Coney Island has actually been a destination for New Yorkers since the mid 1800s
“The penny candy store beyond the El is where I first fell in love with unreality,” writes Lawrence Ferlinghetti in Coney Island of the Mind. I think the love of “unreality” of a strange and beautiful collision of sounds, smells, cultures and distorted shapes, is the perfect description of a visit to Brooklyn’s Coney Island. Perhaps best known for its amusement attractions, and the annual hot dog eating contest at Nathan’s Original on the fourth of July, Coney Island has actually been a destination for New Yorkers since the mid 1800s.
Getting to Coney Island is easy via public transportation, although you should remember to bring a book or your iPod because the D,F, N and Q trains that take you to Stillwell Avenue in Brooklyn also take a good hour from Midtown. On your way, the subway fills up with a hodge podge of different people, from families going to the amusement park and the beach to locals who are just going about their business and tourists with huge long lensed cameras. When you finally arrive at Stillwell Ave, from the first steps out of the train you will begin to experience a carnival type atmosphere, something almost broken from a time gone by. There is a nostalgia and a history that hangs like a cloud over the beach and amusement park giving the whole place an air of sadness about what once was and a kind of heroic attempt to continue into this new millennium of attention deficit internet based entertainment.
The first sight you see is the block long Nathan’s Original Hot Dog stand. The hot dogs are good, I have to admit, and the crinkle cut French fries served up hot with cheese sauce are really a junk food lover’s dream. This is beach food at its best, and while it is nothing like the fried fish you might find in Spain, and it is far from a fancy seaside restaurant, this hot dog stand is an icon, and adds to the Coney Island experience. With its enormous yellow sign, this place is impossible to miss.
As you wander toward the boardwalk, you will pass several stands where you can find sunscreen, flip flops, and hats (basically any beach going materials that you may have forgotten). There is a kind of moment where you might be incredulous about whether or not the sea is actually out there at the end of the concrete streets named for the boardwalk and the surf. Then, just as you come up the steps to the boardwalk you are met with a sea of people from all walks of life, all nationalities, and dressed in bright summer clothing and off beyond them, the sandy beach and the Atlantic Ocean.
Just to your left you hear the clacking of the roller coasters at Luna Park and, if you are like us, the first stop on your visit will have to be Deno’s Wonder Wheel. This enormous ferris wheel with swinging cars that go to and fro as you ride around, making you half dizzy and half thrilled as you contemplate the colors and ocean from so high up. This is a carnival atmosphere that trumps all carnivals, the perfect setting for a mystery, with its air of gritty entrepreneurs and careless summer moments.
Zoltar the electronic fortune teller will give you a fortune for a dollar, and you can wrestle with an electronic bull. Another must visit is the Cyclone, a historic wooden coaster that dates back to 1927 and is just as rickety and fear inducing as it must have been during those early days. While we didn’t have time to visit, there is a Coney Island museum where you can learn about the history of the beach and boardwalk. And, if you are lucky, you might catch a baseball game with the local team the Brooklyn Cyclones at the ballpark located right off the boardwalk.
The day we visited, there was a sand castle building competition, and the boardwalk was filled with interesting characters, one among them being a man dressed in what I can only explain as a patchwork rainbow coat with a parrot perched on his shoulder walking a dog whose white fur had been dyed orange. These are things that you could only find in New York. We ruskommend a visit to this iconic place with 5 boquerones. It is nostalgic in the sense that the past and the worn excitement still linger in the air, but it is also an uneasy clash of colors, smells and sounds that you won’t soon forget and embodies a bit of the gritty New York city experience so absent from the now Disney-fied downtown area. Coney Island seems to have succeeded in preserving the real New York City in a way that only an unreal place could.