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Plank Goodness

A visit to the new Coney Island sparks memories of the boardwalks of yore

Roslyn Bernstein
July 23, 2010
The Brooklyn Flyer, Luna Park.(Shael Shapiro)
The Brooklyn Flyer, Luna Park.(Shael Shapiro)

On a warm Saturday in June, accompanied by Ruvane Tide Shapiro, age 2 and ¾, the youngest of my eight grandchildren, I took a field trip to Coney Island. It was the day of the 2010 Mermaid Parade, but the idea was to visit the Coney Island Aquarium and the boardwalk and tour the new Luna Park rides and amusement center, escaping before the crowds arrived and the parade officially began at 2 p.m.

All did not go as planned. Ruvane, who was given the middle name Tide by his surfing-loving parents, found the turtles and the sharks and the big fish in the aquarium to be scary. “Let’s go,” he kept saying as we moved through the dark spaces, only pausing to smile at the friendly brightly colored little fish who reminded him of Nemo.

We were in and out of there in record time and proceeded to head up the ramp to the Coney Island boardwalk. I took a deep breath and filled my lungs with the familiar sea air. Having grown up in Long Beach, New York, boardwalks are in my blood. Just the thought of walking a boardwalk causes my pulse to race. As a child, I walked the two miles of Long Beach boardwalk a thousand times and biked them, too, on my blue-and-white Schwinn.

The smell of hot dogs and French fries overwhelmed me, so we headed to the food stands. The franks were slightly burnt (perfect) and the fries very greasy (perfect). We washed it all down with a soft ice cream cone, that swirl of who-knows-what that melts much too fast, leaving a trail of sticky spots on the weathered boards.

We stood on the boardwalk: on our left, the wide sandy beaches and the ocean; on our right, the new Luna Park. Ruvane raised his index finger and pointed in the direction of Luna, and we headed over to inspect the rides.

The first thing you notice when you enter Luna Park is that it is definitely not the right place for 3-year-olds. You have to be 3 feet tall to ride the Mild Thrillers by yourself and 4 feet to go alone on the Moderate and High Thrill Rides. You also have to be brave, very brave. The thought of twisting and turning in the air while strapped to a seat produces an almost immediate wave of nausea in me. Still, it was apparent, by the happy screams of children everywhere, on rides like the Air Race, where riders can soar and barrel roll, or the Brooklyn Flyer, where riders swing across the sky rising to nearly 100 feet above ground, or the Eclipse, a pendulum that swings you up to 50 feet with nothing below your feet, that they loved the gravity-defying experience.

Named for Luna Park, one of the original playgrounds in Coney Island that burned down in 1944, and erected on the site of Astroland, which occupied the site from 1962 to 2008, the new Luna Parkincludes 19 mechanical attractions (18 are currently operating) manufactured by the Italian company Zamperla. Eleven of the rides are designated family rides—including Tea Party, where you sit in an oversized tea cup and spin at your own speed, Wild River, where riders experience a refreshing splash down a 40-foot-tall chute (not yet open), and Circus Coaster, a classic family roller coaster. Sculpted of brightly colored fiberglass in Crayola colors, with metal structures, the rides are slick and sophisticated. Most last on average one to two minutes.

I returned on a Thursday afternoon in July, consumed a Nathan’s original hot dog and fries, and headed for Luna Park. It was not very crowded, and the chief customers were kids, either with their parents or grandparents or with counselors from local day camps. A group of kids in bright orange T-shirts stamped “Chabad Summer Adventures” raced from ride to ride. A grandmother from Belle Harbor, Queens, herded her brood of grandchildren, several of whom were visiting from Beit Shemesh in Israel. Wade Williams, a father from Queens, watched as his son Elijah, 12, and his niece Imani, 14, got on line for the Brooklyn Flyer. “This is stress free for me,” he said. “All I had to do was buy two 4-hour wristbands.”

The rides flooded me with memories of my Long Beach boardwalk childhood in the 1950s. Not because William J. Reynolds, a state senator and a real-estate developer, had developed Dreamland at Coney Island in 1904 and the Long Beach boardwalk, where construction began in 1908. Everyone I knew had heard the story of the herd of elephants that Reynolds allegedly marched into town as a publicity stunt to build the Long Beach boardwalk.

Not because the two boardwalks resembled each other. Long Beach and Coney Island couldn’t have been more different. There was no way to compare the huge Ferris wheel and the Cyclone Roller Coaster to Playland, the beloved kiddie-rides amusement park.

Still, they shared a certain dynamic. The boardwalk was entertainment. Rides, amusement arcades, food, and parades. During the 1950s, when we wore dog tags with our names, addresses, and religion, so that people would know where to bury us after the atomic bomb hit, the boardwalk was our escape. There was no Facebook and no Internet. Television programming and ownership were limited.

Both those who lived there year-round and those who rented in Long Beach (the population rising to almost 100,000 residents in the summertime) were drawn to the 2.1 miles of boardwalk that run from New York Avenue to Neptune Boulevard. Many of the summer visitors were middle-class Jews who rented houses and apartments or who returned regularly to their favorite rooms with ocean breezes in the big hotels—the Nassau and the Hotel Lincoln.

I spent several summers as the switchboard operator at the Hotel Lincoln. It was a family hotel run by Frances Powell, and most of the guests were Jews. Arthur Miller’s parents, Isidore and August, who had once been very wealthy but who lost their fortune in the 1929 crash, spent several summers there, as did doctors and dentists and accountants and several wealthy garment manufacturers. I knew, by heart, the phone numbers of their stock brokers, their offices, their doctors and dentists and, in some case, their mistresses. At the end of their stay, I was tipped liberally for my discretion. They would slip me an envelope with $50 or $100 dollars in it and thank me for my services. In those days, this was big bucks!

But on the boardwalk, it didn’t matter if you were upper middle class or middle class or working class or had no class at all. The spectacle was free. You could stand at the side and watch people playing Seidel’s Skeeball even if you didn’t have the money that it cost to play. You could root for your favorite dog at the greyhound arcade, where the mechanical dogs lurched forward as the contestants hit the levers and watched the balls pop up in the air and land in boxes. The winner was the person whose ball landed in the right box enough times to have his dog reach the finish line first.

If you did have some change in your pocket, you could play Skeeball and squirrel away prize coupons until you could actually get something worth taking home: a made-in-Japan Kewpie doll, a child’s bisque tea set with blue flowers, a fan inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and if you were a really good player and saved the whole summer, a pink Bakelite clock radio, covered with poodles. You could play Rapp’s Rollo Ball or visit the Penny Arcade. You could shoot guns at the Sportmen’s Gallery, which provided free instructions and “rifles for ladies.”

With just a little bit of money—nickels and dimes, maybe a quarter—you could ride in one of the kiddie rides in Playland at Edwards Boulevard, by the beach. There were the red wooden boats, smelling of a coat of fresh paint, that moved around in a circle in water barely two feet deep, the choo choo train with bells and whistles that took you on a journey to nowhere, the roller coaster, the Ferris wheel, and the whippet—all just the right size for children.

You could buy a Jerry’s knish, “made on the premises,” or a kosher hotdog from the Hebrew National deli or a frozen custard from Waller’s. Or an ice-cold Coke in a bottle from the red coke machine. “Please place empties here,” said a sign on the wooden stand next to the vending machine.

Every August, orphans from all over the metropolitan area descended on the Long Beach boardwalk for a day at the beach. Often dressed in borrowed, ill-fitting bathing suits, the orphans would hit the sand as the lifeguards stood watch on their towers. The surf was rough, rip tides were frequent, and many of the kids did not know how to swim.

We locals understood the power of the ocean. You couldn’t fight a rip tide. You had to give in, let yourself be pulled out, if you had a chance. You shouldn’t swim near the jetties, or you would be sucked into the rocks and cut to pieces.

The boardwalk was escape, entertainment. But the ocean was for real. You had to take it seriously. The waves crashed against the shore, and the hurricanes moved up the coast throughout the 1950s, lifting homes off their foundations, flooding streets and basements, and washing away precious sand.

But the boardwalk concessions and the arcades and the kiddie rides remained, surviving the harsh weather and the storms. In the end, they fell victim to a change in taste: Long Beach and the Catskills lost out to Paris and London and Rome. The big hotels were converted into nursing homes and mental-health facilities.

And, while there are promising efforts to resuscitate Coney Island, with its new Luna Park already open and with the projected Coney Island Revitalization Plan to create an indoor and outdoor amusement park and entertainment district moving forward, the Long Beach boardwalk remains a shadow of its former self. There are no rides. No arcades. No food stands. Local residents, especially the new condo owners who live near the boardwalk, are vehemently opposed to bringing back the honky tonk. Doing that, they say, will only devalue their property.

I have little sympathy for them. For me, the Long Beach boardwalk was as close to heaven as a lapsed Jew like myself will ever get. Part fantasy, all escape, it remains indelibly imprinted on my Jewish neshama, alongside matzo and marror.

Roslyn Bernstein is a professor of journalism and creative writing at Baruch College, CUNY, and the author of Boardwalk Stories, a collection of 14 linked tales set in the years 1950 to 1970.

Roslyn Bernstein, an arts and culture reporter, is the author of Illegal Living and Boardwalk Stories and Professor Emerita at Baruch College and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. Her most recent writing project is a young adult novel set in Jerusalem in 1961 during the Adolf Eichmann trial.