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.