Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

America’s first amusement park is still an NYC icon

A busy day at the beach (Wikipedia/MusikAnimal/https://goo.gl/gdH8Vx)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Coney Island

What it’s about: For nearly 200 years, New York City has had its own beach resort within city limits, just a short train ride away from the crowded streets of Manhattan. Coney Island’s history has vacillated between glamorous, seedy, and family-friendly, often embodying all three at once. And since America’s first amusement park opened on the boardwalk, it’s been home to a colorful melange of rides and sideshows that has made the island an American icon.


Strangest fact: It’s actually a peninsula. While Coney Island began as a barrier island, protecting the south coast of Long Island (which Brooklyn is part of) from the Atlantic, a section of the creek separating the smaller island from the larger one was filled in in the 1920s, though the island is still accessible by bridge in most places. Since then, man-made structures have been added to protect the perimeter of the island from natural erosion, and while the beach was once a natural beach, it came to depend on the first-ever instance of beach nourishment, a project that continues to this day.

Nathan’s Famous has been a Coney Island institution since 1916, and hosts a hot-dog-eating contest every 4th of July. (Wikipedia/Willyumderlirious/https://goo.gl/yKTjQ8)

Biggest controversy: Virtually everything that’s ever been built on Coney Island has been slated for demolition by one developer or another. The first round of building, in the 1830s, met with objections from conservation groups who wanted the island to be a park. By the early 1900s, the beach itself was covered with “bath houses, clam bars, amusements, and other structures,” until the city built a boardwalk and tore down everything between it and the water.

No story about tearing down buildings in New York would be complete without stock villain Robert Moses. After Luna Park (one of Coney’s three original amusement parks) was damaged in a fire, Moses had it rezoned as residential and torn down. He then moved the boardwalk further from the water, demolishing everything in his way. He also had several more blocks of amusements torn down to make way for the New York Aquarium, and eventually tried to rezone and demolish the surviving blocks of amusement park to build more housing, but was finally stopped by public outcry.


The ’60s brought a new villain: Fred Trump. When Steeplechase Park (another of the original three) closed in 1964, Trump, the father of America’s best-known failed steak salesman, bought the property, intending to build luxury apartments on the boardwalk. The city refused to rezone the area. Trump continued to battle the city, at one point holding a mock-funeral for the amusement park, inviting the crowd to throw rocks through the Steeplechase pavilion’s stained-glass windows, before bulldozing the building. But the city never gave in, Trump sold the property after 10 years, and a new Steeplechase Park was built on the ruins of the old.

Thing we were happiest to learn: Despite multiple looming wrecking balls through the years, Coney Island persists. Around the time Steeplechase Park closed, a new amusement park, Astroland, opened on a different stretch of the boardwalk. That closed in 2008, but after a year of rumors of hotels and housing, reopened as a new Luna Park. Astroland’s two most famous rides, the Cyclone (a wooden roller coaster built in 1927) and the Wonder Wheel (a 150-foot Ferris Wheel, dating to 1920, with a view of both the skyline and the ocean from the top), have been named protected landmarks.

In 97 years of operation, the Wonder Wheel has never had an accident. During the 1977 citywide blackout, the wheel stopped, but was turned by hand to let passengers exit safely. (Wikipedia/DangApricot/https://goo.gl/yKTjQ8)

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Not every iconic Coney Island ride survived. The Thunderbolt, best known for housing Woody Allen’s childhood home in the beginning of Annie Hall, was part of the original Steeplechase Park, and in the ’80s was the site of a battle between two developers. One wanted to rebuild the amusement park, one wanted a sports complex. Enter noted sports fan Rudy Giuliani. The mayor negotiated a deal to put a minor league baseball park adjacent to the Thunderbolt. The team, however, objected that the long-defunct roller coaster blocked their view, so Giuliani declared it structurally unsound and tore it down before anyone could object. In 2014 a new, metal roller coaster opened at Coney Island, also named Thunderbolt.

A costumed reveler at the 2009 Mermaid Parade. (Wikipedia/April Sikorski/https://goo.gl/yKTjQ8)

Also noteworthy: Every generation of amusement parks at Coney has also included sideshows of some kind, contributing to the island’s reputation as a home for artists, free spirits, and outsiders. Nowhere is this more typified than the annual Mermaid Parade, a Mardis Gras-inspired event every June that celebrates the beginning of summer with music, floats, outlandish (usually sea-themed) costumes, and some casual nudity.


Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Our previous Wormhole on architectural folly mentioned a few elephant-shaped buildings, among them, Coney Island’s Elephantine Colossus. The seven-story pachyderm first graced Surf Avenue in 1885, but burned down 11 years later. While it stood, it had 31 rooms, including hotel rooms, a concert hall, a cigar store, an observation deck (viewers looked through telescopes out the elephant’s eyes), and apparently a brothel. From the sea, it was the first thing immigrants arriving in New York harbor saw, until the Statue Of Liberty was constructed two years later.

Very few people can boast of having sex inside an elephant, but in the 1880s, it was NBD. (Wikipedia/public domain)

Further down the Wormhole: Besides the Mermaid Parade, Coney Island hosts many other annual events, including the Coney Island Film Festival, Burlesque At The Beach, and an interactive Halloween event called Creepshow At The Freakshow. Halloween is, of course, the Americanized version of Irish festival Samhain and is based around those inexorably linked themes, candy and death. The Onion’s Man Of The Millennium eventually visits us all, even those of us who find stardom on the small screen. We’ll look at the list of television actors who died during production next week.

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