For many years, there were two kinds of waterfronts in Brooklyn. The first kind was the one that the whole world seemed to know: the Coney Island shoreline, with its rides, beaches, fast-food stands, games of chance, and at one time, hotels and dance halls. For those who wanted a quieter experience, one only had to walk a short distance to Brighton Beach or Manhattan Beach to experience “Coney Island Lite.” But it was still all part of the same beach.
To the northwest, there was another type of waterfront, one known mainly to importers, exporters and dock workers (and sometimes to gangsters, but that’s another story). This was the working waterfront that stretched from Sunset Park to Red Hook to the piers below Brooklyn Heights to Williamsburg. The Gowanus Canal, too, was part of this working waterfront. In an era when most goods were brought in by ship, it was essential to the economy.
Starting in the 1950s, both waterfronts declined. As people moved to the suburbs or the outer reaches of Brooklyn and Queens, they discovered new beaches – Jones Beach, Long Beach, Rockaway Beach. Coney Island, for years a family resort, became first a hangout for teenagers and later a haven for gangs and drug dealers. The last of the old amusement parks, Steeplechase, closed in the mid-1960s, although thankfully, many of the classic rides, such as the Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone, survived. For years, it was hard to find a good restaurant anywhere near the boardwalk.
As for Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront, the rise of interstate trucking and the construction of superhighways meant that you didn’t have to bring as many goods in by ship anymore. The same thing went for the rise of air freight. Containerization of shipping almost drove the nail into the coffin. While some maritime traffic survived, many of the piers became warehouses, lumber yards and the like. Other buildings, like the Empire Stores, fell into disuse.
Nowadays, however, Brooklyn’s two waterfront areas have both seen revivals. On the northern side, some parts, such as Pier 41, the Brooklyn Army Terminal and the Red Hook Containerport, remain devoted to industry. Their owners and managers are doing a great job. But below the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, the area around the former piers has now been turned into a wonderful waterfront park. It offers a variety of recreational opportunities, including soccer, kayaking, summer movies, bicycling and more. And while the style of Brooklyn Bridge Park is more sedate than that of Coney Island, they share one thing in common: Each has a vintage carousel.
Coney Island’s own renaissance started with the coming of the minor-league Brooklyn Cyclones baseball team, followed by a new amusement park, Luna Park, and more stores and restaurants on the boardwalk and on Surf Avenue. For fans of the old Coney Island, the Wonder Wheel and the Cyclones still attract as many people as they ever did – as do Williams Candy and Nathan’s. North of the amusement area, the Brighton Beach section of the boardwalk and Brighton Beach Avenue have become a center for Russian-American restaurants and nightclubs, anchored by the Oceana condo development.
Whether your style is running into the waves in Brighton Beach or cycling in Brooklyn Bridge Park, watching the Cyclones play at MCU Park or watching a soccer game at Pier 6, today’s Brooklyn waterfront has something for everyone.
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