safety hazard). With ambitious plans for future development and a total commitment to witnessing the full restoration of New York City’s best place for a family getaway, the future is certainly bright.
So come out to Luna Park and stay to enjoy the surf and sand, food, free summer events and endless excitement that Coney Island, Brooklyn, has to offer. You are sure to enjoy yourself in the fascinating urban play land it has once again become, while inevitably getting a taste of the intriguing history that only continues to add to its enduring allure.