Me and my girlfriend spent the night at the Shore Hotel a couple years ago, in a grimy green-walled room on a bed with springs compressed unevenly from years of by-the-hour use, with my underwear hanging under the bare fluorescent bulb to cut its dirty glare. We went to hang out on the beach and eavesdrop on a concert at the baseball stadium, have a bunch of drinks at Ruby’s on the boardwalk, and hole up in a cheap hotel for a one-night vacation. It was romance, Coney style.
Yes, there’s a hotel out there — not the kind you’d have a honeymoon in, unless the trick you’re with is the marrying type. I’m not talking about the former Shore Theater, the looming building with the enormous sign across from the Stillwell Avenue station, but the tiny hotel above the Kennedy Fried Chicken on Surf Avenue, with an entrance down the dumpster-lined alley called Henderson Walk. The second and third floors are a single room occupancy hotel, like those that used to be up and down the Bowery in Manhattan (the midway behind the Shore just happens to be called the Bowery). In its day it was similar to Manhattan’s — incessant racket, flowing booze, women for hire, and other base pleasures for cheap. But with the barkers, calliopes, risk-your-life-for-a-nickel rides, rigged games, and fortune-tellers, Coney’s was the manic end of the mood swing.
“Sodom by the Sea” it was called around the turn of the century, a place where, as Edwin E. Slosson wrote in the July, 1904 issue of the Independent, “Men went to… be free of the conventionalities of the city; the said conventionalities being, apparently, the Ten Commandments.” During the 30s it was dubbed the “Nickel Empire,” and later the “Poor Man’s Riviera.” Coney was more than a whimsical day trip to the masses from the soot and filth-choked tenement blocks in the city; it was a needed escape, even if the beach was more crowded than the city streets.
There were other nicknames, like “Electric Eden,” but that had more to do with Luna Park’s overwhelming electric lights, as well as some business owners’ attempts to develop a wholesome image of the “New Coney Island” after a huge boardwalk fire in 1903 destroyed its center. That was the year the Shore opened, though the only source with a date is a photo caption in Charles Denson’s excellent book Coney Island Lost and Found. There’s no certificate of occupancy in the file at the Department of Buildings, and no history or date of construction, just a line indicating a classification as “H9 hotel.”
The history of the few surviving buildings from Coney’s past are well-known to locals and historians, like Child’s Restaurant on the boardwalk with its arches and sea-themed polychrome terra cotta, the red-roofed Grashorn building, or the Henderson Theater building across the alley from the Shore. But humble 12-28 Surf Avenue, sans nostalgic name, has apparently been orphaned by the recordkeepers, official and unofficial. Even Dick Zigun, proprietor of the Coney Island Museum, said that no one knows much about it. It’s hard to believe. You’d figure that in over a century there would have been some associated memorable character, scandalous tryst, or at least a strangled prostitute. It’s a perfect setting for the diabolical — narrow, creaky hallways, deserted except for quick glimpses of the keeper — it’s like an SRO version of The Shining.
Granted, the building itself is a bit of a clunker. It has no grand façade, notable brickwork, or even cool old sign like the defunct Surf Hotel’s on the corner of Stillwell Avenue. But it escaped Coney’s countless fires, and has even outlived the beloved carcass of the Thunderbolt roller coaster — the icon of Coney’s Great Decay.