Coney Island is a peninsula in the southernmost part of Brooklyn. The area was a major resort and amusement park site that reached its peak during the first half of the 20th century. In recent years, the area has seen the opening of MCU Park and has become home to the Brooklyn Cyclones minor league baseball team.
The neighborhood of Coney Island is a community of 60,000 people in the western part of the peninsula with Seagate to its west, Brighton Beach and Manhattan Beach to the east and Gravesend to the north. Coney Island is about four miles long and one-half mile wide. It used to be an island separated from mainland Brooklyn by Coney Island Creek, part of which was little more than tidal flats. Coney Island has since developed into a peninsula
The Native American habitants of the area (the Lenape) called the island Narrioch (meaning land without shadows), because, like the other south shore beaches of Long Island, its geographical orientation keeps the beach in sunlight all day. The names for the island in English and Dutch were similar and mean Rabbit Island. As on other Long Island Barrier Islands, Coney Island had numerous and diverse rabbits and hunting them prospered until resort development eliminated their habitat.
Because of Coney Island’s ideal location, it was easily reached from Manhattan and other boroughs, yet was still distant enough from them to provide the illusion of a proper vacation. It began attracting vacationers in the 1830’s and 1840’s, thanks to carriage roads and steamship service that reduced travel time from a half-day journey to a mere two hours.
Coney Island’s special whimsical history began with the construction of the Coney Island Hotel in 1829. The Brighton, Manhattan Beach and Oriental Hotels opened their doors soon after, each resort outdoing the last in charm, sheik, and seaside elegance. Coney Island became a major resort destination after the Civil War as excursion railroads and the Coney Island and Brooklyn Railroad streetcar line reached the area in the 1860’s. When the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company electrified the steam railroads and connected Brooklyn to Manhattan via the Brooklyn Bridge in the early 20th century, Coney Island turned rapidly from a resort to an accessible location for day-trippers seeking to escape the summer heat of New York City.
Charles I. D. Looff, a Danish woodcarver, built the first carousel at Coney Island in 1876. The carousel consisted of hand-carved horses and animals standing two abreast. Two musicians, a drummer and a flute player, provided the music. From 1885 to 1896, the Coney Island Elephant was the first sight to greet immigrants arriving in New York, who would see it before they saw the Statue of Liberty. Nathan’s Famous original hot dog stand opened on Coney Island in 1916 and quickly became a landmark.
Between about 1880 and World War II, Coney Island was the largest amusement area in the United States, attracting several million visitors per year. At its height it contained three competing major amusement parks, Luna Park, Dreamland, and Steeplechase Park, as well as many independent amusements. Astroland served as a major amusement park from 1962 to 2008. It was replaced by a new incarnation of Dreamland in 2009 and of Luna Park in 2010. Three rides at Coney Island are protected as designated NYC landmarks and listed in the National Register of Historic Places; the Wonder Wheel built in 1918, The Cyclone Roller Coaster built in 1927, and the Parachute Jump built in 1939. Coney Island is also home the New York Aquarium which opened in 1957 and is still a major attraction today. Coney Island maintains a broad sand beach about 2½ miles long. The beach is continuous and is served for its entire length by the Riegelman boardwalk. Every October since 2000, Coney Island USA sponsors the Coney Island Film Festival.
The majority of Coney Island’s diverse population resides in approximately thirty 18- to 24-story towers, mostly various forms of public housing. Since the 1990’s there has been steady revitalization of the area. Many townhouses were built on empty lots and popular franchises have set up shop. Once home to many Jewish residents, most of those living on Coney Island today are African American, Italian American, Hispanic and recent Russian and Ukrainian immigrants.