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The name Coney Island typically evokes a sense of nostalgia—a place for cheap entertainment and the pursuit of seaside pleasures. By 1873, Coney Island was attracting large summer crowds to its beaches, hotels, bathhouses, and later the amusement parks that would come to epitomize the leisure district. In his short story “A Day in Coney Island,” Isaac Bashevis Singer recounts the energy radiating from the carnival games, sideshow acts, and street vendors along the boardwalk in the mid-1930s: “The sun poured down like fire. From the beach came a roar even louder than the ocean” (Singer, 34). While best know as an entertainment epicenter, there exists an equally rich narrative about Coney Island as a vibrant immigrant enclave; one in which its Jewish residents greatly contributed to shaping the manufactured seascape.
The first European settlers embarked on the hilly marshlands and storm-tossed sandbars of Coney Island in the early seventeenth century when Henry Hudson dropped anchor in Gravesend Bay in 1609. The name Coney Island is most likely an English adaptation of the Dutch word for rabbit, or konjin, which reflects the large number of wild rabbits that inhabited the region at the time. In 1643, Lady Deborah Moody, an Englishwoman fleeing religious persecution in London, acquired the title to the township of Gravesend, which included the peninsula region of Coney Island. (The peninsula was later divided into four distinct neighborhoods: Sea Gate, originally Norton’s Gate, Coney Island, originally West Brighton, Brighton Beach, and Manhattan Beach.)
For nearly two centuries, the five-mile stretch of coastal land remained relatively isolated and uninhabited. Commercial development began in the late 1820s and early 1830s with the construction of the first hotels: Coney Island House (1828), Wyckoff’s Hotel (1840), and Surf House (1865), to name a few. To accommodate the burgeoning weekend crowds, real estate developers and wealthy businessmen began constructing luxury hotels on the eastern end of the peninsula, such as the Oriental Hotel (1876), Manhattan Beach Hotel (1877), Brighton Beach Hotel (1878) and Elephant Hotel (1885). These hotels catered specifically to a wealthier, more “refined” clientele in contrast to the seedier western end, which attracted a distinctly working-class and immigrant demographic and had a reputation for debauchery, gambling, and prostitution. Social and ethnic tensions were illustrated in hoteliers William Engeman’s Brighton Beach Hotel and Austin Corbin’s Manhattan Hotel policies, which barred Jews and other “undesirable” guests from their hotels.
Despite these policies, Jewish immigrant families were among those who rented the many beach bungalows in the summer months. Jews were also regulars on the handball courts and in the bathhouses, which quickly became social centers around which to exchange a piece of neighborhood gossip or a kosher recipe. Illana Abramovitch explains how “a way of life developed for many Jewish regulars around the area’s “bath houses,” which grew from simple changing rooms to establishments with restaurants, swimming pools, steam rooms, swimming pools, and nude sunbathing solaria” (Abramovitch). On July 4, 1895, Captain Paul Boyton opened the first enclosed amusement park ever constructed in the United States: his aquatic circus, Sea Lion Park. Coney Island soon became the heart of the amusement district. The ultimate place to indulge in popular pastimes such as beach bathing, gambling, musical entertainment, vaudeville theater and thrill rides.
From Leisure District to Permanent Neighborhood
The proliferation of urban development and public transportation—railways, ferries, bridges, and subway lines—not only fueled growth and helped facilitate the flow of vacationers to Coney Island, but also contributed to a shift in neighborhood typology from vacation homes to permanent residences. In 1823, Coney Island Road and Bridge Company built the Coney Island Causeway, linking the peninsula with the mainland. Later, Ocean Parkway, and the Coney Island Plank Road (today Coney Island Avenue) both connected Prospect Park and Park Circle, respectively, to the ocean. The subway arrived in the 1920s; now, a beach vacation was only a nickel ride away.
Increased transportation also contributed to an influx of Jewish immigrants—many of who had originally settled in the Lower East Side—migrating to less populous neighborhoods. Beginning in the 1910s, Jewish, along with Irish and Italian immigrants, began moving into the two-story houses and apartment complexes located a few blocks inland from Coney Island’s amusement parks and beaches. Informal neighborhoods, whose boundaries were drawn according to ethnic backgrounds, were quickly created. By the 1940s, the Jewish sector ran from Twenty-Seventh Street to Thirty-Sixth Street. Many Jews were also shop owners and entrepreneurs. Sean Galvan notes the abundance of Jewish owned storefronts along Coney Island Ave (CIA) reflects “a legacy of Jewish contributions to CIA—the buildings and institutions such as synagogues, memorial chapels, Judaica emporia, and funeral homes that form the backbone of a neighborhood” (Galvan, 278). Perhaps the most famous Jewish-owned business in Coney Island is Nathan’s Famous on Surf Avenue. Founded by Nathan Handwerker, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, in 1916, his five cent frankfurter rapidly became the gastronomic symbol of Brooklyn summers.
Jews were also prominent fixtures on the vernacular landscape of Coney Island’s vaudeville acts, sideshows and freak shows. Jewish singers such as Sophie Tucker and Fanny Brice got their start singing on the Coney Island stages. Samuel Gumpertz, an American Jewish performer turned general manager of William H. Reynold’s Dreamland, specialized in human oddities and freak shows. He recruited people from around the world to perform in circus acts as part of his Dreamland Circus Sideshow. Many of the performers in Coney Island’s sideshows were Jewish immigrants, including Josephine Joseph, a hermaphrodite, “Madame Gabrielle, a legless woman who performed as the “Half-woman”; Princess Fritzi, billed as “the world’s smallest woman”; Martha Meyers, who performed as the “Armless Wonder”; Ella the Seal Girl; Di Yidishe Leonette, “The Jewish Lion-faced Girl” (Portnoy, 131).
Jews contributed behind-the-scenes at Coney Island, as well. Many of the brightly painted and embellished carousel horses of Coney Island’s tens of merry-go-rounds were carved by Jewish immigrants. They incorporated design elements and traditions from Jewish visual culture found largely in Eastern European synagogue architecture into their carousel creatures, helping to create a distinctively Coney Island style of carousel carving. Master carvers Charles Carmel and Marcus Charles Illions both contributed to the famous Bishoff & Brienstein (B&B) Carousell, and later opened factories of their own in Brooklyn. Illions opened his workshop in 1909 with his sons, where he developed his own unique style of carousel horse. Jewish immigrants Solomon Stein and Harry Goldstein also opened their Artistic Carousel Manufacturing Company nearby.
By the 1970s, Coney Island was on the decline. Dreamland and Luna Park had both burned to the ground in 1911 and 1944, respectively. When Steeplechase Park closed in 1964, it signified the end of a bygone era. There were several failed attempts to rebuild and revitalize the dying amusement district, to no avail. Under Robert Moses, the city began demolishing low-income housing developments in the residential district of Coney Island and replacing them with NYC Housing Authority towers. Many Jewish families and business owners began moving to more affluent neighborhoods in the 1960s. (In contrast, neighboring Brighton Beach has witnessed a steady increase of Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union since the 1970s.)
Abramovitch, Illana. “Jews in Coney Island: A History.” http://www.myjewishlearning.com/history/Modern_History/1914-1948/American_Jewry_Between_the_Wars/coney-island.shtml
Galvin, Sean. “A Tour of Jewish Coney Island Avenue.” In Jews of Brooklyn, edited by Ilana Abramovitch and Seán Galvin. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2002.
Immerso, Michael. Coney Island: The People’s Playground. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002.
Kasson, John F. Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978.