The beach’s first boom was so long ago we don’t even have photographs of it. New Yorkers traveled there by steamship beginning in the 1830s, and for a decade at the end of the nineteenth century the sight greeting immigrants entering the harbor, before the Statue of Liberty, was the Coney Island Elephant, a seven-story pachyderm with a hotel inside.
By the 1950s, it was already a little seedy, but working-class families would still rent bungalows for the summer, and teenagers would slip under the boardwalk to make out, their parents sunning themselves above (those spaces are closed off now, and much of the boardwalk splintered by Sandy). Woody Guthrie was living down the block, calcifying from Huntington’s disease, holed up in a Mermaid Avenue apartment that was the only place the Oklahoma vagrant ever really called home.
That was before the housing projects lined the shore (and gave the city Stephon Marbury, the greatest high-school basketball player the PSAL had seen in generations). And before adjacent Brighton Beach, once a haven for Russian Jews, became a haven for Russian non-Jews, then Russian-speaking non-Russians from the former Soviet bloc. The one thing that was constant was the boardwalk itself, though even before Sandy you could put your foot through the wood if you picked the right spot. They’ll be rebuilding the busted streches of the boardwalk now, “saving” it by faking it, in concrete and plastic planks. Plastic is not wood, and the new Luna Park not quite the old, but the delirious city will soon usurp the new stuff like it always does. And the beach will still be there, wide and flat and inviting, freezing over in the winter like a sloped skating rink and dotted in the summer with a grid of steel-grate garbage bins, ready for the refuse of the whole raucous world.