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Coney Island On The Mind

Coney Island (named “Konijn Hok” in the 17th century by the Dutch because rabbits or “coneys” shared the beach with the Indians) has always been a hotbed of exploration and exploitation. During the 1870s Brighton Beach featured elegant hotels for monied New Yorkers, while at the western end of the island prostitution, gambling, and drinking attracted the criminally minded. During the Depression Coney Island became a mecca for the poor. For just 10 cents one could ride the new subway line and purchase an Original Nathan’s Famous hot dog. Popular amusement parks Luna Park, Dreamland, and Steeplechase Park thrived until the 1930s then collapsed after World War II. Of all the major rides today only the Cyclone (b. 1927) and Ferris Wheel (b. 1920) remain.

Amazingly, Coney Island is as crowded in the summer now as it was 75 years ago when the Boardwalk opened to the public. For New Yorkers it’s doubly appealing to have access to a boardwalk with attractions and vendors plus beach without having to go to New Jersey. But if you’ve ever sweated the D or F train to the end of the line to clamor for a spot in the unrelenting sun, you might wonder why you left your air-conditioned apartment.

Perhaps the secret to Coney Island is to go in winter when it’s still virginal.

Weather permitting, a bike ride to the bottom of Brooklyn can be exhilarating. You can grab a ponchik and kvass from Brighton Beach Avenue then hunker down on a boardwalk bench and commune with the gulls. Behold the cold and wind and blue. You don’t have to be a thrill-seeking “Polar Bear” plunging into icy water to herald in the new year. It’s a free show for those hardy thinkers, runners and dog-walkers who seek it, their sensations amplified by sky, sand, and snow.

Coney Island is lovely at other times too. One May day I took two gallon containers to fill with sea water for my sister’s friend who was ailing in Toronto. I don't know how this memory from his youth was meant to restore him, whether he drank it or bathed in it, but apparently it did—truth stranger than fiction!

Now is the season to savor clean sea air and pristine beach, before the Sirens, Mermaids and rockers begin to rake in the crowds and the cash; before pale sweaty masses pour out from the elevated train, queue up for greasy snacks and sodas, and race for a place in the sun among blaring radios and empty beer cans.

Summer also means that our colorful Brighton Beach natives burst forth, their gold teeth glinting: yentas flocking to their seats under the gazebo and wiry old handball champs reclaiming the courts.

The cycle continues.

But in winter you can imagine Coney Island as it was in 1609—a 5-mile stretch of desolate sand dunes, clam beds and wind-blown scrub—before we colonized and stole it from the Canarsie Indians.

About the author

Born in Bronx, New York, Marilyn started writing poetry at age 6. As a young adult she moved to Manhattan and supported herself as a typesetter and proofreader while continuing to write poetry, fiction, essays and drama. She participated in the East Village performance scene during the '80s and '90s and wrote for local arts publications. In 1996 she published her poetry book entitled She Must Have Been a Giant. More mature now but still rebellious, Marilyn is working on several New York-related projects.

Marilyn Recht is a contributing writer for NYCfoto.com

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