Fun fairs have always placed a part in the life of the Rag Tags- growing up in the North East close to Whitley Bay’s Spanish City, immortalized in Dire Straights ‘Tunnel of Love‘, visiting the annual Hoppings at Newcastle’s Town Moor, or working a summer job next door to Blackpool’s Pleasure Beach.
So on a visit to New York a few years ago, having been to the ‘must see’ tourist spots in and around Manhattan, we made the trip out to the borough of Brooklyn to fulfill (one of)our long time ambitions to see the iconic Coney Island after years of reading about it in literature (including O. Henry, Hubert Selby Jr), music ranging from The Velvet Underground to The Fun Loving Criminals, Tom Waits and many, many more, and a myriad of films, including one of our favourites, Alan Parker’s 1987 Angel Heart
Coney Island as an amusement area was at its’ most popular between the late 1800’s and World War 2, when it had millions of visitors a year, taking advantage of the sandy beaches, rides like Luna Park, Dreamland, and Steeplechase Park, and to witness such extraordinary innovations including electric lights…
One of the most iconic, and certainly most unusual fixtures, built in 1885, was the Elephantine Colossus, a seven story building which acted as a hotel, amusement arcade, concert hall, and a brothel. The building burned down in 1896. While it was not rebuilt in Coney Island, it’s designer James V Lafferty did go on to build other elephant structures in Atlantic City and Cape May.
The socioeconomic and political reasons for Coney Island‘s popularity waning through the ’60’s and ’70’s could (and have) fill tomes, but it is fair to say that the closure of the last of the large theme park, Steeplechase Park, and the selling off of property to the Fred Trump, the Donald’s father who demolished the Pavilion of Fun and arranged a ‘funeral for Coney Island‘ PR stunt.
The demolition of Luna Park and Steeplechase Park, and aggressive urban renewal plans saw a drop in visitors to Coney Isand throughout the ’70s, and attempts to revive attendance through introduction of Atlantic City style casinos failed when gambling legislation was repeatedly refused in the area.
When we visited Coney Island it was… not what we were expecting. Our timing was badly planned- in terms of time of the day, time of the year; the rides were closed, the boardwalks empty, and the beach, famous from images of crowded New Yorkers enjoying their day by the seas from across the years:
We did the touristy things- a hot dog from Nathan’s, a walk along the boardwalk, but alas, there was little else to do and we returned back into Manhattan, at least one of us somewhat crest fallen- not just for what was, or wasn’t there in Coney Island, but how reminiscent it was of the dilapidation of our own childhood memories of the Spanish City…
Hopefully, for those of us who love the fun of the fair, seaside air and all things that go along with it, things are looking up for both places. We’ll be featuring a post on the regeneration of Whitley Bay and the Spanish City in a future post, but as far as Coney Island goes, things are changing for the better, and after decades of stagnation and failed attempts to reinvigorate the area it is going through real development in recent times.
Check out The official Coney Island website here for more details on what Coney Island has to offer today.
And for those of you interested in Art- try visiting the Coney Art Walls Website:
Urban art, one of the most prominent features around today’s Coney Isand sees an amazing collections of iconic images, vintage posters, exhibitions, graffiti and street art which can be found throughout the area.
Heading back to New York this Summer, at least one of us is hoping to make a return trip to see how Coney Island is doing…
Nicola: Not sure I’m up for another visit to Coney island but here’s my small contribution….