Coney Island 2013: Weathering The Storm

When the first structures were being built in Coney Island in the 1840s, the surrounding community was in uproar. Residents wanted to preserve the land’s natural beauty. In the early 1900s, the City of New York endeavored to condemn all buildings south of Surf Avenue and the amusement community of Coney Island opposed the city. Amusements on the beach were demolished under the direction of urban planner Robert Moses in the ’40s and ’50s. He cleared the land for the New York Aquarium, Abe Stark Ice Skating Rink and low-income housing. Once Moses was through with his Coney Island renovations, only a few areas remained protected for amusement use only and that small designation was a response to public complaints.

Fred Trump attempted to build luxury apartments on the beach in 1964. He spent a decade in court fighting for a rezoning to no avail. By the 1970s, few visitors traveled to Coney Island and the city attempted to bring popularity back to the area with gambling casinos, taking note from Atlantic City. Gambling remained illegal in Coney Island, however, and vacant lots dominated areas that would have been lined with slot machines and card tables.

Under Giuliani’s reign, the sporting complex called Sportsplex was erected. Because the Thunderbolt roller-coaster stood in the line of view from the stadium, Giuliani had it demolished one early morning. Bloomberg took interest in developing Coney Island, but when the Coney Island bid for the 2012 Olympics was lost, the plans for revitalization went to the Coney Island Development Corporation. A company called Thor Equities began buying up property in Coney Island and while evicting businesses along the boardwalk, they released a plan to build a luxury resort as well as a new amusement park. The city approved a plan to construct 4,500 new unites on the beach in 2009. Part of what makes Coney Island what it is is that the community has long-offered low-income housing, but only 900 of these new units are categorized as being “affordable.”


Ravaged by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, Coney Island’s future once again seemed to be in the fickle hands of fate. Coney Island was hit harder by the storm than many other areas of New York City. Salvaging what was left of the historic boardwalk and amusement area seemed nearly impossible in the wake of the treacherous storm.

“Our park is devastated,” Deno Vouderis, a member of the family that owns the Deno’s Wonderwheel Amusement Park, told NPR’s Zoe Chace shortly after the hurricane hit. The motors in his haunted house were dead. Everything she saw during her tour of his property seemed flattened. But when she made the trek out to Coney Island again for the opening day of the Wonderwheel Amusement Park, she saw something she hadn’t expected to see again, particularly not so soon after the storm: functioning rides, doors open for business and rides welcoming the public.

In a follow-up report on the destination, Chace worked to discover what revived Coney Island so quickly. Deno’s Wonderwheel Amusement Park didn’t have the kind of insurance that other structures throughout New York that quickly recovered and rebuilt did. While FEMA and other aid groups were doing their best to assist residents whose homes had been destroyed, Coney Island business owners followed an informal but traditional route and sourced the funds they needed to rebuild from family members, friends, patrons and other members of the community. The Vouderis family did this, as well. They also put a hefty amount of rebuilding charges on their credit card.

“We have here something that shows the resilience of New York,” New York Senator Chuck Schumer said on the Coney Island 2013 Opening Day. His mantra of the day, as reported by Chace, was, “Keep going and reopen.”


I went to Coney Island twice in January. I dressed in my snow gear and walked along the boardwalk and the beach. Most things were still closed; even the waves seemed eerily silent then. I went back again a couple weeks ago to an entirely different scene. People were lined up at Nathan’s and weaving in and out of the businesses that were open. Although much of the boardwalk was still closed that afternoon, oxygenated blood was clearly pulsing through the community. But the future of Coney Island, keeping with tradition, still seems vague. An Applebee’s is opening in June not far from the beach. A chain candy store will soon be doing business near the adored Williams Candy shop. Coney Island has admirably handled the blows from the hurricane, but how the small businesses there will weather the storm of corporate expansion remains to be seen.

While walking back to our car, a man beckoned my husband and me over toward him from behind his carnival game’s counter. The game seemed simple, though I knew the odds were against us. If my husband could just pay the couple bucks it took to play the game and then make every shot into the makeshift hoop, he could choose any prize he wanted, most of which were stuffed animals that looked like they’d been there for a while, and even get his money back. The catch? For every shot he missed, he had to lay down as much money as he’d already invested in the game. He made almost all of his shots, but the stakes began to raise and before we knew it, we were out of cash.

“Got money in your bank? There’s an ATM right there,” the man said, pointing to the conveniently placed ATM. My husband could have continued playing and won back all of the cash he’d spent, but we left the $10 with the man working the game. The owner of that stand, like the owners of all other businesses that have reopened in Coney Island, only has his gate drawn up today because he knows the rules of the game: keep investing even when the odds seem against you and hope the cash doesn’t run out.

Photo Of The Day: Brooklyn Cyclone Summer

For many of us, there are few things more American or summer-like than Brooklyn‘s Coney Island. It’s been the site of family fun, local seediness, freaks of nature, and luxury development plans. Throughout its many iterations, Coney Island has retained its particular mix of beach, carnival, and city resort. Today’s Photo of the Day by Flickr user David Ellwood captures Coney Island’s Cyclone, one of America’s oldest wooden roller coasters and an icon of summer and amusement parks. The Cyclone celebrates 85 years of thrills this year, and hopefully will continue to spell summer fun for years to come.

Send us your favorite summer travel photos (or get us excited about fall and winter travel) by adding to the Gadling Flickr pool for a future Photo of the Day.

Video of the day: Coney Island Mermaid Parade


For all of the years that I lived in New York City, I am ashamed to say that I never actually made it out to Brooklyn’s Coney Island to witness (or participate in) the annual Mermaid Parade. As it was, I found myself traveling just about every summer while living in the city, and being that this is a summer event, the stars just weren’t aligned correctly. But a film-making friend of mine, Philip Knowlton, not only managed to make it out this year to the Mermaid Parade, but he also but together a pretty cool video featuring the event.

Have you ever been to the Mermaid Parade? Did you love it or hate it?

Vintage Coney Island: postcard from 1938 Fortune Magazine

Summer has officially started and for many New Yorkers, summer is synonymous with Coney Island‘s boardwalk, beach, and hot dog eating contests. Fortune Magazine has just republished a story from their archives about Brooklyn‘s famous “island” (really, it’s been connected to the mainland for many years and is an island only in name, though technically it is part of Brooklyn, which is part of Long Island) when a day at the beach cost only 10 cents (round trip!) in subway fare.

The fascinating and evocative article chronicles the history and then-current status of New York‘s “nickel empire” after its 1920s heyday and at the beginning of its decline that led to the closure of most of Coney Island’s original attractions.

Back in 1938, there were sixty bathhouses where you could rent a locker, use the pool facilities, and even rent a bathing suit for fifty cents or less (nowadays you can try to change in a municipal restroom, but the only pool will be the overflowing sinks). Though it may seem a world away from the Coney Island of 2011 (men in white sailor suits cleaned the boardwalk each night!), a lot of parallels can be drawn about the waning popularity of urban beach resorts and revitalization efforts of Coney Island then and now.

Other highlights of the article include:
-The saga of Feltman’s frankfurters, who could once serve 8,000 meals at a time until a young upstart named Nathan undercut the hot dog business by a nickel and took over the market.
-Observations from chief lifeguard of 37 years John McMonigle on beach rescues: ” The fat dames is different. Hell, you don’t have to worry about them — can’t swim a lick — but they go in, dog paddle around two hours, an’ never touch bottom. By God you can’t sink ’em.”
-The oddly intriguing practice of baby incubators on the boardwalk with a charge to view (Boardwalk Empire viewers will recall seeing this in 1920 Atlantic City). Turns out they were opened by a pragmatic and kindly doctor who treated poor and ill infants, using the admission fee to pay for the medical care and facilities.
-The difficulties of running a freak show, where acts included “The Spider Boy; Singing Lottie, Fat Girl (O Boy, Some Entertainer); Laurello, the Only Man With a Revolving Head (See Frisco, the Wonder Dog); Professor Bernard, Magician Extraordinary (He will fool you); Professor Graf, Tattoo Artist (Alive); and his star act, Belle Bonita and her Fighting Lions (Action, Thrills).”

Read the whole article (maybe on your way to Coney Island on the subway) here.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Albany_Tim.

Coney Island’s Scream Zone to boast two thrilling roller coasters

Coney Island is about to get a much needed boost in the thrills department. Once home to cutting edge amusement rides and the World’s fastest roller coaster in the famed Coney Island Cyclone, the area has closed rides and had few roller coasters of note. Scream Zone looks to change that with two new roller coasters.

Steeplechase Horses Coaster might be considered the headliner for the new park. While launch coasters have been around for years, they still freeze onlookers in their tracks. Many are still used to seeing traditional lift hills versus a coaster rocketing out of the station. After boarding horse-shaped seats, Steeplechase will launch riders to 40 mph. As launch coasters go, that’s a benign launch, but it will still impress your average park guests and offer a fun family-friendly ride. Steeplechase should be similar to Knotts Berry Farm’s Pony Express (pictured above).

Flying roller coaster Soaring Eagle will put riders in a face-down flying position. Similar to Playland Park’s Super Flight, it will feature a spiral lift hill and two loops. The ride has just made a cross-country trip from Denver’s Elitch Gardens where it was known as Flying Coaster.

Both roller coasters are compact and don’t come anywhere near record speeds or heights, but they’re a step in the right direction. If Scream Zone does well, then bigger attractions could be around the corner. When I visited Coney Island a few years ago, I got to experience the iconic Cyclone, but after that I left the area. Tourists and locals looking for more thrills on the boardwalk should be excited. Sign up for updates about Scream Zone’s opening at their website.

[Image credit: Flickr user – Magic Madzik]