The People’s Playground: Over 150 Years of Coney Island History In Pictures

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Summer is upon us, which means overheated Brooklynites will soon be flocking to Coney Island to gorge on corndogs and paddle in slimy water. It’s hard to imagine a time when such escape wasn’t as easy as just hopping on the F train, but a few centuries ago, Coney Island was mostly swampy grazing land for Gravesend farms. How did it turn into amusement park central (or, depending on your experience, “Sodom by the Sea”)? In “Brooklyn Collecting Brooklyn: Coney Island,” a free event tomorrow evening, the Brooklyn Public Library and the Brooklyn Historical Society explore this transformation through Coney Island memorabilia unearthed from their archives.

The artifacts on view, from a wax replica of Nat King Cole’s head to vintage photographs of the nighttime Mardi Gras parade, span 320 years and tell the story of how a sleepy vacation spot turned into “America’s favorite playground,” as borough president Marty Markowitz calls it. “It wasn’t until well into the 1800s that Coney Island became a place of refuge and a vacation spot for tired New Yorkers,” Julie May, Head of Collection Management at the Brooklyn Historical Society, says in a phone interview. It stayed quiet for awhile, until railroads were built from the city, and Coney Island House, the neighborhood’s first hotel, opened in 1829, with its famous road paved in crushed shells. “Then, everyone was hot to get there,” May says. The Coney Island story is one of rapid gentrification–like Williamsburg in the early aughts, the neighborhood transformed seemingly overnight.

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An 1874 photograph of Tilyou’s bathhouse and restaurant, advertising “Fancy Flannel Bathing Suits” and featuring a top-hatted man with a shotgun, depicts the very humble beginnings of Coney Island as an entertainment spot. “It’s just a house on the sand,” Ivy Marvel of Brooklyn Public Library says. The Tilyou family would go on to create Steeplechase Park, Coney Island’s first amusement park. “The concept of an all-inclusive resort experience was created in Coney Island. Steeplechase set the standard for amusement parks in the 20th century,” Marvel says. Soon after, Coney Island’s two other historic amusement parks (Luna Park and Dreamland) were built.

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Photos of the crowded beach in 1922 reveal the character of this quintessentially New York escape destination hasn’t changed much (except that people are more naked these days)–for a vacation spot, it’s always been a little seedy, not quite relaxing.

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Sign painter Hector Wallace was largely responsible for the colorful, circus-influenced aesthetic of Coney Island restaurants, which lives on today in the signage of Famous Nathan’s.

Wax head and hands of Nat King Cole, date unknown; from a Coney Island wax museum; Artifact Collection; Brooklyn Historical Society.

After the Tilyous built their amusement park, Coney Island became home to all things campy and carnivalesque, including a wax museum from which the Brooklyn Historical Society acquired this creepy replica of Nat King Cole’s grinning head and hands.

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A photo of the Tornado rollercoaster after it was destroyed by fire is emblematic of what happened to Coney Island, and the rest of New York City, in the ‘70s. “The amusement parks were really falling apart,” Marvel says. “It was the end of ‘Dreamland.’”

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The photos reveal what the amusement parks were like in their heyday–here, a snapshot from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper of the now-landmarked Parachute Jump at Steeplechase Park. It was originally built for the 1939 world’s fair in Flushing and was moved to Coney Island in 1941. “The Parachute Jump is all that remains of Steeplechase Park,” Marvel says. “Luna Park and Dreamland are pretty much gone now.”

”Down at Steeplechase Park” by P.J. McGrath in 1911, from Brooklyn Public Library’s Sheet Music Collection.

Brooklyn Collecting Brooklyn” is free to the public at the Central Library: Brooklyn Collection on May 20th from 6:30-8:30pm.

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