Can Coney Island Survive This?

Nostalgia

Times article brings back my own relationship with Coney Island

The New York Times posted an online article yesterday called, “Can Coney Island Survive This?” It will be published in the Times paper edition on Sunday. The article, by freelance journalist, Lauren Vespoli, begins:

This summer was supposed to be big for Coney Island.

Memorial Day weekend would mark the 100th anniversary of the Wonder Wheel, Coney Island’s 15-story feat of engineering in the form of a Ferris wheel, with swinging cars and panoramic views of both city and ocean. A three-day centennial celebration was planned, including a performance by the Broadway cast of “Wicked.”

The festivities have been postponed… 

Here’s a link to Ms. Vespoli’s article: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/21/nyregion/coronavirus-coney-island.html

And for those who can’t access the Times online, a PDF version:

We all know the reason for the postponement – the coronavirus pandemic.

Longtime readers of Around the Block might remember that I wrote a story about Coney Island to commemorate the 85th anniversary of another Coney Island icon, the Cyclone roller coaster, in a former iteration of this space back in 2012. (Yes, I’ve been writing Around the Block, on and off, in one form or another, since 2012!)

Here’s a slightly edited, updated, version of that column:

I learned today, courtesy of New York Magazine, that the venerable Cyclone roller coaster recently celebrated its 85th birthday.

Cyclone c1950

This is particularly important to me because Coney Island was my home for the first year of my life. We lived with my mother’s parents, Joe and Esther Goldenberg, on West 25th Street between Mermaid and Surf Avenues, just steps from the boardwalk. My parents bought a house in the Midwood section of Brooklyn in 1947, but my grandparents continued to live in Coney Island for the next ten years or so. Frequent visits to their house gave me the opportunity to get to know the mid-‘50’s Coney Island.

I rode the Cyclone once (for me, once was enough – thrill rides, to this day, were never my thing). But most of my Coney Island ride experience as a youngster was on the Merry-Go-Round on the boardwalk at the foot of West 25th Street. My grandfather took me to this Merry-Go-Round on almost every visit, asking the operator to put me on an outside horse so I would have the best chance to grab the brass ring. But no matter which horse I rode, I never grabbed that brass ring. Either my arm wasn’t long enough or I was too timid to lean far enough to make the grab.

Those walks down West 25th Street with Grandpa Joe were always interesting. After one early winter Merry-Go-Round excursion, I complained to him that my arm was hurting…burning or stinging I recall telling him. Ever sympathetic, he told me not to worry about it, just stop complaining. When we reached his house my mother smelled something burning. Actually, there was… me. The sleeve of my flannel winter jacket was smoldering, having been ignited by the cigar the Merry-Go-Round operator had in his mouth as he placed me on the horse.

During these walks, my grandfather would frequently tell me to forget the Merry-Go-Round – “Let’s go on the Parachute Jump instead,” he would say, knowing I was too scared to go. One day, I finally summoned the courage and said, “Yes, let’s go.” Faced with the thought of actually having to ride the Parachute Jump himself, Grandpa Joe said, “No, not today. It’s too late and too far. We’ll go another day”. He never mentioned the Parachute Jump again. He was as scared of it as I was.

The Parachute Jump at Steeplechase Park

The Parachute Jump was part of Steeplechase Park. As I got older, I became a fan of Steeplechase. By that point, it was the only “park” left. Luna Park burned down in 1946; Astroland didn’t open until the early ‘60’s. I’ll never forget the Steeplechase logo with that toothy, smiling man who I thought was George C. Tilyou, the founder of the park. Looking at the logo today, I can’t believe they called Steeplechase the “funny place”. With a spokesman like that, they should have call it the “scary place.”

George C. Tilyou?

Since I never rode the Parachute Jump, I can’t say for sure, but I think you sat on a wooden bench with no back and maybe only a lap belt to hold you in. Incredible!

My favorite ride at the Park was the Steeplechase Horses, a kind of horse racing roller coaster where riders sat on wooden horses. Pulled up to the peak of the tracks like a coaster car, the rest of the ride was gravity driven with one very sharp curve that took you right over the park and beach several stories below. I might be wrong, but I don’t think there was even a strap to secure the rider to the horse. Rules were certainly different in those days.

Many years later in the early ‘60’s Coney Island was in complete disrepair. On my last visit until just recently, my Uncle Albie, my father’s youngest brother and a pretty good eater, took my cousins, my brothers and me for a ride out to Coney Island. Needless to say, given Albie’s appetite for food, our one and only stop was at Nathan’s. As we were stuffing our mouths with the greatest hot dogs (and buns) ever created, it dawned on me that we were still in the middle of Passover. When I mentioned this to Uncle Albie, his face, flushed from downing several hot dogs, flushed a little more; he said, simply, “Don’t tell Grandma”.

I went back to Coney Island a few years ago. The house on West 25th street is gone, as is the Merry-Go-Round. Steeplechase Park is gone. Nathan’s is there, but it doesn’t feel the same. The Parachute Jump is there, a glorious but inoperable landmark. The Aquarium, the new ball park and the rides at the new Luna Park and Wonder Wheel Park (the Wonder Wheel continues to live up to its name) have given Coney Island some new life and hopefully a better future.

Coney Island’s Wonder Wheel

Today’s Coney Island is not my Coney Island. But it’s still here. I hope it’s here forever – for the sake of the fun-seekers, for the sake of the sun-seekers, and most importantly, for the sake of the Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel.

(Note: a version of this essay appeared recently in the Valencia Palms community magazine, The Breezes.)

Published by Ted Block

Ted Block is a veteran “Mad Man,” having spent 45+ years in the advertising industry. During his career, he was media director of several advertising agencies, including Benton & Bowles in New York and Foote, Cone and Belding in San Francisco; account management director on clients as varied as Clorox, Levi’s and the California Raisin Advisory Board (yes, Ted was responsible for the California Dancing Raisins campaign); and regional director for Asia based in Tokyo for Foote, Cone where he was also the founding president of FCB’s Japanese operations. Ted holds a Bachelor’s degree in communications from Queens College and, before starting in advertising, served on active duty as an officer on USS McCloy (DE-1038) in the U.S. Navy.

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