This past weekend I traveled to one of my favorite places, Brooklyn’s world-famous Coney Island. Yes, it’s actually a peninsula, not an island, and no, it’s not much of an ”amusement resort” these days, but it’s still crazy magical. I took a lengthy trip on the F train from Manhattan — to say nothing of the five-hour plane ride from L.A. that necessarily preceded it. Still, it was entirely worth it to coast into an alternate universe of sorts.
I love Coney for its enduring authenticity. It’s a shambolic paradise by the sea, where mom-‘n’-pop clam shacks are more visible than McRestaurants, and babushkas outnumber hipsters in skinny scarves and Scorsese glasses. Standing on the boardwalk, it’s hard to believe that you’re still technically in New York City. There are no towering glass-walled high-rises or hedge-fund guys chugging Heineken. No flickering LED screens going Blade Runner on your eyeballs. No touristy superstores claiming to be the world’s largest purveyor of M&M’s or catcher’s mitts; no grim, faceless flash-mobs. Here on the shore, you’re more likely to find relaxed, stationary folks enjoying Coney Island Lager at a sandy-floored bar called Beer Island. (Let me state for the record that I would rather spend a day at Beer Island than, say, a week in Saint Barts. Beer Island is the best place in the entire world, though I don’t recommend the wine.)
Astroland, one of Coney’s best-known amusement parks, closed last fall. What was once billed as a ”space-age” park ironically became a psychedelic boneyard of dismantled thrill rides. Apparently some mustache-twirling developer thinks that Coney Island could be a good place to build hotels, and a lot of beloved attractions may fall victim to progress. If life was an ’80s teen comedy, a ragtag group of locals would surely band together to save the Scrambler (and possibly lob a few coconut cream pies at Mr. Nasty Developer). Unfortunately, life is a lot more like a Coen brothers movie: No one has enough money and the ending feels ambiguous. Rest in peace, A-land.
However, lucky boys and girls can still ride Astroland’s premier attraction, the Cyclone roller coaster. This steel-framed, wood-tracked beast is a New York City Landmark, so it will likely avoid the Yuppie Wrecking Ball From Hell. (Fingers crossed.) The coaster has a wonderful/terrible re-ride policy that enables enthusiastic riders to stay on for as long as they’re willing to pay. This means a guaranteed wait for the front seat, which is actually kind of fun because you can stand on the loading platform and scowl at the ride hogs as they pass by for their fourth or fifth run. (I like to think that this tradition of scowling, like the Cyclone itself, dates all the way back to the 1920s.) Every time I board the ride, I’m surprised by the old-school restraints, as well as an unfamiliar sensation: freedom. Modern coasters are designed to be lawsuit-proof; they staple riders in like fighter pilots. The Cyclone was designed to batter its riders, and it still does. This coaster will spank you hard, and it’s awesome.
Beyond the Astro-graveyard lies KeySpan Park, a baseball stadium in the shadow of the old Parachute Jump. You can ride the Wonder Wheel, a deliciously terrifying Ferris wheel hybrid where certain carts slide creakily on rails toward the hub of the ride. (Check YouTube if you want to see grown men and women scream themselves hoarse on this so-called ”kiddie” attraction.) And there’s always Nathan’s Famous, where the ever-untrendy hot dog has managed to retain its status as an acceptable meal. Coney Island is classic vanishing America that’s somehow ceased to vanish. It’s a modern miracle; setting foot on this beach is like meeting a 105-year-old who’s still lucid and has millions of stories to tell.
Of course, there’s more to Coney Island than just amusement rides and boardwalk kitsch. There are communities of Italian and Russian and Armenian immigrants, as well as lots of local landmarks that I highly recommend checking out. Either way, make an effort to come to Coney. No need to wait for next summer; it’s as striking on gray days as it is on sunny ones. And as far as entertainment goes, one cannot live on reality television alone.
Believe me. I’ve tried.