Coney Island is a peninsula, formerly an island, in southernmost Brooklyn, New York City, USA, with a beach on the Atlantic Ocean. The neighborhood of the same name is a community of 60,000 people in the western part of the peninsula, with Seagate to its west; Brighton Beach and Manhattan Beach to its east; and Gravesend to the north.
The area was a major resort and site of amusement parks that reached its peak in the early 20th century. It declined in popularity after World War II and endured years of neglect. In recent years, the area has seen the opening of MCU Park, home to the Brooklyn Cyclones minor league baseball team.
Coney Island is the westernmost of the barrier islands of Long Island, about four miles (6 km) long and one-half mile wide. It used to be an island, separated from the main part of Brooklyn by Coney Island Creek, part of which was little more than tidal flats. There were plans into the 20th century to dredge and straighten the creek as a ship canal, but they were abandoned and the center of the creek was filled in for construction of the Belt Parkway before World War II. The western and eastern ends are now peninsulas.
Native American inhabitants, the Lenape, called the island Narrioch (land without shadows), because, as is true of other south shore Long Island beaches, its compass orientation keeps the beach area in sunlight all day. The Dutch name for the island was Conyne Eylandt (Konijnen Eiland in modern Dutch spelling), meaning Rabbit Island. This name is found on the New Netherland map of 1639 by Johannes Vingboon. (New York State and New York City were originally a Dutch colony and settlement, named Nieuw Nederlandt and Nieuw Amsterdam.) As on other Long Island barrier islands, Coney Island had many and diverse rabbits and rabbit hunting prospered until resort development eliminated their habitat.
It is generally accepted by scholars that Coney Island is an English adaptation of the Dutch name, Konijnen Eiland. Coney is also an archaic and dialectal English word for rabbit. Coney came into the English language through Old French (Conil), which derives from the Latin word for rabbit, cuniculus. The English name “Conney Isle” was used on maps as early as 1690, and by 1733 the modern spelling “Coney Island” was used. J.F.W. des Barre’s chart of New York harbor in the Atlantic Neptune, 1779, and John Eddy map of 1811 both use the modern “Coney Island” spelling.
Even though the history of Coney Island’s name and its Anglicization can be traced through historical maps spanning the 17th century to the present, and all the names translate to “Rabbit Island” in modern English, there are still those who contend that the name derives from other sources. Some say that early English settlers named it Coney Island after its cone-like hills. Others claim that an Irish captain named Peter O’Connor had, in the 1700s, named Coney Island after an island (Inishmulclohy) in County Sligo, Ireland. Yet another purported origin is from the name of the Indian tribe (the Konoh tribe) who supposedly once inhabited it. A further claim is that the island is named after Henry Hudson’s “right-hand-man” John Coleman, supposed to have been slain by Indians.
Coney Island became a resort after the Civil War as excursion railroads and the Coney Island & Brooklyn Railroad streetcar line reached the area in the 1860s, and the Iron steamboat company in 1881. With the rail lines, steamboat lines and access to the beach came major hotels and public and private beaches, followed by horse racing, amusement parks, and less reputable entertainments such as Three-card Monte, other gambling entrepreneurs, and prostitution.
When the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company electrified the steam railroads and connected Brooklyn to Manhattan via the Brooklyn Bridge at the beginning of the 20th century, Coney Island turned rapidly from a resort to an accessible location for day-trippers seeking to escape the summer heat in New York City’s tenements.
Charles I. D. Looff, a Danish woodcarver, built the first carousel at Coney Island in 1876. It was installed at Vandeveer’s bath-house complex at West 6th Street and Surf Avenue. The complex was later called Balmer’s Pavilion. The carousel consisted of hand-carved horses and animals standing two abreast. Two musicians, a drummer and a flute player, provided the music. A metal ring-arm hung on a pole outside the ride, feeding small, iron rings for eager riders to grab. A tent-top protected the riders from the weather. The fare was five cents.
From 1885 to 1896, the Coney Island Elephant was the first sight to greet immigrants arriving in New York, who would see it before they saw the Statue of Liberty.
Nathan’s Famous original hot dog stand opened on Coney Island in 1916 and quickly became a landmark. An annual hot dog eating contest has been held there on July 4 since its opening, but has only attracted broad attention and international television coverage during the last decade.
In 1915 the Sea Beach Line was upgraded to a subway line, followed by the other former excursion roads, and the opening of the New West End Terminal in 1919 ushered in Coney Island’s busiest era.
After World War II, contraction began seriously from a series of pressures. Air conditioning in movie theaters and then in homes, along with the advent of automobiles, which provided access to the less crowded and more appealing Long Island state parks, especially Jones Beach, lessened the attractions of Coney’s beaches. Luna Park closed in 1946 after a series of fires and the street gang problems of the 1950s spilled into Coney Island.
The presence of threatening youths did not impact the beachgoing but discouraged visitors to the rides and concessions, staples of the Coney Island economy. The local economy was particularly impacted by the 1964 closing of Steeplechase Park, the last of the major amusement parks.
Development on Coney Island has always been controversial. When the first structures were built around the 1840s, there was an outcry to prevent any development on the island and preserve it as a natural park. Starting in the early 1900s, the City of New York made efforts to condemn all buildings and piers built south of Surf Avenue. The local amusement community opposed the city. Eventually a settlement was reached where the beach did not begin until 1,000 feet (300 m) south of Surf Avenue, the territory marked by a city-owned boardwalk, while the city would demolish any structures that had been built over public streets, to reclaim beach access.
In 1944, Robert Moses actively opposed the “tawdry” entertainment at Coney and discouraged the building of new amusements. By 1949, Moses moved the boardwalk back from the beach several yards, demolishing many structures, including the city’s municipal bath house. He would later demolish several blocks of amusements to clear land for both the New York Aquarium, where Dreamland once stood, and the Abe Stark ice skating rink. In 1953, Moses had the entire island rezoned for residential use only and announced plans to demolish the amusements to make room for low income housing. After public complaints, the Estimate Board reinstated some areas as protected for amusement use only, leading to many public land battles.
In 1964, Coney Island’s last remaining large theme park, Steeplechase Park, closed and the property was sold to developer Fred Trump. Trump wanted to build luxury apartments on the old Steeplechase property and spent ten years battling in court to get the property rezoned. After a decade of court battles, Trump exhausted his legal options and the property remained zoned for amusements. He eventually leased the property to Norman Kaufman, who ran a small collection of fairground amusements on a corner of the site calling his amusement park Steeplechase Park.
But between the loss of both Luna Park and the original Steeplechase Park, as well as an urban-renewal plan that took place in the surrounding neighborhood where middle class houses were replaced with low income housing projects, fewer people visited Coney Island. In the late 1970s, the city came up with a plan to revitalize Coney Island by bringing in gambling casinos, as had been done in Atlantic City. But gambling was never legalized for Coney, and the area ended up with vacant lots.
In 1994, Rudy Giuliani took office as mayor of New York supported a plan to build Sportsplex, provided it include a stadium for a minor-league team owned by the Mets. As soon as the stadium was completed, Giuliani killed the Sportsplex deal. The Mets decided the minor league team would be called The Brooklyn Cyclones and sold the naming rights to the stadium to Keyspan Energy. Executives from Keyspan complained that the stadium’s line of view from the rest of Coney Island amusement area was blocked by the derelict Thunderbolt coaster. The following month, Giuliani ordered an early-morning raid on the Thunderbolt and had it bulldozed.
In 2003, Mayor Michael Bloomberg took an interest in revitalizing Coney Island as a possible site for the 2012 Olympics. When the city lost the bid for the Olympics, revitalization plans were rolled over to The Coney Island Development Corporation (CIDC), which came up with a plan to restore the resort. Shortly before the CIDC’s plans were released, a development company, Thor Equities, purchased all of Bullard’s western property, sold it to Taconic, and used much of the proceeds to purchase property or offer to purchase every piece of property inside the traditional amusement area. The in September 2005, Thor went public with a plans to build a large Bellagio-style hotel resort surrounded by rides and amusements. The renderings of the hotel took up the entire amusement area from the Aquarium to beyond MCU Park and required the demolition of The Wonder Wheel, Cyclone, and Nathan’s original hot dog stand, as well as the new MCU Park.
Late in 2006 Thor purchased Coney Island’s last remaining amusement park, Astroland, and announed plans to close it after the 2007 season and build a Nickelodeon-themed hotel on the site. In January 2007 Thor released renderings for a new amusement park to be built on the Astroland site called Coney Island Park. In the winter of 2007 Thor began to evict businesses from the buildings it owned along the boardwalk. But when one of the business owners complained Thor reinstated their leases.
The Municipal Art Society launched the initiative ImagineConey in early 2007, as discussion of a rezoning plan that highly favored housing and hotels began circulating from the Department of City Planning. City Planning certified the rezoning plan in January 2009 to negative responses from all amusement advocates and Coney Island enthusiasts. The plan is currently working through the ULURP process. Thor Equities has said it hopes to complete the project by 2011. The Aquarium is also planning a renovation. In June 2009, the city’s planning commission unanimously approved the construction of 4,500 units of housing and 900 affordable units and vowed to “preserve, in perpetuity, the open amusement area rides that everyone knows and loves,” while protesters argued that “20 percent affordable-housing component is unreasonably low.”
CONEY ISLAND AMUSEMENTS
Between about 1880 and World War II, Coney Island was the largest amusement area in the United States, attracting several million visitors per year. At its height it contained three competing major amusement parks, Luna Park, Dreamland, and Steeplechase Park, as well as many independent amusements.
Astroland served as a major amusement park from 1962 to 2008. It was replaced by a new incarnation of Dreamland in 2009 and of Luna Park in 2010. The other parks and attractions are: Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park (a successful family owned park with over 20 rides located directly on the Boardwalk), 12th Street Amusements, and Kiddie Park. Also, the Eldorado arcade has its own indoor bumper car ride. The Zipper and Spider on 12th Street were closed permanently on September 4, 2007 and dismantling begun, after its owner lost his lease. They are to be reassembled at an amusement park in Honduras.
The rides and other amusements at Coney Island are owned and managed by several different companies, and operate independently of each other. It is not possible to purchase season tickets to the attractions in the area.
Three rides at Coney Island are protected as designated NYC landmarks and listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
- Wonder Wheel. Built in 1918 and opened in 1920, this steel Ferris wheel has both stationary cars and rocking cars that slide along a track. It holds 144 riders, stands 150 feet (46 m) tall, and weighs over 2,000 tons. At night the Wonder Wheel’s steel frame is outlined and illuminated by neon tubes. It is part of Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park.
- The Cyclone roller coaster, built in 1927, is one of the nation’s oldest wooden coasters still in operation. A favorite of some coaster aficionados, the Cyclone includes an 85-foot (26 m), 60 degree drop. It is owned by the City, and was operated by Astroland, under a franchise agreement. It is located across the street from Astroland.
- The Parachute Jump, originally the Life Savers Parachute Jump at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, was the first ride of its kind. Patrons were hoisted 190 feet (58 m) in the air before being allowed to drop using guy-wired parachutes. Although the ride has been closed since 1968, it remains a Coney Island landmark and is sometimes referred to as Brooklyn’s Eiffel Tower. Between 2002 and 2004, the Jump was completely dismantled, cleaned, painted and restored, but remains inactive. After an official lighting ceremony in July 2006, the Parachute Jump was slated to be lit year round using different color motifs to represent the seasons. However, this idea was scrapped when New York City started conserving electricity in the summer months. It has not been lit regularly since.