The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: Coney Island

william helmreichSociologist William B. Helmreich’s urban walking guide, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows, details the beauty, diversity and history that combine to make Brooklyn what is arguably New York’s hottest borough. By simply walking around, talking to residents, and absorbing the borough’s rich history, Helmreich captures the essence and unique facets of Brooklyn. The book is filled with detailed facts and vivid imagery that will inspire a deeper look at these popular (and lesser-known) neighborhoods.  Today we take a look at Coney Island.

From classic roller-coasters to a nice boardwalk along the beach, Coney Island is one of Brooklyn’s most historic and well-known neighborhoods. It was the site of three famous theme parks that were all affected by fires (many are now used for other purposes, such as housing.) Some old rides remain with the addition of new ones, but the history of Coney Island lingers in the air:

Beautiful artwork by sculptor Deborah Masters is a must-see while walking around Brooklyn, and Coney Island has a piece that shouldn’t be missed. A terra-cotta relief of patrons enjoying Coney Island graces the surface of a supporting viaduct under the tracks of the Ocean Parkway, embodying the fun spirit of the peninsula.

I came face to face with a large, unglazed, brownish-red, terra-cotta-colored relief made of cast concrete, dubbed “Brooklyn…” It consists of a group of people, some standing, others seated in a roller-coaster. Most are wearing bathing suits. To the left on a separate pane is a bare-breasted mermaid.

Of course, Coney Island is famous for its amusement park rides, and Helmreich reflected on his time as a young boy visiting the park with his family. Though some of the park has changed, there remains a sense of the past:

For me, everything about going there, and we went there numerous times, was memorable. Some of the rides, especially the bumper cars, where you could crash into other cars with gusto but with no consequences except for a dirty look or minor retaliation in kind, are indelibly imprinted on my consciousness. The same for the boardwalk, where we delighted in staring at the waves as they crashed ashore, and consumed all manner of delectable treats—potato knishes, hot dogs, and ice cream in crisp, dark sugar cones.

Some of the old rides are still operating, but they exist in a setting that’s a cross between venerating the old and embracing the new.

Coney Island is home to the original Nathan’s Famous hot dog stand, which celebrated its 100th birthday in 2016. If you find yourself craving delicious franks and salty crinkle-cut fries with a dash of history, be sure to stop by this famous eatery.

Nathan’s, which turned one hundred in 2016, is still there, the signage recognizable as well as the menu, offering many of old standbys—the crinkle-cut fries and hot dogs, frog legs, ears of buttered corn, and Chow Mein on a bun, but not the real glasses in which orange drinks were once served.

At the end of Coney Island is one of New York City’s oldest gated communities, (one of only four in the city.) Sea Gate is the destination for those seeking a quiet area with private beaches.

Sea Gate, which begins on W. 37th Street, is part of Coney Island, but, as the name implies, it’s a gated community, one of four in the city. The others are Silver Beach Gardens and Edgewater Park, in the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx; and Breezy Point in the Rockaways portion of Queens. Sea Gate is the oldest, established in 1898, and the most integrated of the four. It has the feel, if any case, of not being a part of greater Coney Island. It’s quiet, has its own beaches and a visitor needs permission from a guard to gain entry. People who live here have an opportunity to feel they live in an exclusive community…

William B. Helmreich is an award-winning author who has written many books including The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City (Princeton), where he wrote an analysis of all five of New York City’s boroughs. The book won him the inaugural 2014–15 Guides Association of New York Award for Outstanding Achievement in Book Writing. He is the professor of sociology at City College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and at CUNY Graduate Center. The Brooklyn Nobody Knows is the first of five planned walking guides, one for each borough of New York City. 

This post is part of a series, explore additional posts here<< The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: Williamsburg