A Coney Island Education

A Coney Island Education

David Hollander MFA '97

Back in 1893, Coney Island showman George C. Tilyou visited the Chicago Exposition and looked in awe upon the world’s first Ferris wheel. It held over 2,000 people, each of whom paid 50 cents to be ratcheted 250 feet into the sky. When Tilyou’s attempts to purchase the wheel failed, he executed a quintessentially Coney Island stunt. He returned to the seaside and erected a wheel half the size of the one he’d seen, beside which he posted a sign that read “WORLD’S LARGEST FERRIS WHEEL.” Crowds flocked to the attraction, and Tilyou raked in the profits.

In carnie parlance, this sort of con is known as a “razzle,” and the history of Coney Island abounds with them. In its heyday, Coney Island was both a close-knit immigrant community and, paradoxically, a whirligig of itinerant freaks and flimflam artists. For Sarah Lawrence history teacher Rona Holub MA ’98, a field trip to this iconic neighborhood at the bottom of Brooklyn is the perfect finale to her yearlong course, “A History of New York City,” which explores the complex social fabric of our storied metropolis.

I’ve joined Holub and her students on the corner of Stillwell and Surf Avenues—the site of the original and still thriving Nathan’s Famous (established 1916)—on a picturesque Sunday in early May. A cool breeze rolls in off the ocean; overhead, elevated subway cars scream insanely. With Holub today is her life partner (and our primary guide), Carol Polcovar, a retired NYC middle- and high-school teacher, a published poet and playwright, and a Coney Island native with a gift for storytelling. Crowds are just beginning to assemble in search of Nathan’s hot dogs, or Nathan’s corn dogs, or the fried frog legs that inexplicably haunt the menu. It’s all vaguely exotic despite the dilapidation. The heyday for Coney Island’s amusement parks is long past, but the waterfront still boasts several acres of flashbulb-adorned thrill rides and barker-promoted games of chance, along with two protected landmark amusements: the Cyclone, one of our nation’s oldest (and most terrifying) wooden roller coasters, and the Wonder Wheel—a 150-foot replacement for Tilyou’s “razzle,” erected to much fanfare in 1920.

“Imagine growing up here,” Polcovar is saying as the last of the students arrive, seemingly stunned by all this daylight. “Imagine that your four major avenues were named Surf, Mermaid, Neptune, and Stillwell. The fantasy of this place is written into its language.” In the 1940s and ’50s, the Coney Island waterfront drew an endless parade of buzz-seekers from across the five boroughs, even as the inland immigrant communities (mostly Italian and Jewish, though today the neighborhood is largely Hispanic and African American) maintained their own cultural attitudes, distinct from the boardwalk’s carnival of attractions, yet geographically (and psychically) tethered to it.

“By the time I was 10,” Polcovar laughs, “I knew what a shill was.”

We’re walking away from the ocean toward the neighborhood’s interior, and the boardwalk’s absurd amusements have quickly ceded to Mermaid Avenue’s restaurants and brown-brick apartment buildings. In the 1940s this was the Italian section of town, and the invisible lines between immigrant communities were as clear as chalk to the locals. We pass Gargiulo’s, one of a handful of eateries established in the early 20th century that’s still operating today. Polcovar says, “Here, for a little bit of money, you could roll dice after your meal. If you rolled the right number, your meal was free.” A student asks, “How could they afford to give away meals?” Polcovar smiles. “The odds are always in the favor of the house,” she says. “They made a lot more on dinners than they lost to the dice. And I’m sure they didn’t give away many meals.” This, she adds, was part of a Coney Island education. “One thing you learned about very early on was how to avoid being conned.

In its heyday, Coney Island was both a close-knit immigrant community and, paradoxically, a whirligig of itinerant freaks and flimflam artists.

“There was a mob assassination in another well-known, lovely Italian restaurant,” Polcovar says, before moving us deeper into the neighborhood. “But mostly everyone got along. There wasn’t a lot of violence between groups.” Polcovar is conjuring up one of Coney Island’s many contradictions: it was a place grounded by immigrant communities performing traditional roles (“mobster” apparently being one), and yet reliant on the gullibility of here-today, gone-tomorrow thrill seekers. Had our own group strolled past Gargiulo’s in 1940, well … no more obvious sucker has there ever been than a wide-eyed and curious college student.

Holub calls New York City “a dynamic organism,” and her class’ frequent field trips are designed to capture—chronologically—four centuries of its evolution. In September, the class visited the Museum of the City of New York, where students explored exhibits and artifacts ranging back to the original 16th century Dutch settlements. Since then, they have visited the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan, where 17th and 18th century free and enslaved Africans were buried on a six-acre plot later concealed by landfill; explored the landmark cemetery for what was New York’s only Jewish congregation up until 1825, in what is now Chinatown; and enjoyed an eating tour of the Lower East Side, where dozens of cultures—and a history of the neighborhood’s immigration patterns—still exist in culinary form.

“We never really know what’s going to happen on these field trips,” laughs Christine Frieman MA ’10, a graduate student in women’s history.

Immigration and the patterns of New York’s working class are central to

Holub’s interests (and her reading list). Here on Coney Island—named by the Dutch for its preponderance of rabbits (or conynes)—that working class streamed in daily from all five boroughs, engaging in a kind of mixing—between races, classes, ethnicities, and genders—that was all but unheard of in the early part of the 20th century.

We’ve looped our way back toward the boardwalk. The ocean glitters off to our right and the smell of frying dough pervades the air. Polcovar is talking about how in the 1940s, when the amusements at Coney Island were still in full regalia, it was acceptable for a girl to, say, clutch a boy on the log flume—even if she couldn’t clutch him in the world’s infinite non-log-flume scenarios.

Although developers have been trying to raze Coney Island for decades, it always seems to crawl back from the abyss.

Holub’s eyes light up at this: she’s been advising Christine Frieman, the graduate student, on a master’s thesis that explores this very phenomenon. “Go ahead, Christine,” Holub says. “Tell us about your project.”

“Even in 1898,” Frieman says animatedly, “you had the Steeplechase ride—two people on a horse embracing each other. Coney Island was one of the few places where many socioeconomic groups came together, but it was also one of the few places where heterosexual coupling was possible. I’m writing about how technology made this possible.” When Luna Park opened in 1903, there were 2,000 electric lights, and hundreds of thousands more would follow. “Coney Island turned nighttime into daytime,” Frieman says. “Girls could be out when they couldn’t be before. And of course the subway—another key piece of technology—made it possible for them to get here.”

Although developers have been trying to raze Coney Island for decades, it always seems to crawl back from the abyss. As recently as 2007, a group of luxury-hotel moguls seemed on the verge of winning land rights in toto along the waterfront. But it seems as if flimflam emanates from Coney Island itself, making suckers of one would-be developer after another. An unlikely partnership between offbeat East Village preservationists, who see the amusement park’s anarchic shoddiness as the very thing worth preserving, and the current generation of carnies, who see it as a birthright, temporarily rescued the old magic’s still-glowing core. Development rights currently belong to the Bloomberg administration, and frankly, no one knows what will happen next. But this summer the once-famous Luna Park, arguably the most magnificent of Coney Island’s early attractions, was resurrected, at least in name, 66 years after burning to the ground. The new park may be a lesser incarnation, but the spirit of Coney Island—like its history—simply refuses to die.

We pause before a crumbling ruin that serves as a perfect (and perfectly creepy) example of that refusal. It’s a towering limestone façade with enormous Victorian arches and castle-like turrets and crenellations. Carved into the stone two stories up is the ornate face of some demonic Poseidon loath to relinquish power. “This,” Polcovar says, “was once a child’s restaurant. Then it became a pavilion for games and Skeet Ball. Then it was a roller rink. Now it’s really nothing—just a ruin. But it’s here.

“When television arrived in earnest,” she continues, “Coney Island’s interactive entertainments lost some of their appeal.” Technology made Coney Island, then (partially) unmade it. Frieman nods, perhaps making a mental note for her thesis. We pause again and look inland at an enormous empty lot a quarter mile square. At its center is a single, tiny brick building with the word “Playland” fading from recognition, in case we needed a metaphor. And just beyond is the ever-thriving Nathan’s Famous from which our tour began. Coney Island both is and is not what it’s always been. “We should eat,” Holub says matter-of-factly.

The fare at Nathan’s is exactly as you’d expect: fried, greasy, delicious, and (probably) deadly. It’s the perfect precursor to our last stop on this Coney Island walking tour. The Cyclone is perpetually ranked on the nation’s top ten list of must-ride roller coasters, and although Holub insists that a ride “is not required for course credit,” there are a number of takers.

“People died on this thing all the time,” Polcovar says as we stand in line for tickets. “When I was growing up it was two or three a year.” This only deters a few of us. We lock in to the ancient torpedo and the cars click their way laboriously upward, providing a fantastic view of the neighborhood. To the south, the bright beach dotted with urban swimmers; to the north, the neighborhood housing projects of an ever-changing demographic; and in between, the thrill rides that have defined Coney Island for well over a century. I’m alone in my car and trying to look disinterested. But if my wife were with me, I’d no doubt take this opportunity to grab a hand or squeeze a knee.

We crest the hill and seem to pause for a moment at the threshold of disaster. And then we plummet, screaming with joy.

David Hollander lived in Brooklyn for 15 years and rode the Cyclone upwards of a hundred times, yet he exhibits no post-traumatic stress symptoms. He has taught fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence since 2001 and is the author of the novel L.I.E.