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.

Undiscovered New York: All the way to Coney Island

Coney Island is New York City’s very own magical land of Oz. Just about everyone has heard about it – a derelict Brooklyn resort and amusement park stacked with ramshackle rides, Nathan’s hot dogs, sashaying mermaids and Vaudevillian freak shows – a seaside Gomorrah of fading glories and sandy cigarette butts. It is a place that is at once alluring and repulsive…drawing you in with its mysterious and nostalgic charms but never leaving you fully satisfied with what you’ve seen.

Unless you live in New York, there’s a good chance you’ve never made the trip out to the very last stop in Brooklyn at Coney Island-Stillwell Avenue. There’s a good reason why – Coney Island tends to be a polarizing place to visit. Some people hate it – stacked with second rate fried clam shops, indigestion and bad carnival rides. Other people visit and can’t get enough – it’s an area steeped in quirky history, unique stories and amusement park nostalgia. Love it or hate it, word has it that Coney Island, a seaside resort that has persisted since the 1860’s, may be on its last legs. The property was purchased in 2006 and the developers have plans to turn the area into a giant Vegas-style shopping mall.

If there was ever a time to go and visit one of New York’s more offbeat attractions, this would be that time. While each year has brought another 11th-hour reprieve, the strange sights of Coney Island are not destined to last forever. Where else can you gawk at contortionists and sword swallowers at one of the country’s last remaining circus sideshows? Or get tossed around on a rickety old roller coaster? Or eat some of New York’s best pizza? Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, Undiscovered New York is going all the way to Coney Island…
Getting Freaky
Coney Island is among the last places in the U.S. to see a real circus sideshow, complete with a man who hammers spikes into his skull, a fire and glass eater, and a snake charmer and contortionist, among others. It’s a bizarre show that somehow manages to be strangely beautiful in its oddity. Entrance fee is $7.50 for adults and just $5 for children.

Perhaps though you’re not satisfied just looking at circus curiosities? Perhaps you would actually like to try swallowing a sword or two yourself? Never fear, the Coney Island Sideshow School is here to help. Sideshow “professors” Donny Vomit and Adam Rinn teach eager students the fundamentals of fire eating, glass walking and “sticking foreign objects up their noses.” Grab your preferred foreign object and $600 and sign yourself up today.

Old-School Amusements
If old wooden roller coasters are your thing, consider the Coney Island Cyclone to be the grand dame of them all. It’s by no means a large coaster – in fact it’s dwarfed in size by wooden giants like The Beast or American Eagle, but what it lacks in size it more than makes up in sheer exhilarating surprise. The tiny coaster cars creak and groan, whipping around hairpin turns and threatening to splinter and shatter apart at any moment. If you have no other reason to come to Coney Island, this alone will make a trip worthwhile.

The other great amusement worth noting is Coney Island’s iconic Wonder Wheel. The wheel has become something of a celebrity having appeared in a number of movies and commercials, including The Warriors, First constructed in 1920, the iron giant has managed to weather more than 80 years of harsh New York weather, coming through with a perfect safety record.

Classic Charm
Clearly if you’re still reading by now, you’re interested in coming to Coney Island not for its modern conveniences, but instead for its creaky, dilapidated old glories. There’s a couple key spots for drinking and for relaxing that truly bring this point home.

Boardwalk regulars like to stop by Cha Cha’s, one of the many al fresco restaurants dishing up drinks and fried foods along Coney Island’s fabled boardwalk. But unlike the others, which can seem a bit mediocre, Cha Cha’s boasts its own stripper pole, neon day-glo murals of Coney Island and a collection of old junk that would make any landfill proud. Just the spot to down a few fried shrimp or a frozen margarita.

If you’re feeling a bit more energetic, then dust off those old roller skates. It’s time for an retro roller disco party at Dreamland Roller Rink. The rink makes its temporary home inside the majestic 1920’s era Childs Building, where skaters of all ages can come on Friday nights, gliding along to retro funk and soul music. The club will be reopening for the 2009 summer season on May 23rd.

[Thanks, Kendra]