Words & Photographs by Daniel Skwarna
A Brief History
Down here at Coney Island towards the end of the season I am made to feel very sad. Mammoth empty buildings, planned by extraordinarily optimistic architects remind me in an unpleasant manner of my youthful dreams. There is a mighty pathos in these gaunt and hollow buildings, impassively and stolidly suffering from an enormous hunger for the public.
Belying it’s stark winter melancholy, Coney Island's past has been a roller coaster of sorts, knowing pioneers and Indian fights, pirates and buried treasure, a religious colony, rum runners, prize fighting, and general debauchery of the first, or worst order, depending on who you ask. Between the late nineteenth century and the end of the Second World War, Coney Island offered working class Americans a place to frolic outside the big city. Sadly, post-war America turned to new types of entertainment as urban renewal and suburbanization began to change how people lived. At Coney Island, arsonists took advantage of absentee landlords as the amusement park began to fade from collective memory. The Coney Island of today is but a ghost of its former glory. Vacant and crumbling buildings now stand where bathhouses, roller coasters, vaudeville shows, and the famous steeple chase once entertained the broiling masses. While attractions like the Cyclone and Wonder Wheel continue to draw crowds, the offseason can be a lonely affair. The boardwalk, deserted but for a few Russians haughty in their silent furs, is either shrouded in mist or buried deep beneath the snow. In early December, Brooklyn's finest handball players affectionately taunt each other at a nearby court while Brighton Beach locals stroll above them. Every Sunday, intrepid members of the local Polar Bear Club brave the icy chill of the Atlantic, much to the shock of the few intrepid tourists who make the trip from Manhattan. Nevertheless, Coney Island offers the rare offseason visitor a unique experience. Fog-shrouded rides. Vodka littered beaches. A runner, tiny and insignificant, running along the surf. Camus would revel in it.
Freezin’ cold no time to weep Boardwalk’s dead on a midnight creep It's colder than a polar bear But I don’t care Coney Island winter
-From Garland Jeffrey's Coney Island Winter
I still remember my decision to visit Coney Island. It was December 2013 and I made a spur of the moment plane ticket purchase to New York, my first trip. A few months prior I had returned from a European adventure and was now bored and listless in my little apartment. After spending a month in Russia, I knew there was a large Muscovite community in New York, especially Southern Brooklyn, also known as Little Russia/Odessa.
New York was unwelcoming – rainy, slushy, and cold. I was lonely. My apartment, a cozy walkup at 171st and Lexington (appx) felt a world away from the Manhattan core and the funky sites of Brooklyn and beyond.
On a whim, I decided to take the train down to Coney Island, a monumental journey of over 50 stops (??) and two hours. I was antsy and had nothing else to do in the rain.
Coney Island was shuttered and deserted. The Atlantic was frothing angrily, beating the shoreline and throwing walls of stinging spray at the beach and boardwalk, as if trying to topple the old Parachute Drop, standing watch over the Riegellman Boardwalk.
After a few minutes of this I was thoroughly soggy and having an increasingly hard time keeping my delicate camera equipment dry. I had not my day trip through particularly well. And it was now at least a two hour subway ride from the beach to my northerly rental, accounting for MTA delays.
I took refuge in the closest public washroom. Like the beach, it was deserted. I stripped down to my sodden boxers and began to dry each piece of clothing exhaustively under the hand dryer, one by one.
Then each piece of camera gear, and finally the smaller accessories. Over the next twenty minutes several people walked in, eyeing me for a beat, then dismissing me as another Coney Island eccentric. I began to warm to the place as I dried out.
The rain tapered off after another fifteen minutes or so, leaving me freezing, but acceptably dry.
I poked my head out of the washroom door and scanned my immediate surroundings. A few local power walkers marched straight ahead, eyes down, hands pumping. On the beach, a few intrepid Russian men jogged between groups of gulls, like Rocky Balbo.
Otherwise the place was mine. I jumped out of the washroom and rejoined the boardwalk just below the Parachute Drop, most of Luna Park now smothered hauntingly in fog, looming like a giant amusement park squid.
If you are a nostalgic sentimental like me, you will enjoy Coney Island. There is a lot of old stuff - rides, signs, and people (mostly Russian locals that came over after the collapse of the USSR). Not all of it is new, of course (an Applebee’s had opened when I last visited in 2018). But most of it has been around for a while, like Nathan’s Famous.
It was here in 1916, in the middle of the Great War, that Nathan Handwerker fired his own salvo, giving the world the hot dog served from the original Nathan’s Famous hot dog stand. A significantly enlarged Nathan’s Famous still sits on the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenue, feeding the hungry beach- going masses that disembark as a giant blob from the metro station across the street.
History of Coney Island, geography, discovery, development here.
Luna Park vs Coney Island and Brighton Beach
Development/evolution of main drag + photo of Nathan’s early morning
Text Needed Here!