Coney Island

Anthology tells the story of Coney Island in historical fiction and non-fiction

February 4, 2015 By Raanan Geberer Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Louis Parascandola. Images courtesy of Columbia University Press

The history of Coney Island is fairly well known. In the early 19th century, it was known as a place where people could commune with nature and only a few guest houses existed. By the early 20th century it had been transformed into an amusement mecca, complete with expensive hotels, amusement parks and music halls featuring entertainers like Al Jolson, the Marx Brothers and Mae West. These big attractions maintained high standards, but in the alleys, one could always find prostitution, illegal gambling and more.

After the subway reached Coney around the time of World War I, it began to attract a more working-class crowd. The amusement parks remained, but most of the hotels were demolished. Hot dog stands, games of chance and standalone amusement rides sprung up everywhere. This was the era of Coney’s greatest popularity.

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From the 1960s on, a period of deterioration set in. Steeplechase, the last of the old amusement parks, closed, and drugs, robberies and gang activity kept many people away. This was the Coney depicted in the classic 1979 street-gang movie, “The Warriors.” Since 2000 or so, there has been a revival, with new attractions such as MCU Park, the Luna Park and the Scream Zone.

Coney has always inspired writing, both fiction and non-fiction, often by famous authors. Until now, these stories haven’t been collected in one volume. Now, however, Columbia University Press has published “A Coney Island Reader: Through Dizzy Gates of Illusion,” edited by Louis J. Parascandola and John Parascandola, available in hardcover, paperback and e-book versions.

Among the famous authors represented in the book are Walt Whitman, Stephen Crane, Maxim Gorky, O. Henry, e.e. cummings, Henry Miller, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Joseph Heller. Here are some highlights.

  • Walt Whitman’s “Clam-Bake at Coney Island,” published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1847, describes a group of friends who set off from Downtown Brooklyn in a carriage pulled by a team of horses for a clam bake and a dip in the ocean at the then-obscure resort;

  • Stephen Crane’s “Failing Days in Coney Island,” published in 1894, describes the melancholy mood of people taking a ferry from Coney back to Manhattan one Sunday night. They know that after a weekend of dancing, dining and making merry, they’ll now have to be ordinary people again.

  • “The Way of the Girl,” by social worker Belle Lindner Israels, published in 1909, laments the fate of young working-class women lured to side-street dives, where they were easy prey for seducers and people who would entice them into prostitution;

  • An excerpt from “Dreamland,” describing an elaborate amusement park of the early 1900s, published by Kevin Baker in 1999. He describes some of the less appetizing attractions there, such as a barker who invited passers-by to throw a baseball at an African-American man; and a dwarf, dressed in a clown’s suit, who chased young women with a cattle prod. Baker also follows a young man who meets a young woman at Coney. He takes her to the elegant Feltman’s Restaurant (where the hotdog was popularized) and onto the fast Steeplechase ride, only to be rejected by her later in the evening.

  • “A Day in Coney Island” by Isaac Bashevis Singer describes the life of several Yiddish-speaking Jewish intellectuals who rented bungalows in Sea Gate in the late 1930s. His description of bitter arguments between communists, socialists and anarchists on the boardwalk is priceless.

  • “Now and Then” by Joseph Heller, the author of “Catch 22,” describes a little-known aspect of Coney Island in the 1930s — that of working-class families who rented summer bungalows near the boardwalk. Heller makes the point that even then, when the amusement area was going full blast, the community of year-round residents was an economically depressed one.

All in all, if one is interested in the history of Coney Island, “A Coney Island Reader” is a must.

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