Coney Island is a unique subsect of Brooklyn that encompasses a beach, boardwalk, and two amusement parks. The area always has a carnival-like, theatrical vibe about it and when it's summertime there, you'd never guess that the island was any different during any other season. With so much to do and see, it's easy to believe that Coney Island was always a family-friend, wholesome destination for kids and adults, with something to do for everyone. Contrary to that, however, this distinct Brooklyn region did not always have the reputation it does today.
The island wasn't even always an island and went through a period of growth, development, and, yes, even crime during its journey to being a premiere New York destination. It was once a place where people needed to keep a close eye on their wallets, and, before that, it was a destination for the elite looking to escape the city bustle with a luxe resort weekend. The transformative years in Coney Island's history are how it became to be everything it is today, from fun in the sun to thrilling theme parks.
The Start Of New York City
Coney Island was actually discovered pretty early on by Henry Hudson, after whom the river that runs through the city would be named. This island was the first place the explorer landed although it would be inaccurate to say that he discovered it; the land was actually home to the Canarsie people. In 1609, it was they who used the land to fish and clam, as both were in high supply nearly four centuries ago, according to Brownstoner. The Canarsie people also hunted rabbits which were called 'coneys,' and you can guess where this name came into play.
However, before that happened, the island was simply given the name Gravesend, which was part of Kings County after Hudson returned to colonize the surrounding area all the way up to Albany. Gravesend was known as the most remote part of this county and didn't serve much purpose for anyone other than those who lived nearby or used the waterway as a means of hunting. In 1776, the most important year in America's history, Gravesend was the first landing spot of the British before the Battle of Brooklyn. While this battle was one of many which signified the start of the Revolutionary War, the island's reputation soon retreated back to what it once was, slinking into the background as a remote location.
The Victorian Years
For nearly a century, not as much as a second thought was given to the island soon to become Coney Island. In the 1840s, all of that changed when a bridge was built to connect the island to the New York mainland and, suddenly, Coney Island was newly accessible. The first hotel, Coney Island House, was built shortly following, and it was known as an accommodation for the famous elite. Twenty-five years later, a restaurant, additional hotel, and bathhouses were created by Peter Tilyou, thus further expanding the island and its reputation.
A road became the main route to Coney Island and brought with it the promise of grander hotels and even more resort-like establishments, all of which came to fruition during the late 1800s. As public transportation, such as the train systems, became more advanced, more and more people made their way to the island. Pretty soon, it was one of the most popular summer destinations and was constantly inundated with summer crowds.
All Of This Development Didn't Only Attract The Rich
Of course, as with any area that's built with money and attracts the same, many people came looking for opportunities - and not all of them were legal. Development wasn't restricted to resorts and beachside restaurants; two red-light districts soon popped up on Coney Island. Along with this, shady bars began popping up that didn't even have proper tables let alone any kind of security or dress code. Not before long, Coney Island grew a reputation for pickpockets, gambling, and fighting, among other illegal activities that were ongoing.
Fires Nearly Ended It All
While Coney Island was a haven for those who wanted to be near the ocean, it was also a major fire hazard. With so many wood buildings and, eventually, wooden theme park rides, fires swept through the island multiple times. In the early 1900s, fires destroyed many of the first successful amusement parks and the last one, in 1946, almost ended the reputation of Coney Island completely.
By the early 1960s, it was once again known as a place of gang activity, until new owners took over, attempting to restore the park to its former glory. By 1962, the main theme park, Astroland, sported a futuristic look that once again attracted people. As the rest of the city and Long Island saw development, more of the same crowds slowly moved out of Coney Island. Today, it's the same park where visitors can ride the Cyclone, a Coney Island original. Since then, it has gone through the hands of many a developer, each one adding something new and exciting to the island, eventually bringing more people as the decades went on.