Coney Island is an endless summer draw for New York. It has a large beach, world-famous amusement park rides, and a seedy underbelly that gives it character. Coney Island has kept its lowbrow edge despite waves of gentrification and upscaling happening throughout New York but with particular intensity in Brooklyn. Williamsburg used to be a dangerous place to be. Now it’s only dangerous if you live in a rent-controlled apartment.
One of the attractions that has been added over the last two decades of revitalization is MCU Park, which opened as KeySpan Park in 2001. The field hosts the minor league Brooklyn Cyclones.
My wife, who is much more adept at sourcing and planning family outings, discovered a good value in the Flock, a children’s club that includes tickets to several games for the entire family.
We got to Coney Island and found an expensive pay lot close to the stadium. With low clouds rolling in, fogging the tops of the nearby apartment buildings, we decided to get something to eat before submitting to the amoral monopoly of stadium snacks. In the short distance between MCU Park and the original Nathan’s, we started feeling raindrops. Nathan’s was mobbed, but close by was Pete’s Clam Stop, which had large plastic bench-style picnic tables in a small dining area. We ducked in, found a seat, and ordered food.
Pete’s Clam Stop was a good discovery. Its hot dogs were just as good as Nathan’s with the same traditional snappy flavor and they also had large fries that were a bit big and unwieldly but were in the crinkle-cut tradition (they even served them with a small French fry fork.) Pete’s also has fresh clams and oysters on ice, and hand-painted signs encouraging customers to eat clams to help to have a child and to eat oysters if one wanted to have twins. I had not heard this bit of old wives’ tale wisdom, and since we already have twins plus one, we did not feel the need to sample the oysters or clams.
The rain picked up heavily as we ate our food, watched World Cup Soccer on TV, and enjoyed the camaraderie of other Coney Island visitors making a lunch stop to duck out of the rain. The picnic tables became filled with people sharing the space. A woman with her kids at the table with us remarked on two of our daughters’ red hair.
Before long the rain was gone and the sun was out by the time we headed back to the ball park.
We got to meet two of the players and got them to sign our daughters’ t-shirts. They all became too shy to get their photo taken with the players. The highlight of the Flock benefits was getting to go on the field near second base for the national anthem. Unfortunately, the field at MCU Park is artificial turf, so it feels as if you are walking on a cheap shag carpet with some extra padding underneath.
With three small kids, I spent more time herding them and trying to quell their tantrums than I did actually watching baseball. If I were a baseball aficionado or cared about seeing a future baseball superstar in action I might be disappointed, but I don’t really follow baseball and I’m a Yankees fan anyway (the Brooklyn Cyclones are a Mets farm team), and time is better spent with family. It is more enjoyable to share ice cream with a four-year-old than to watch someone throw a fastball. The Cyclones won the game 1-0, beating the Lowell Spinners, a Boston Red Sox farm team.
While our seats were in the last row of the stands, they were still field-level seats and comparable seats at a major-league ballpark would have been unaffordable for a family of five. Snacks were still overpriced, but the ticket deal that my wife found included some snack vouchers, so that allowed me to actually not spend money on overpriced stadium snacks.
Our seats were shaded so we escaped the worst of the sun. Still, it was an exhausting day. We drove home, buzzed from weariness, but also excited about having more Coney Island adventures.
Coney Island is a celebrated place in the lore of both New York City and America. It’s the place that gave us hot dogs, freak shows, baby incubators, amusement parks and beachfront slums. I’m pleased to report that Coney Island’s character has not been completely killed off.
No doubt the current wave of gentrification that is sanitizing and overpricing every corner of Gotham has touched this part of Brooklyn as well. After all, it’s ocean-view property with easy access to the subway system.
Coney Island is alive and well and my wife and I took our two toddlers to the Island recently. We did not plan farther than over breakfast that morning and we didn’t have a lot of time.
We are lucky enough to have a pickup truck and a membership to the World Wildlife Fund, which is a fancy way to say the New York City zoos, and that includes the New York Aquarium on Coney Island. So we were able to drive there and get free parking at the aquarium. We realize most New Yorkers do not have these advantages, but the D, F, N and Q trains all run there as well as several bus lines (both regular and express).
The New York Aquarium is under construction in many places and is a relatively small aquarium to begin with, so if we had paid $12 to get in we would have been pissed off. But with the smaller crowds and the time limits that traveling with small children impose, the aquarium was perfect. There were lots of interesting fish and even sharks to see. Our girls got to touch a real live horseshoe crab and they marveled at the various colorful marine life.
After the aquarium we made our way to the famous Coney Island boardwalk which was humming with late beachgoers. There was the odd smattering of elderly locals camped on benches, hipsters with their heavy beards, people with large dogs dressed extravagantly, and families like us pushing kids in strollers. The amusement parks that line the beach were still operating, and if we had wanted we could have ridden The Cyclone or even the reimagined and less elegant Steeplechase ride. For many years, the old steeplechase ride remained an overgrown, rotting relic that intrigued visitors.
While the Nathan’s annex that is on the boardwalk was packed, the actual original Nathan’s on Surf Avenue was nowhere near as crowded as it typically gets in the summer months. It took a while to get our food and it was horribly expensive, but it was very satisfying to make sure our daughters had their first taste of a Nathan’s hot dog at the original Nathan’s on Coney Island. Maybe one of them will grow up to be crowned the victor of the Nathan’s hot dog eating contest (or excel in other pursuits).
We took in the views of the ocean and the crowds on the boardwalk after lunch. We were very happy to see that Ruby’s and the Freak Bar are still open for business. Just as Nathan’s and The Cyclone define Coney Island, so do these institutions. In fact, you will find more of the true character of Coney Island from a barstool of Rudy’s or the bleachers of the Coney Island Sideshow than you will from the coaster rides or hot dogs being proffered.
So toast longevity at these establishments and take advantage of this post-Labor Day off season and go to Coney Island.
Even though the first day of spring was officially several weeks ago, we are only now beginning to get real spring-like weather in New York. That’s fine by me. I hate the heat and like to keep as much distance between myself and summer as possible.
Spring is a great season to be in New York. The blanket of cold is lifted and the blanket of overheated humidity has yet to descend. The hum of outdoor social life returns and the parks become alive again.
I know that summer is coming and that it will be several months of sweltering misery, so let’s enjoy the spring while we have it here. Here are some ideas of how you can best enjoy the springtime in New York City:
Go to Coney Island before it gets crowded. Coney Island is a fun place to go and enjoy the amusements and atmosphere. It gets choked with people during the official summer season (though if you walk far enough along the boardwalk you can find your way away from the worst of the crowds. Ride the Cyclone, visit the freak show at the Coney Island Circus Side Show and visit its freak museum. Get a hot dog at the original Nathan’s. There’s even the New York Aquarium there.
Go bird watching in Inwood Hill Park. Inwood in northern Manhattan is one of the city’s great treasures of a neighborhood and central to that is Inwood Hill Park. Where else in Manhattan can you see eagles and hawks and get lost in the woods? Bird watchers get to see a lot of interesting birds in the park, and not just eagles and hawks. Eagles were hatched in the park years ago to increase their likelihood of returning as adults. Hawks are long-time residents of Inwood (and other city spots). So go and enjoy watching nature’s predation at its most beautiful.
Visit a botanical garden. The city’s largest botanical garden is in the Bronx near the Bronx Zoo, but did you know that Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island all have their own botanical gardens also? Lots of abundant park land and plant life abound at the botanical gardens, plus they often have special exhibits.
Take a historic walking tour. No matter what your interests are, there is history in New York for you. Interested in learning about the American Revolution, gangsters, labor strikes, punk rock? There’s a walking tour for you. When you can walk past something and tell someone something interesting about it, that’s makes you a better traveling companion. You might learn something interesting and historic about spots you walk by every day.
Enjoy some free outdoor theater. There is free Shakespeare in many public parks throughout the city and it’s a shame not to take advantage of that. There is so much good theater, art and creativity to sample for free that you should never jones for your theater fix. The New York Public Theater, New York Classical Theatre and Hip to Hip Theater Company all do a great job bringing free theater to the people of New York.
The beach bum and boating life are usually the providence of Florida or California. We don’t normally think of the metropolises of the Northeast to be home to the sun culture of people who live on boats or spend all of their time on beaches. But you can find some interesting seaside life right here within the five boroughs.
You can find a beach bum type atmosphere at Ruby’s Bar and Grill on the Boardwalk of Coney Island, where you would swear you were at a seaside Florida town where everyone had overdosed on some combination of sunshine, sand, Jimmy Buffet and/or crystal meth. It is a haven of grizzled sea dogs and leathery skin but it is10 times better than most bars in Brooklyn today. Ruby’s has survived for 80 years, no small feat in our rapidly changing metropolis.
A few years ago, I had the honor of being present when the ashes of New York poet, lyricist and musical performer known as ZAK were spread at sea. The friends of the deceased chartered a special boat that took off from the Marine Basin Marina, a small marina in Brooklyn not far from Coney Island. The marina was near some industrial areas and not connected at all to any of the more celebrated boardwalks of Coney Island or neighboring areas. It was a small and relatively desolate area but even in October it was populated by a small number of people who were living on their boats and didn’t want to leave yet. It’s even possible that some of them lived on their boats permanently.
Living on a boat or having access to one is a form of freedom that no one else has. If you have a boat with access to the ocean, you can travel to anywhere in the world. If I get in my pickup truck I can drive pretty far in it if I had enough gas money but I couldn’t get to Spain, the Philippines or the Cape of Good Hope. Those people docked at the marina in Brooklyn could step on their boats and, with enough fuel and good weather, travel to any continent in the world they wanted. You wouldn’t necessarily expect such a sun-drenched boat culture to be alive and well within the boundaries of New York City, but it is.
Near where I live now in Flushing, Queens, one can find the Bayside Marina for a taste of marina life. The marina sits in Little Neck Bay, the bay that gave us Little Neck clams and serves the shores of both Queens and Nassau County. It is accessible by the Cross Island Parkway by car or by foot or bicycle via a path from nearby parkland. At the end of a long pier is a small nucleus of buildings and decks where a small restaurant will sell you fried food and also sell you flares for your boat. You can hear a loud radio in an adjoining place where boaters radio in as they approach their berths. Joggers, dog walkers and people out for a stroll wander onto the pier and mingle with the salty boating types and die-hard fisherman.
One can also find people fishing on all the shores of the five boroughs. You have to be a special kind of brave to eat fish that have come from the polluted waters of the city. But wherever there are docks and piers you can find people fishing or else find the slimy evidence of their presence. Plenty of piers throughout the city even have counters or sinks set up specifically for people to clear their fish.
The city’s many coastal communities are still trying to recover from super storm Sandy that struck New York in October 2012. Before the summer is out, or even in the fall, go visit these places and enjoy, even for a minute, the beach bum or boating life.