An island of gaudy imagination


BROOKLYN, New York - Coney Island isn't what it used to be, but therein lies part of its charm.

No one has taken the trouble to gussie it up, or pretend that this is a place of elegance or high fashion. This remains the land of the carnival ride, the boardwalk and the hot dog - and tradition says that hot dogs were invented in the 19th century right here, on the dagger-shaped spit of land at the southern end of Brooklyn. This is where carnival barkers urged millions of visitors to come inside to see the wonders of the world - mermaids, two-headed frogs and wild men from Borneo.

Henry Hudson landed at Coney Island in 1609, and Native Americans sold the territory to English settlers in 1654 for, among other things, a blanket, beads, two guns and 3 pounds of powder. But until the early 19th century, the inhabitants showed little interest in the beach, preferring to live inland, away from the pounding waves.

A first hint of things to come appeared in 1825, with the opening of the island's first hotel. But access to the island remained limited, and those who visited were, for the most part, the prominent and the well-to-do.

"Coney Island really gets going after the Civil War," says Dick D. Zigun, whose Coney Island USA operates a museum and supports performing artists who help keep the community's carnival tradition alive. But until the 1880s, "it was a Victorian upper-class resort, with expensive restaurants and racetracks."

In 1862, a horse-drawn trolley offered the first public transportation here. A year later, a combination hotel-restaurant-bathhouse was opened by Peter Tilyou, whose family would play a key role in Coney Island's development. His son, George, opened its first live theater and founded Steeplechase, the island's longest-lived amusement park.

Cheap public transportation brought the masses by train, trolley and, after 1920, by subway, and the masses sought cheap entertainment.

George Tilyou's Steeplechase Park opened in 1897. Luna Park followed in 1903, Dreamland in 1904. The three competed to develop the gaudiest, most thrilling, most unlike-anything-ever-seen-before attractions. The race for the tourist dollar was on.

Steeplechase offered patrons its namesake horse race - customers riding atop wooden horses on a metal track - plus the Wedding Ring (a swinging wheel that could hold 70 people), the Barrel of Love (a huge revolving drum) and the Whichaway (a spinning floor that sent riders tumbling). Luna Park, opened by two of Tilyou's former employees, featured A Trip To The Moon, a simulated space ride that included a journey through sublunar caverns and encounters with Moon Maidens handing out slices of green cheese.

At Dreamland, customers could visit a fantasy world illuminated by what was said to be a million light bulbs, tour both Heaven and Hell (the latter ruled by a huge devil whose arms spread over the entrance), watch Mount Vesuvius erupt, see an African village or meet the 300 midgets of Tiny Town.

The 1920s introduced three Coney Island staples still thriving today: the 150-foot-high Wonder Wheel, the Boardwalk and the 85-foot-high Cyclone, an all-wood roller coaster regarded as the dean of thrill rides.

All of which kept the crowds coming. By the end of the 1930s, Coney Island was drawing 25 million visitors a summer and offered them 60 bathhouses, 13 carousels, 11 roller coasters, six penny arcades, five tunnel rides, 20 shooting galleries, three freak shows and 200 snack bars and restaurants.

But cracks started to appear in the fun zone's faM-gade. Coney Island's deadliest and most recurring nemesis, fire, which had claimed Dreamland in 1911, gutted nearly half of Luna Park in 1944. Luna Park closed for good two years later, but only after operators recouped some of their losses by charging 10 cents to view the smoldering ruins.

By the mid-1960s, when Steeplechase closed, Coney Island had become distinctly unsavory. Rival gangs fought over territory, and visitors were falling prey to pickpockets, con artists and other thieves. Robert Moses, New York's powerful parks commissioner, repeatedly asked why anyone would waste time on "mechanical gadgets." Part of the island was cleared in the name of urban renewal. But much of the planned housing and commercial development was never built, leaving patches of empty land pockmarking what had been New York's working-class Riviera.

By the 1970s, the amusement area had been reduced to a handful of rides alongside a mostly deserted boardwalk.

But prospects began to improve in the early '80s. Coney Island USA, founded by Zigun with two partners, established an annual Mermaid Parade, which marked the start of summer. The parade and the annual Nathan's Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest (won in this, its 85th year, by Kazutoyo Arai of Japan, who consumed 25 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes) guarantee Coney Island at least two mentions in American newspapers every year.

And New York designated the Wonder Wheel and 271-foot-high Parachute Drop as landmarks. This year, final approval was given for a $91 million minor-league ballpark, to serve as home to a New York Mets Class A farm team.

At the eastern end of the Boardwalk, nestled between 15th Street and the New York Aquarium, are the remnants of the Island's entertainment district. Of the two remaining amusement parks, Astroland includes the Cyclone, a still-careening wonder after nearly 75 years, and the Astrotower, offering views (albeit a little cloudy, since its windows are old and scratched) of New York. Next door is Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, featuring its 80-year-old namesake, 24 other rides and a McDonald's.

Leave the parks, and there's the Coney Island Museum, at 1208 Surf Ave.; Sideshows by the Seashore, at Surf and West 12th, where the entertainers include Koko the Killer Clown, Combustible Kiva and Ula & Sarka, the Painproof Rubber Girls; the B&B; Carousel, an old-style merry-go-round on the opposite side of Surf Avenue from the parks; and the Boardwalk, still featuring games of skill, food vendors and a few struggling souvenir stands.

But west of 15th Street, Coney Island is pretty much a ghost town - an unintended open-air museum displaying remnants of the resort that used to be. Long-dry water fountains dot the Boardwalk. The Parachute Drop hasn't intentionally dropped anything in more than three decades; the Thunderbolt roller coaster, closed since 1981 and partially eaten away by fire 10 years later, stands, but the only thing creeping along its tracks are weeds - and the ghosts of several million thrill-seekers who imbued the area with a sense of wonder.

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