Gone are the days when Woody Allen’s young Alvy Singer would wake up from the rumblings of Coney Island’s Thunderbolt. The 3-acre site that once housed the famous coaster is now up for sale for the second time in two years, owner Horace Bullard told the Wall Street Journal. Coney Island lost the Thunderbolt in 2000, when it was torn down.
Coney Island and the Jews have a long history together. “Nathan’s Famous” hot dog founder, Polish-Jewish immigrant Nathan Handwerker, set up his first shop on the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues, practically introducing the European sausage to New York society. The strip’s growing industry attracted rising Jewish entertainers such as Harry Houdini and the Marx brothers, and even Irving Berlin worked there as a singing waiter.
Jews also frequented Coney Island as guests and audience members, clamoring in the bath houses and dominating the busy handball courts. Famous Jewish criminal Abe Reles was kept under constant guard by six policemen at the Half Moon Hotel in the early 1940s.
The area has made a dent on Jewish literary and film culture: The All-of-a-Kind Family book series paints a picture of life on the shore in the summers, people looking for a brief respite from hot city life. Joseph Heller (Now and Then, 1998), Neil Simon (Brighton Beach Memoirs, 1983) and Isaac Bashevis Singer (Enemies: A Love Story, 1972) all grew up in or visited the local neighborhoods, and detail what the everyday looked like by the amusement park’s shows and the consequent social milieus. Recent Oscar-nominee Darren Aronofsky shows the area’s more sordid side in his Requiem for a Dream (2001).
Which brings us to the present: In 2009, Jewish mayor Bloomberg and his administration rezoned the 19-block Coney Island strip and bought seven more acres with the goal of developing more hotels, amusement parks, and housing units. We’ll see what cultural gems this Jewish-Coney Island history chapter produces.