Coney Island is a five-mile stretch of Atlantic coastline located ten miles southeast of lower Manhattan on the edge of New York City's borough of Brooklyn. From the mid-seventeenth century, when Dutch colonists acquired it from Native Americans, until the mid-nineteenth century, the area was a remote and largely uninhabited slip of sandbars and marshland separated from the mainland by a tidal creek. Although the poet Walt Whitman relished escaping there in the 1830s to run barefoot on the unpopulated shoreline, Coney Island was out of sight and mind for most New Yorkers. But in the half-century after the Civil War, the lonely beaches treasured by artists were absorbed by greater New York City's expanding economy, the vanguard of the urban, industrial, and consumer revolutions then shaping the nation. Coney lost its true island status during this period as developers filled in the tidal creek and transit systems, thoroughly linking the beaches to Brooklyn and New York City.
But even as the resort was physically integrated into the metropolitan region's burgeoning economy, Coney's renown as a metaphorical, rather than actual, island intensified. Generations of ambitious and often creative amusement entrepreneurs have marketed Coney as an island getaway of pleasure and play surrounded by the hostile everyday world of vexatious cares and responsibilities. From the 1880s until the mid-1950s, Coney Island continuously lured the masses with its promise of a rollicking summertime "Carnival of Plenty," where the sensational and bizarre ruled. For most of this time, amusement proponents touted Coney's diversions as part of a broadly American "playground," where all could join in the common pursuit of fun. This essential ingredient of its mass appeal placed it at the center of the development of twentieth-century America's consumer economy.
Much of the island's history has been shaped by the transportation technologies that have abridged its geographical inaccessibility. By the end of the 1840s, several small hotels had been ventured at the island, and they were attracting day tourists and excursionists. Coney Island was difficult and expensive to reach for most New Yorkers, who were mostly uninterested in what was still the eccentric aristocratic practice of taking saltwater baths. These geographical and cultural impediments gradually gave way between 1850 and 1890, Coney's first period as a resort for the masses. A plank road completed in 1850 launched regular, though time-consuming, transit service from central Brooklyn. Steamboat lines from Manhattan, begun in 1847, cut the trip to two hours. Construction of hotels and boardinghouses, restaurants, saloons, and bathhouses boomed in this period as the taste for the "luxury" of a dip in the surf, the wish to escape the city heat, and the excitement of being part of the crowd spread among middle- and working-class city dwellers. The era's celebrities—the showman P. T. Barnum, the writer Edgar Allan Poe—gathered there along with less-celebrated folk. By the end of the 1870s, nine steamboats and five rail lines made Manhattan to Coney a half-hour journey. The hordes grew exponentially, cementing Coney's identity with the hallmark feature of modernity—"the crowd." Investments in amusements expanded simultaneously, to about $10 million in 1880.
By the early 1890s, the island had split into three amusement areas. The wealthy bourgeoisie stayed in fancy hotels at Manhattan Beach on the far eastern end of the island, while less moneyed middle-class patrons gathered in hostelries and bathhouses at neighboring Brighton Beach to the west. Norton's Point, at the island's far western end, attracted the sporting male crowd with horse racing, gambling, saloons, and prostitutes. Located between these extremes was West Brighton, which featured the "Bowery"—a street several blocks long and lined with beer gardens, gargantuan restaurants, arcades, and belly-dancer sideshows. West Brighton's cheap amusements and public bathhouses were the island's focal point, attracting a half million working people on hot summer Sundays. Its noisy entertainments catered to the "cultural style" of working-class New Yorkers, rather than to the polite tastes of the Manhattan Beach set.
But the island's economy made such cultural and social boundaries unenforceable in practice. The enormous capital investments had to be offset by economies of mass scale, which meant that such businesses had to manufacture demand rather than just respond to it. Steamboat lines invested in "iron piers," which, in addition to docks, featured saloons, oyster houses, restaurants, and covered promenades, both luring and capitalizing on the 2 million individuals traveling to Coney by water in the 1880s. Railways owning beachside properties near their terminals leased lots to amusement entrepreneurs. On the eastern end of Coney, the tony Manhattan Beach (1877) and Oriental (1880) hotels were built by the railroad company whose own lines tied the resorts to the city. Though advertised as exclusive retreats, the hotels also profited from a short-line rail connection to West Brighton, which funneled the multitudes into their beehive of bathhouses and massive restaurants, able to manufacture thousands of meals at a time. All regions of the island—whether the high-end Oriental Hotel or the Bowery's dance halls—sold "fun" to the masses who were looking for diversion from life's conventions and confinements.
Coney Island's reputation as a footloose consumer playground entered a new era in the mid-1890s with the construction of several large amusement parks enclosed within fences. Sea Lion Park (1896) was the first, but the more important was Steeplechase Park, opened the following year by George C. Tilyou, one of the era's great showmen. Its name came from the mechanical racetrack that circled its perimeter. In 1903, Fred Thompson and Elmer "Skip" Dundy leased the Sea Lion property, razed most of its structures, and built in its place the orientalist fantasy Luna Park. Mobbed its first summer, Luna Park immediately inspired an imitator, Dreamland, even larger in size and grander in scope.
The Coney Island parks, while unusual in many ways, were a spectacular dimension of the new urban-industrial economy that underwrote the explosive growth of mass consumer enterprises after 1890. Dense urban populations and mass transit systems to transport them made possible the enormous fixed-capital investments (land, buildings, equipment) in entertainment businesses, from low-priced theaters and vaudeville houses to opera companies, ballparks, and amusement parks. The markets for commercial leisure also expanded as working people's hours on the job gradually declined, especially as the Saturday half-holiday was extended to growing numbers of urban workers at the end of the century. New audiences, too, had emerged, notably young, single women and men employed in the rapidly expanding corporate and retail workplace. Coney Island targeted such people and, in doing so, undermined Victorian rules against the sexes mixing outside the home. The amusements fostered instead the modern expectation that women and men, although strangers to each other, could and should "go out" together for fun in their off hours. At Coney they could escape the surveillance of family and neighborhood and join the crowd in purchasing entertainment.
For more than a decade, Steeplechase, Luna, and Dreamland gave the island its striking identity as a respectable playground for the city's growing population of middle-class consumers. The enclosures were supposed to ensure standards of propriety by preventing rowdies and prostitutes from gaining entrance; gates enabled management to charge admission (usually a dime). Fences also lent each park a specific identity that was greater than the sum of its parts. Steeplechase's Pavilion of Fun (1901) was an antic warehouse of pranks and illusions—a disorderly inversion of the everyday world that jostled people out of their familiar composure.
Fred Thompson, on the other hand, staged Luna Park as a luxurious oasis of pleasure and fun in a pedestrian world. Luna was, in one sense, little more than a transient stage set made of inexpensive plaster and lath. But its impermanence did not diminish the splendor of its twenty-two (and later more) acres of white palaces, onion domes, towers, minarets, and spraying fountains. At night, the glittering spectacle of its fantastic buildings outlined by hundreds of thousands of small incandescent lights dazzled onlookers. Patrons could watch outdoor circus performances, float serenely on Venetian-style canals, or parade the streets on the backs of camels and elephants. "Scenic illusions" transported them undersea to the North Pole or through space to the moon. Rejecting conventional middle-class expectations that leisure should incorporate wise and constructive use of spare time, Thompson framed Luna's exotic, festive otherworldliness to sell frivolousness to adult consumers. He believed that contemporary Americans, especially middle-class men, longed to escape the burdens of modern life, that they wanted to return to a time when "play was everything; when responsibility had never been dreamed of" (Register, p. 87). Luna, which inspired hundreds of imitators around the nation and world, was such a playground, littered with toys for grown-ups. Rather than marketing themselves to children or families, Coney's amusement parks sold childhood play to adult consumers.
The heyday of these parks lasted about twenty years. Dreamland burned to the ground in 1911. Luna Park passed into the hands of new and less inventive owners in 1912. Amusement parks, dazzlingly original in the early 1900s, seemed tired and tawdry as moving pictures generated more exciting fantasies for American consumers. The suburbanization of middle-class populations and their increasing use of automobiles for pleasure affected those parks that were dependent on cities and mass transit systems. Park owners sought to expand their markets, incorporating more attractions for children and pitching themselves as destinations for families, but they closed by the hundreds in the 1920s. Developers who revived amusement parks after 1945 targeted car-driving, vacationing families and built their facilities out of longerlasting materials. They also deliberately rejected the tawdry image of Coney Island as it had become by 1945. But the most influential, such as Disneyland (1955) near Los Angeles, modeled themselves according to the original premise of Coney's Dreamland and Luna Park, where respectable play was everything.
As middle-class New Yorkers tired of Coney, the summertime crowds of day-trippers swelled to unprecedented numbers, most of them from the city's immigrant-based working-class neighborhoods. When the public subway system came to Coney in 1920, the cheap nickel fare transformed the island into the playground of the city's proletariat. The Bowery and parks remained, but massive new private and public projects shaped the island's amusement topography. The skyline featured new mechanical marvels—the Wonder Wheel (1920), a mammoth double Ferris wheel, and the Cyclone Racer (1927), a mile-a-minute roller coaster. After a 1915 court decision declared the island's shoreline public property, the city rebuilt the badly eroded beaches and sank $4 million into a public boardwalk (1923), eighty feet wide and almost two miles long. Coney still played to the swell set, but they mattered little compared to the million people arriving by subway on a summer Saturday. A foreign observer described Coney as the "city of cheap pleasure for cheap people." No business more aptly represented 1920s Coney than Nathan's Famous, the home of the nickel hot dog, 75,000 of which were sold on a typical weekend.
The unrestrained appetite for cheap pleasures revealed the changing economy of Coney Island. The parks, sideshows, and roller coasters continued to do big business in the 1920s and 1930s, but revenues declined when they lowered prices to attract small-spenders. The vast numbers of people came to Coney for the cheapest pleasures of all—the surf and beaches and the sensual spectacle of hot, unclad bodies in the sun. Depression-era crowds grew even larger, but working-class families and couples on the "Poor Man's Riviera" practiced penny-pinching economies, such as bringing their own food or using the underside of the boardwalk instead of a bath-house to undress. The Amusement Zone's bottom line still suffered even after wartime revitalized the island's economy (46 million went to Coney in 1943 alone).
On 4 July 1955, a record 1.5 million people packed the beaches, but such numbers were the exception to the postwar Coney Island. Though Luna had closed during the war, hundreds of amusements, including Steeplechase Park, still worked the island; but hostile public officials and urban planners increasingly treated such businesses as unwelcome anachronisms. The city's parks commission tried to rein in beachgoers with rules against such rambunctious behavior as building human pyramids. "Urban renewal" in the late 1950s built the New York City Aquarium (1957) on the former Dreamland site, and Luna Park Houses, a Stalinesque-style public housing project (1961). Steeplechase's last season was 1964. Coney Island's resident population has since grown enormously, most recently with the influx of Russian and Eastern European immigrants. Amusements and sideshows still operate, including the Wonder Wheel and Cyclone Racer, now in their ninth decade of business. The city's multicultural populace still promenades on the boardwalk, while a more upscale set crowds KeySpan Park (2001) to watch the Brooklyn Cyclones, a minor-league baseball outfit. Since 1983, the Mermaid Parade of costumed and cross-dressed sea life has annually conjured up some of the island's transgressive and otherworldly past, drawing 750,000 spectators at least once since the turn of the millennium. In other words, Coney Island still offers plenty of fun attractions, but it no longer functions or thrives as either the nation's or the city's unfettered playground of plenty.
Adams, Judith A. The American Amusement Park Industry: A History of Technology and Thrills. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991.
Immerso, Michael. Coney Island: The People's Playground. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002.
Kasson, John F. Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978.
McCullough, Edo. Good Old Coney Island: A Sentimental Journey into the Past: The Most Rambunctious, Scandalous, Rapscallion, Splendiferous, Pugnacious, Spectacular, Illustrious, Prodigious, Frolicsome Island on Earth. 1957. Reprint, New York: Fordham University Press, 2000.
Nasaw, David. Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements. New York: Basic Books, 1993.
Peiss, Kathy. Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987.
Pilat, Oliver, and Jo Ranson. Sodom by the Sea: An Affectionate History of Coney Island. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1941.
Register, Woody. The Kid of Coney Island: Fred Thompson and the Rise of American Amusements. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Coney Island, with its beach, amusement parks, and numerous other attractions, became emblematic of nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century urban condition while at the same time providing relief from the enormous risks of living in a huge metropolis. On Coney Island, both morals and taste could be transgressed. This was the place where the debate between official and popular culture was first rehearsed, a debate which would characterize the twentieth century in America.
Discovered just one day before Manhattan in 1609 by explorer Henry Hudson, Coney Island is a strip of sand at the mouth of New York's natural harbor. The Canarsie Indians, its original inhabitants, had named it "Place without Shadows." In 1654 the Indian Guilaouch, who claimed to be the owner of the peninsula, traded it for guns, gunpowder, and beads, similar to the more famous sale of Manhattan. The peninsula was known under many names, but none stuck until people called it Coney Island because of the presence of an extraordinary number of coneys, or rabbits.
In 1823 the first bridge which would connect Manhattan to the island was built, and Coney Island, with its natural attractions, immediately became the ideal beach resort for the ever-growing urban population of Manhattan. By the mid-nineteenth century large resort hotels had been built. Corrupt political boss John Y. McKane ruled the island, turning a blind eye to the gangsters, con men, gamblers, and prostitutes who congregated on the west end of the island. In 1865 the railroad finally allowed the metropolitan masses their weekend escape to Coney Island, and the number of visitors grew enormously, creating a great demand for entertainment and food. The hot dog was invented on Coney Island in the 1870s. In 1883 the Brooklyn Bridge made the island even more accessible to the Manhattan masses, who flocked to the island's beach, making it the most densely occupied place in the world. The urban masses demanded to be entertained, however, thus the need for pleasure became paramount in the island's development. Typical of the time, what happened on Coney Island was the attempt to conjugate the quest for pleasure and the obsession with progress.
The result was the first American "roller coaster," the Switch-back Railway, built by LaMarcus Adna Thompson in 1884. In 1888, the short-lived Flip-Flap coaster, predecessor of the 1901 Loop-the-Loop, used centrifugal force to keep riders in their seats, and an amazed public paid admission to watch. By 1890 the use of electricity made it possible to create a false daytime, thus prolonging entertainment to a full twenty-four hours a day.
The nucleus of Coney Island was Captain Billy Boyton's Sea Lion Park, opened in 1895, and made popular by the first large Shoot-the-Chutes ride in America. In competition with Boyton, George C. Tilyou opened Steeplechase Park in 1897, where science and technology came together for pleasure and Victorian inhibitions were lifted. The park was centered around one of the most popular rides on Coney Island, the Steeplechase Race Course, in which four couples "raced" each other atop wheeled, wooden horses. Steeplechase Park burned in 1907, but Tilyou rebuilt and reopened it the following year, and it remained in operation until 1964.
When Boyton went broke, Frederic Thompson and Elmer Dundy took over Sea Lion Park, remodeled it and opened it as Luna Park in 1903. Luna was a thematic park where visitors could even board a huge airship and experience an imaginative journey to the moon from one hundred feet in the air. Coney Island was the testing ground for revolutionary architectural designs, and Luna Park was an architectural spectacle, a modern yet imaginary city built on thirty-eight acres and employing seventeen hundred people during the summer season, with its own telegraph office, cable office, wireless office, and telephone service. For Thompson, Luna Park was an architectural training ground before he moved to Manhattan to apply his talent to a real city. Luna Park eventually fell into neglect and burned in 1944. The land became a parking lot in 1949.
In the meantime, Senator William H. Reynolds was planning a third park on Coney Island, "the park to end all parks." The new park was aptly called Dreamland. In Reynolds's words, this was "the first time in the History of Coney Island Amusement that an effort has been made to provide a place of Amusement that appeals to all classes." Ideology had got hold of entertainment. Opening in 1904, Dreamland was located by the sea and was noticeable for its lack of color—everything was snow white. The general metaphor was that Dreamland represented a sort of underwater Atlantis. There were detailed reconstructions of various natural disasters—the eruption of Vesuvius at Pompeii, the San Francisco earthquake, the burning of Rome—as well as a simulated ride in a submarine, two Shoot-the-Chute rides, and, interestingly, the Incubator Hospital, where premature babies were nursed. Other Dreamland attractions were the Blue Dome of Creation, the "Largest Dome in the World," representing the universe; the "End of the World according to the Dream of Dante"; three theaters; a simulated flight over Manhattan—before the first airplane had flown; a huge model of Venice; a complete replica of Switzerland; and the Japanese Teahouse. One of the most important structures of Dreamland was the Beacon Tower, 375 feet high and illuminated by one hundred thousand electric lights, visible from a distance of more than thirty miles. Dreamland was a success insofar as it reproduced almost any kind of experience and human sensation. In May 1911, just before a more efficient fire-fighting apparatus was due to be installed, a huge fire broke out fanned by a strong sea wind. In only three hours Dreamland was completely destroyed. It was Coney's last spectacle. Manhattan took over as the place of architectural invention.
In 1919, Coney Island seemed to regain a sparkle of its old glory when the idea circulated of building a gigantic Palace of Joy—a sort of American Versailles for the people—which would be a pier containing five hundred private rooms, two thousand private bath houses, an enclosed swimming pool, a dance hall, and a skating rink. Sadly, the Palace of Joy was never built. Soon, the main attraction of Coney Island became again its beach, an overcrowded strip of land. In the hand of Commissioner Robert Moses, the island fell under the jurisdiction of the Parks Department. In 1957, the New York Aquarium was established on the island, a modernist building which had nothing of the revolutionary, dreamlike structure of the buildings of Reynolds's era. By now 50 percent of Coney Island's surface had become parks again. Nature's sweet revenge.
Creedmor, Walter. "The Real Coney Island." Munsey's Magazine. August 1899.
Denison, Lindsay. "The Biggest Playground in the World." Munsey's Magazine. August 1905.
Griffin, Al. "Step Right Up, Folks!" Chicago, Henry Regnery, 1974.
History of Coney Island. New York, Burroughs & Co., 1904.
Huneker, James. The New Cosmopolis. New York, 1915.
McCullough, Edo. Good Old Coney Island. New York, CharlesScribner's Sons, 1957.
Pilat, Oliver, and Jo Ransom. Sodom by the Sea. New York, Doubleday, 1941.
For poor and working-class New York City dwellers in decades past, a luxury resort vacation was a fantasy, an indulgence available only to the wealthy. But almost any New Yorker could travel to Coney Island, a five-mile-long sandy strip in the southern part of the borough of Brooklyn. Once there, they could frolic in the Atlantic Ocean and build sand castles to their delight, dine on hot dogs, and ride on roller coasters and carousels.
Actually, Coney Island had initially attracted well-to-do Manhattanites. In the 1840s, steamships began bringing visitors to its beach; two decades later, horse cars made excursions there. In the 1860s and 1870s, large luxurious resort hotels were built. Given its accessibility, however, Coney Island eventually became a desirable destination for all New Yorkers. Bridge construction between Manhattan and Brooklyn and the development of the New York City subway system in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries allowed urban dwellers from all walks of life easy access to Coney Island. Soon, it became a haven for the masses, with its beach becoming, on a sweltering summer day, the most densely populated strip in the world.
According to legend, Charles Feltman (1841–1910) invented the hot dog (see entry under 1900s—Food and Drink in volume 1) on Coney Island in 1867. Coney Island's delights included the construction of its first carousel in 1875 and of the first American roller coaster, the Switchback Railway, in 1884. By 1886, Coney Island could boast of three racetracks, making it a horse-racing center. Captain Paul Boyton (1848–1924) bought the land for Sea Lion Park in 1895. The park was the world's first outdoor, enclosed (with a fence) amusement park. It had the first Shoot-the-Chutes ride in America. It was remodeled into a state-of-the-art theme park in 1903 and renamed Luna Park. On opening day, Luna Park attracted forty-three thousand paying customers.
In 1897, the rival Steeplechase Park opened. Its centerpiece was the Steeplechase Race Course, on which couples raced one another atop wooden horses-on-wheels. Steeplechase Park burned in 1907 but was rebuilt. It reopened the following year and remained in operation until 1964. Meanwhile, Luna Park fell into decline. It burned down in 1944, and five years later its land became a parking lot. A third Coney Island amusement park, named Dreamland, opened in 1904 but burned to the ground in 1911.
In 1923, the first section of Coney Island's boardwalk opened. Four years later came the eighty-five-foot-high Cyclone, the area's most famous roller coaster. On July 4, 1955, a record 1.5 million bathers and fun seekers visited Coney Island. Yet ten years later, Coney was in decline as an amusement area. In recent decades, while still attracting the newest wave of poor immigrant New Yorkers, the surrounding neighborhood became a crime-riddled slum. However, 2001 marked the opening of KeySpan Park, built on the former site of Steeplechase Park: a seventy-five-hundred-seat baseball stadium that houses the minor league Brooklyn Cyclones, the first professional baseball team to play in Brooklyn since 1957. With the arrival of KeySpan Park and the Cyclones, Coney Island in the first decade of the twenty-first century is a community ripe for revival.
For More Information
Glueck, Grace, and Paul Gardner. Brooklyn: People and Places, Past and Present. New York: Harry Abrams, 1991.
Kasson, John F. Amusing the Millions: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978.
McCullough, Edo. Good Old Coney Island: A Sentimental Journey into the Past. New York: Fordham University Press, 2000.
Register, Woody. The Kid of Coney Island: Fred Thompson and the Rise of American Amusements. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
CONEY ISLAND. SeeAmusement Parks .