Brooklyn, New York, USA
The Q train makes its last stop in Brooklyn just a few short blocks from the ocean. The doors ease open and a swell of humid air balloons into the subway car, dispelling every trace of air conditioning before the last passenger steps out. The crowd is single-minded and surges towards the beach, past ice cream and hotdogs and booze. On this particular afternoon, the remnants of the Coney Island Mermaid Parade are scattered down Stillwell Avenue– A paper maché tail fin; a bunch of blue glitter; a bra. But the parade had been over for hours, turning the shoreline collection of vintage roller coasters and rides back over to Brooklyn’s children.
Coney Island, the strip of land at the southernmost end of Brooklyn, is one of the most nostalgic places in New York City. The amusement park has been around in some form since the mid-1800’s, dipping into decline in the 1970’s and 80’s, but enjoying some revitalization in recent decades. “Revitalization” is a tricky word in New York, usually code for the kind of aggressive gentrification that has pulled pieces of Brooklyn apart. But Coney Island still has that run-down, old-timey quality to it that brings generations of New Yorkers back to their childhoods.
America’s oldest rollercoaster, the Cyclone, is a bumpy (read: bone-jarring) ride, but its creakiness is half the fun. The other half is knowing that five or six generations of New Yorkers rode the same hairpin turns before you, screaming the same screams and willing their stomachs to hold down the same three flavors of cotton candy. My own bonding moment with the Cyclone came at the age of 11. I had prudently decided to hold off on a Nathan’s hotdog until after the ride. But it was 1999 and I was already spoiled senseless by modern steel rollercoasters measured by the g-force of their stomach-flipping drops. By contrast, the Cyclone seemed hilariously quaint. My mother climbed on beside me for a trip down memory lane (her last Cyclone ride: 1960-something), and mostly complained of back pain as we clattered noisily around the track. But it was a box we needed to check; A connection to the four generations of our family that have called New York home since arrival on American soil: All have ridden the Cyclone.
The Wonder Wheel is another Coney Island icon. Once the ferris wheel of the future, it now features occasionally in my grandfather’s stories from his childhood. Spinning slowly against the sky since 1920, it is an absolute dinosaur of a ride. But the views from the top are enough to make you stop praying for your safety for a moment; enough to forget the heat.
Throughout the 20th century, the park has been threatened with demolition, re-zoning, and flagging attendance as beaches further out on Long Island became more accessible. But generations of Brooklyn residents have always come to its defense. On hot summer days the boardwalk is just as crowded as the old photographs from the 20’s.