Commercialism threatens island’s quirky character
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Home of carny-culture and amusement park kitsch, New York City’s Coney Island is a must visit for anyone who likes roller coasters, U.S. history and chili cheese dogs.
After hearing about the controversial new project developments planned for the area, I was anxious to see the “real” Coney Island before the wrecking ball dropped. I hopped on the subway and travelled some 40 minutes from Manhattan to the southern most point of Brooklyn.
Built in the 1800s, Coney Island was one of the first American amusement parks with many historic highlights: The world’s first loop roller coaster (1901), Nathan’s Famous served out the world’s first hotdog (1916), and in 1926 patrons first rode the Cyclone, a jerky wooden coaster that still churns stomachs today.
Through the years, Coney Island has seen many developments. Its economic past has climbed and dropped as often as its roller coasters. Today, in an attempt to make Coney Island more profitable, contractors plan to tear down some parts and rebuild waterfront residences, a seafood market, a cinema complex and high-tech arcades. The Aquarium and amusement rides at Astroland Park will also be given a major facelift.
Many locals worry that these developments will threaten independently run rides, bring large scale commercialization to the area and destroy the island’s quirky character.
I wanted to see for myself. As soon as I stepped out from the subway, I was greeted by the sweet smell of street meat. With huge lineups, Nathan’s Famous is a major hub of fast-food hotdog activity. Home of the annual international hotdog eating contest every July 4th, Nathan’s sells a wide range of dressed dogs. No trip was complete without one, so I scarfed down a delicious but sloppy wiener smothered in chili and bright orange processed cheese.
From there, I checked out a good, old fashion freak show. The crowd winced as the stage-performer hammered a rusty nail into his own nasal cavity. This was just another day for the “Human Blockhead,” one of many acts in the Sideshow by the Sea Shore. Sword swallowers, fire eaters, contortionists and other oddities like “Chuy the Wolfman” (who suffers from, what some call, a Werewolf Syndrome), shocked audiences and left them wondering — how’d they do that?
From the sideshow, I walked past carnival-style ring toss games, to an activity called “Shoot the Freak.” For $3, you get five paintball shots at a live human target. The teen target, dressed in flimsy armour, gyrated his hips tauntingly as shooters took aim. As paintball capsules sped towards him, he dodged and weaved to safety. I’d seen an article about this guy in Time Out Magazine. This summer job paid the 18-year-old about $10 an hour.
From paintball to the beach, a stroll along the Boardwalk was awesome for people-watching: Overweight latinas in bootie shorts danced to impromptu bongo music, tanned muscle men covered in tats fished for crabs at the end of the pier, overweight kids gorged on cotton candy.
The beach was littered with bodies in various states of undress. It was an illustrated page from a Where’s Waldo book, a thousand little characters doing a thousand different things. Guess they too wanted to catch the “real” Coney Island while they still could.
Julia Dimon is editor of The Travel Junkie, an online magazine for independent travellers. She can be reached at www.thetraveljunkie.ca.