Coney Island’s historic Wonder Wheel might have stopped spinning for the winter, but the iconic seaside playground is a thrill in any season, writes Bernard O’Riordan.
When you think of Coney Island, New York City’s legendary seaside playground on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, you instinctively imagine the smell of hot dogs, cheese fries, salty sea air and suntan lotion.
Throw in the familiar clacking of the iconic wooden rollercoaster, the Cyclone, or the shrieks coming from the 150-foot high (46m) Wonder Wheel, and you have New York summer on a plate.
But truth be told, there’s something mysterious and magical about the famous Coney Island peninsula, in south-west Brooklyn, when the shopfronts are shuttered, fairgrounds are dormant and its beaches and side streets virtually deserted.
When I arrived at Coney Island on the Q train in the middle of February, the chill of winter had turned this iconic playground into something of a ghost town.
It was eerily quiet as I left the subway on the corner of Stillwell Avenue and Surf Avenue, with just a handful of people to be seen.
Even the iconic Coney Island institution known as Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs – opened more than a century ago and still going strong – was decidedly downbeat.
The only real signs of life were coming from the giant clock counting down the days until the next Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest on July 4, when contestants try to consume as many hot dogs as possible in a ten-minute time period.
Coney Island in the wintertime will not be everyone’s cup of tea; the bitter sea air can be harsh and unforgiving, and I imagine it would be hell on earth in the middle of a snow storm.
Thankfully, it was more like late spring than mid winter when I visited. While the ocean air was bracing, the sun was out and a huge, persistent flock of seagulls soared in a white cloud over the windswept beachfront in search of food scraps.
Just standing on the wooden-planked and windswept Riegelmann Boardwalk – named after Edward Riegelmann, the Borough President of Brooklyn when it was completed in 1923 – was wonderfully satisfying. It was a place I’d long dreamed of visiting.
With sweeping views of the Atlantic on one side and Luna Park and Wonder Wheel Park on the other, the horizontal forest of planks stretches for 2.51 miles (more than 4 kilometres), with only a handful of hardy souls braving the conditions that morning in mid February.
The boardwalk actually starts at West 37th Street, at the border of Coney Island and Sea Gate, and stretches to Brighton 14th Street. But I started at West 15th Street (near Stillwell Avenue) and wandered casually towards Brighton Beach for more than an hour.
The boardwalk is the second-longest in the world, surpassed only by the Atlantic City boardwalk.
It meanders past the iconic red Parachute Jump – a hair-raising ride moved to Coney Island after the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair – and then further along Deno’s Wonder Wheel comes into sight.
Both rides were frozen in time when I visited, but you can imagine the squeals and laughter that fills the boardwalk on a hot summer’s day.
Further along the boardwalk at 602 Surf Avenue and West 8th Street is the New York Aquarium, a full-fledged attraction in its own right and something of a Godsend for anyone visiting in winter.
Housed on the site of the short-lived Dreamland amusement park (which burned down in 1911 just seven years after opening), the aquarium occupies 14 acres and has 266 species of water wildlife, including brilliantly coloured tropical fish, coral reefs and underwater vegetation.
However, when I visited in February 2018, the aquarium was still undergoing renovations with some attractions off limits to the public, including the rays and sharks.
(The sharks have now returned to Coney Island, as you can read in this more recent blog.)
Nearby, portly middle-aged men sit drinking vodka and beer; some smoking as they play chess.
Women wearing (faux) fur coats and cossack-style wool hats sit on benches, soaking up the early morning rays and the salty ocean air.
I left the boardwalk at Coney Island Avenue, where I entered a vibrant and thriving Russian Jewish community – nicknamed “Little Odessa”, after the port city on the Black Sea.
Russians, Ukrainians, former Soviet Jews and, in recent years, other Eastern Europeans populate this area. You won’t hear much English spoken and many of the shopfront signs are in Russian and English. Even the local Duane Reade pharmacy has Cyrillic lettering on its storefront.
Brighton Beach is unapologetically Russian and makes no visible effort to cater to tourists.
The main thoroughfare, Brighton Beach Avenue, is home to an eclectic mix of gourmet food shops bursting with picture-perfect fruit and vegetables, and an endless procession of Russian delis, cafes and restaurants serving traditional delicacies like pirogi, borscht, house-cured herrings, and caviar.
Although it’s just a 45-minute train ride from central Manhattan, this micro neighbourhood feels like a world away from Wall Street and Fifth Avenue.
The area took a real beating when Hurricane Sandy hit back in 2012, and it’s only in the past year or two that many businesses have managed to get back on their feet. Others were not so lucky.
Perhaps that’s why Coney Island’s down-season desolation is an added burden for many locals, with the economy so seasonal that even the parking regulations change month to month.
To the city’s credit, it has been trying to find ways to transform Brooklyn’s summer playground into a year-round destination that meets the needs of locals and visitors alike.
Well over a decade ago, in 2003, the then Mayor Michael Bloomberg created the Coney Island Development Corporation to spearhead a new plan for the area and manage investment. It was the CIDC, for example, that took charge of finding a builder for a new amusement park in 2009 and coordinated new affordable housing for the area.
Long a summer haven on the Atlantic Ocean for blue-collar families, Coney Island now attracts overseas tourists and affluent Millennials who have moved to Brooklyn borough in droves.
In any season, Coney Island is still one of Brooklyn’s grand anarchic wonders.
From Nathan’s Famous hot dog stand to the countless shellfish joints; from the Cyclone rollercoaster and the Wonder Wheel to freak shows and fortune tellers; from a minor league ballpark to the acres of bitumen car parking; Coney Island is a playground for the people and well worth a visit at any time of year.
Here’s six things to see and do on a day-trip to Coney Island, particularly in the off-season.
Check out the Subway Art
As you exit Coney Island/Stillwell Avenue station, take time to admire the artwork of Robert Wilson, known as “My Coney Island Baby”. As you depart you’ll notice a 370-foot glass wall showcasing silkscreened images like Nathan’s Hot Dog stand and the famous carousel. It’s especially impressive on a sunny day when the sun is shining through.
Have a Hot Dog at Nathan’s
It’s the first sight you see when you leave the subway at Coney Island: the enormous yellow, red and green sign for Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs on the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues. A hot dog with ketchup and mustard is an iconic Coney Island experience. Sadly, I arrived too early in the morning and the store had not yet opened, so I can’t vouch for just how good these frankfurters are. But Nathan’s is a 1916 original, so they must be doing something right. The franks are still made according to the recipe developed by polish immigrant Nathan Handwerker and his wife, Ida.
Visit the Coney Island Museum
This unusual museum, where entry costs just $5, provides a peak into the area’s unique history with a heap of nostalgia like fun house mirrors, vintage bumper cars and iconic postcards. The ever-changing exhibition includes a hand-carved Steeplechase Man figure, The Cosmorama of the Great Dreamland Fire (a huge panoramic painting, commemorating that park’s burning in 1911) and The Great Coney Island Spectacularium (an exhibit revolving around 1800s Coney Island attractions).
Stroll the Riegelmann Boardwalk
Rug up in winter and take a leisurely stroll on the boardwalk, starting at Coney Island and exiting at Brighton Beach (or vice versa). The boardwalk, which is tipped to become an official New York City landmark this summer, is 2.51 miles long and 80 feet wide. There are 1.3 million planks and an estimated 15.6 million screws and nails (about 12 to a board). It’s great for people-watching too, so grab a hot dog or some fries and park yourself on a beach front bench for an hour or so.
Visit the New York Aquarium
Hurricane Sandy hit just one day before construction was due to start on a massive new shark exhibit at the New York Aquarium in 2012. Five years later – and after millions of dollars spent in emergency cleanup, stabilisation and refurbishment – the aquarium is now back up and running. A new $158 million shark exhibit finally opened in 2018 called Ocean Wonders: Sharks. If you buy your tickets online you’ll save 10 per cent on the gate price.
Grab a bite at Sheepshead Bay
In the summer, there’s an unwritten rule that you must stop in at Randazzo’s Clam Bar as you make your way from Brighton Beach back to the subway. But it’s in the winter that a warming bowl of thick New England clam chowder, a plate of marinara clams or the fried calamari is most comforting. Located at 2017 Emmons Ave, it’s about a half hour walk from the boardwalk at Brighton 6th St to Sheepshead Bay. You could also take the Q train from Brighton Station, although it’s just one stop. Personally I think it’s worth the effort getting to this century-old diner if you like honest, fresh and tasty seafood.
Getting to Coney Island from Manhattan
Take the yellow Q or N line, or orange F or D line to Coney Island- Stillwell Avenue. Use this link for directions to Coney Island from Manhattan or anywhere in the NYC area. It takes about an hour on the subway from Times Square to Coney Island.
If you decide to exit the Boardwalk at Brighton Beach, you can take a train back to Manhattan from Brighton Beach station. Or if you venture further towards Sheepshead Bay, take a return train from there.