The dynamism of Brooklyn is evident in all of its many neighborhoods. And, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, Brooklyn contains multitudes. So, for our purposes, those multitudes have been divided into all of Brooklyn's varied 'hoods, each with a specific and distinct past and personality. So that's why we're going to go back into the history of each of these distinct areas, to understand better where they came from, where they are now, and maybe where they'll be headed. First, we did Williamsburg, and then Brooklyn Heights. Next up is Coney Island, because apparently I'm working in a counter-clockwise concentric circle through Brooklyn's waterfront neighborhoods? No, that's not it. There's no method to my madness.
This is a timeline of one Brooklyn neighborhood, its past and present, its people and places.
1609: Henry Hudson Comes to Coney Island
Landing on the sandy finger of shoreline that stretched out into the Atlantic Ocean, Henry Hudson and his men thought that they'd found a friendly place to trade as they sailed the seas in search of Asia. They were half right. The Canarsie Indians who greeted Hudson and his men were willing to trade at first and everything seemed to be going juuuust fine. Well, that quickly ended when the Canarsie tribe attacked Hudson's men, killing officer John Colman with an arrow through the throat. As dire as this sounds for Canarsie-Hudson relations, the next day the Canarsie attempted to trade again with Hudson, who responded by taking two Indians hostage and sailing away. And that was the beginning of the European incursion into what would later be known as Coney Island. Not an incredibly auspicious way to start off, but what can you do? Maybe what you can do is not invade someone else's land? I don't know. Just a thought!
Anyway. Henry Hudson's name is inescapable in New York, but do you know what wasn't inescapable? Hudson's horrible fate. Two years after reaching the shores of Coney Island, Hudson's crew would mutiny on a trip to the far north (in an icy area off the coast of Canada that would later be dubbed Hudson Bay) and Hudson, his son, and a few other crew members would be set adrift aboard a small vessel, while the mutineers sailed south. Hudson was never heard from again.
1645-1664: Salt Boom
Coney Island, which was then known as Gravesend, almost went to war with its fellow Dutch colony of New Amsterdam over a salt farm. Gravesend had been settled by Lady Deborah Moody in 1645 and she built a small community there predicated on religious freedom because she had been persecuted for her own religious beliefs prior to settling in Gravesend. The settlers of Gravesend had an uneasy relationship with the local Canarsie Indians, but that wound up being not so consequential because the local tribe was wiped out by rival Mohawk Indians. Problem solved? Ugh. Anyway, as the website Westland.net tells us, "in 1663 a Dutch merchant named Dick de Wolf, having been granted a monopoly on salt manufacture in the new world by the Dutch East Indies Company, started a salt works on the nearby beach."
This did not go over so well with the pre-existing Gravesend residents, and they threatened to burn de Wolf alive, because that was the sort of threat people made back then, I guess. This tension almost led to war being declared on Gravesend by New Amsterdam—whose patron, the Dutch East Indies Company—supported de Wolf. Luckily for the people of Gravesend, war was averted because England took over New Amsterdam and didn't really care what happened to de Wolf and his salt farm. The people of Gravesend were then granted autonomy over the whole region, including Coney Island.
Coney Island was not much more than a sleepy seaside locale for much of the 18th century. Any ambitions to exploit the areas shoreline and turn it into a port were thwarted because of the geographic reality of its shallow coastal waters, which prevented large ships from approaching land. No, this was an era of quiet for the community, which had its name bestowed due to the high population of rabbits-konijn in Dutch.
However, things would start to change in 1829 for Coney Island as a road was built from Coney Island to the mainland of Brooklyn. The Shell Road would change things for Coney Island, making it more accessible for all New Yorkers to reach, thus transforming Coney Island in the coming decades.
What does any of this have to do with pirates, you ask? Nothing. But! Also, in 1830, pirates who had overtaken the ship Vinland, came ashore in Coney Island to bury their treasure. A storm destroyed their boat and much of their treasure was scattered about the beach. What I'm trying to say is, grab a metal detector at your first available opportunity and GO GET SOME TREASURE. (ed. note: much of the treasure was found over the next few years, so there's probably not much left, but you never know)
1870s: Big Decade, HUGE, for Coney Island
A lot of projects that had been planted in Coney Island over the mid-19th century suddenly blossomed in the 1870s. The Prospect Park and Coney Island Railroad opened and transported people to the beach for 35 cents. Which, actually, if you ask me, sounds like a lot for those times. I always feel like things back then should have cost a ha'penny or something. I mean, 35 cents? That must be $4,000 in today's money.
The creator of the hot dog, Charles Feltman, opened up a hot dog stand on the beach.
People stopped being afraid that swimming in the sea would "leach all of the salts" out of their bodies and started to enjoy the ocean, albeit while wearing some pretty interesting get-ups.
Hotels and bathing pavilions and carousels and all sorts of must-see destinations opened up in Coney Island, and with the advent of Ocean Parkway being completed, people could reach the shoreline more easily than ever before.
Big things, people!
1880s and 90s: Fire!
This was a time of wild development in Coney Island. It was also a time of rampant corruption and cronyism, a time of politics and vice. It was the Wild West, only on the southernmost tip of Brooklyn. This was a time when the power for struggle came to a head, eventually sending the corrupt John Y. McKane off to Sing Sing and paving the way for the Tilyou family to make their mark on Coney Island, which they would by doing such things as starting Steeplechase Park.
This time of rapid growth and change was remarkable not only for how much was being built, but also for how much was being burned down. As fast as iconic buildings would go up, they would soon descend into flames. Some examples of Coney Island institutions that came and went during this time period include: the area "the Gut" which was dubbed "a modern-day Sodom", the West Brighton Hotel, Balmer's Bathing Pavilion, a block of buildings by the West End Railroad Station, a ferris wheel, the Post Office, the Iron Piers Hotel, the Elephant Hotel, Henderson's Bath House, Felton's Casino. This is just a partial list. The point is that, despite the development, the people of Coney Island clearly didn't prioritize fire departments. Unfortunately.
In fact, the destructive fires weren't just limited to this time period. Steeplechase amusement park, Dreamland, and Luna Park would all eventually burn to the ground, so that they would only ever exist in the collective imaginations of Brooklynites forever after.
1902: A Trip to the Moon
This era was the golden age of Coney Island when all sorts of things, both amazing and atrocious, were happening all the time. In 1902, the people at Steeplechase started an interactive audience experience called "A Trip to the Moon" which was derived from the Georges Méliès film of the same name. Participants at Steeplechase boarded a "space ship and traveled to meet martians and eat the moon" which was, of course, made of dyed-green cheese. Yum!
Also, at this time, Dr. Martin Arthur Couney invented baby incubators to help save the lives of infants born prematurely. The incubators were actually part of an exhibit that started in 1903 at Dreamland and were remarkable for providing excellent care to premature babies at no cost to their parents. Incubators were not widely used in hospitals until the 1930s, so this was truly a case of Coney Island being a—totally weird—pioneer.
A less heart-warming story of a man pioneering his invention on Coney Island, was that of Thomas Edison trying out a theory he had about electricity on an elephant, Topsy. I hate this story so much. I hate it SO MUCH. Poor Topsy was an elephant in the Luna Park Zoo who had killed three of her trainers, but you know what? Who cares, really? One of them was so abusive that he fed her lighted cigarettes. I would kill anyone who did that to me too. Zoo officials REALLY wanted Topsy to die, so they fed her poisoned carrots before she was electrocuted by Edison, who—WHAT A DICK—also filmed the electrocution and distributed it afterward. Ugh. I hate this story so much.
1920: A New Era Arrives
Following a decade marred by tragedy—including the fire that destroyed Dreamland and the deaths of many people on amusement park rides—Coney Island had something of a rebirth in 1920. For one thing, the subway was extended to Coney Island and, for only a nickel, all New Yorkers had easy access to the beach. For another, the Wonder Wheel opened. The Wonder Wheel is still an amazing engineering marvel that apparently people have sex in all the time, which makes perfect sense in its way, because sex and mortality go hand in hand and how can you NOT be thinking about dying when you're in one of those swinging cars on the Wonder Wheel? They're terrifying.
Also, in this decade, the Coney Island boardwalk opened, the Cyclone roller coaster opened, and the Coney Island beauty pageant, which attracted women from all 48 states started. No, this was not the beginning of the Miss America pageant, but it's still interesting, I think.
1949: Luna Park Becomes Low-Income Housing Projects
City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses once dismissed Coney Island by saying, "No one was interested in a mechanical gadget resort like Coney Island." Moses was not known for his tact, or, frankly, concern for Brooklyn neighborhoods. In 1949, he approved plans to raze the site where Luna Park once stood and build low-income housing projects. This came at a difficult time for Coney Island as fires had continued to burn over the years, destroying amusement parks, rides, and the boardwalks. In addition, polio epidemics had discouraged people from congregating in places like the beach, for fear of spreading disease. And while beach attendance would surge again in the 1950s during abnormally hot summers, this was really the beginning of Coney Island's economic decline.
1965 and Onward: Development
In 1965, Fred C. Trump, father to notorious blowhard Donald Trump, bought the abandoned Steeplechase Park for development. If you're at all interested in why Donald Trump is as terrible of an excuse for a person as he is, here's a little story about his dear old dad. Fred Trump was just so TERRIBLY excited about getting to tear down an historic amusement park and replace it with the hideous buildings that he and his son seem to favor, that he threw a funeral for amusement parks. Who did he invite to the funeral? Bikini-clad girls handing out hot dogs to eat and rocks to throw at the old buildings. That family! Class acts, all of them.
Anyway, the last few decades have really been a time of development and change for Coney Island. Development that, happily, does not involve fire! Giuliani helped to get a deal going that would result in the demolition of the classic Thunderbolt roller coaster which was famously seen in Annie Hall (boo!) but also this led to the construction of a minor league stadium for the Brooklyn Cyclones (yay?). Then in 2003, Thor Equities took control of the land and has slowly been introducing new rides and elements to Coney Island's amusement park area, rendering it almost unrecognizable to what it once was in the past.
Almost, but not quite. Because, while Coney Island has undergone a great many changes in the last few decades, it has also retained many elements of its past. The Wonder Wheel still stands, as does the Cyclone. The Parachute Jump may no longer be operational, but it still rises high above the sand, the water, and the people—so many people! Coney Island still attracts hundreds of thousands of people a year, drawn to its shores for things like the Mermaid Parade or a round of Shoot the Freak. It's changed, sure, but what hasn't? And there's still nowhere else like it in the world.
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