Coney Island’s very name evokes images of amusement parks, boardwalks and beachgoers on a carefree summer day. Daily life in this seaside Brooklyn neighborhood, where high-rise residential developments sit alongside public housing projects, is a bit more complicated. Like a ride on its landmark Cyclone roller coaster, Coney Island has had many ups and downs over the years. Today, its infrastructure is somewhat tattered (some say charmingly so). The area is in the midst of a slow revival, but developers, city officials and longtime residents don’t always agree on what the future of Coney Island should look like. Still, summer days bring together families with young children, canoodling teenagers, hipsters and senior citizens all looking for relief from sweltering temperatures — and a bit of fun.
In the 1830s, Coney Island’s primary appeal as a seaside holiday destination was its location — just far enough away from Manhattan to feel like a real vacation. Luna Park, the first of several amusement parks to line the boardwalk over the years, opened in 1903. When the first electrified trains reached Coney in the early 1900s the area became a favorite among day-trippers. Today, Coney Island’s Stillwell Avenue station is accessible on the D, F, N and Q subway lines; the trip from Midtown Manhattan takes about an hour. Trains pulling into the station offer views of the area’s three landmark rides: the Cyclone roller coaster (1927), Deno’s Wonder Wheel (1920) and the Parachute Jump (1939; no longer in operation). Across Surf Avenue from the station, Nathan’s — established in 1916, and best known for its annual Fourth of July hot dog–eating contest — serves its all-beef frankfurters and crinkle-cut fries.
The Coney Island Museum is a worthwhile stop for first-time visitors. Here you can view ephemera from Coney Island’s rich past and take in its last surviving sideshow (complete with snake charmers, fire eaters and sword swallowers). You might also want to use the museum’s restroom. While there are public facilities at the Stillwell Avenue station and, at significant intervals, on the beach, lines can be long and upkeep spotty.
During the day, the boardwalk bustles with bars, shops and concessions. At night, the rides of Luna Park (a modern incarnation, opened in 2010) and Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park light up. Memorial Day heralds the return of the free Summer by the Sea concert series, and the opening of MCU Park, home to the Brooklyn Cyclones minor-league baseball team. If the weather is inclement, head for the New York Aquarium, which is open year-round.
Coney Island is a relatively small neighborhood, bound by the Atlantic Ocean to the south, Ocean Parkway to the east (the boardwalk extends past this point into neighboring Brighton Beach), the Belt Parkway to the north, and West 37thStreet (the border of Sea Gate, a private residential community) to the west. The beach is public and swimming is allowed year-round, though lifeguards are only on duty between Memorial Day and Labor Day (9am to 6pm).
Coney Island in the winter has its own forlorn charm, but many attractions close in the off-season and visits after dark are not recommended. On summer nights, the area by the boardwalk hops until midnight.