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Plank Goodness

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

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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 Park includes 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.”

Playland

Playland, circa 1950s.
Dr. Kenneth S. Tydings

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!

Shooting Gallery

Shooting Gallery, circa 1950s.
Dr. Kenneth S. Tydings

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.

Luna Park

Luna Park today.
Shael Shapiro

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.

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bill says:

prof. bernstein nails the wondrous Long Beach boardwalk of the
fifties and early sixties. A true wonderland. Place to take dates,
play skeeball, play miniature golf, and ‘win” a crappy doll for your
date or your sisters.

Marc says:

This article certianly does not belong in any journal that is even remotely related to Judiasm, jewish people, culture, or lifestyle. The excursion btwn the auther and her grandson- while nostalgic and (hopefully) fun- was anything but even remotely Jewishly connected. It takes place on a Shabbes day and is highlighted by the eating of treyf hotdogs and topped off with ice cream. How utterly unredeeming!! If you wanted to show a precious grandchild some glimpses of a past cultural world, there would avhe been either much better places to take him or a better way to enjoy that very spot. I hope that Ruvane does not look back on this episode as having spent some quality “Jewish” (sic) time with his bubbe.

AlizaG says:

Gee whiz…isn’t spending time with your family a Jewish value? I’m Reform and, to me, it’s more important to spend what they now call “quality time” with my teenage daughter. That I slide in some other things I value during that time is an added benefit. Including my own brand of Judaism and why that is important to me.

Marc says:

“Tablet is a daily online magazine of Jewish news, ideas, and culture.” This statement comes from their website. There was nothing in Ms. Bernstein’s article that particularly fits these classifications. Better that the grandchildren participate with her as she eats her matza and maror and (rightfully) call that a Jewish experience (and write about it!), than to walk around Coney Island and wax nostalgic for Long Beach. Let the Professor submit that article elsewhere for publication…that does not belong here.

Therry Neilsen-Steinhardt says:

Marc, you are the meanest Jew I have ever read in this publication. Who died and made you rebbe?

sonia says:

My G-d, you are a misery, Marc. Who asked your opinion anyway!

Richard Stark says:

If you want to understand people like Marc, read the other article about the problems in Israel about “Who is a Jew?”. It tells, among other things, about a woman who got arrested for carrying a Torah at the Western Wall. The orthodox minority in Israel were responsible for that abomination, and Marc is one of those misguided Jews who agree with them.
I NEVER go to shul and I am an Atheist. Yet I am as much of a Jew as you are. I also remember going to Coney Island with my parents and I have taken my grandchildren there; I don’t care if it was Shabbat or not, or if we ate milchig and fleishig together, and neither should you. I LOVE being Jewish and I wouldn’t trade it for anything else, even though I don’t “practice” my religion.
When the Nazis came to round us up and put us in the gas chambers, it didn’t matter how observant one was or if one practiced the religion in the “prescribed” manner. Everyone went to the camps. You couldn’t say, “Please Mr Nazi. I never go to shul, and I don’t even believe in God”. They took us anyway. And so it shall go for both you and me, Marc if, God forbid, the Muslims ever take over our country and start rounding us up. Why? BECAUSE WE ARE ALL JEWISH, and we are in this together, whether you like it or not, Marc.
Shame on you!

Dave Kerber says:

Fond memories I worked @ Nathans for four years & loved it.

Mark Michaels says:

Cousins Roslyn and Shael,
Thank you for the memories! I have more stories and memories from Coney Island than Long Beach because of time spent with Grandpa Jack in Brooklyn in my teens. But my last visit to Coney Island 10 years ago was very depressing. The memories are great. And I don’t think I’ve been to Long Beach since your parents lived there, so my memories are wonderful, including of the Tel Aviv Restuarant.

Marty Janner says:

What a delight to bring back the memories of Coney Island! To go back a little further, there was bay 14th where all the guys from the Williamsburg area congregated. Silvers Baths, the Bowery, where I worked at a skee ball enterprise owned by Bobby Ginsberg who in reality was an Italian gentleman. The reason for the name was that Robby belonged to Tennex Icelanders who were a winter bather’s social club that were primarily Jewish Boys, therefore no problem with with his Jewish dates.

We can’t forget Washington Baths, the Thunderbolt, Steeplechase 25 rides for 50 cents, which by the way was owned by George C. Tilyou.

Anne Fistel says:

Grew up in Long Beach myself…folks owned the deli that once stood in front of the train station…great story…

MichaelGewirtz says:

My Parents owned the Donut and later donut and Knish store on the boardwalk from 1954 to 1980 on National blvd. We even owned fascination and the greyhound race for several years. Oh what a life. You put in words only what a few can understand. Thank You!

Judy Meltzer says:

I was very excited when I first heard that Luna Park was getting a facelift. My beloved bubbe took me to Coney Island many times, and each time was a great adventure. Because I grew up on Long Island, Long Beach was a favorite place, especially for dating, and I remember that we always got dressed up to promenade and eat the wonderful treates on the boardwalk.
As Bob Hope used to sing, “Thanks for the memory.”

Thanks Prof. Bernstein for re-awakening two great memories of my younger years in Brooklyn, before leaving for the coast (west, that is) in 1978 and living in Burbank, lo, these many years. I lived at 40 Brighton 1st Road in 1977-1978 and used to sit on the terrace of my 10th floor apartment looking right at the Parachute Jump in the near distance. I also attended Baruch College back in 1967-1970, before transferring to Brooklyn College for my B.A. in English (gave up on Advertising and Business to my parent’s dismay), so this piece and the prof brought back some bittersweet memories. Bittersweet and yet lovely. People would say I am a fool but I miss that apartment and Brooklyn. And, I, too, am a lapsed Jew of sorts. We all really need to stick together. There are enough haters out there already.

As a mother of two young kids, I plan to take them to Luna Park soon. I hope that some of the nostalgic elements that are remembered here so fondly will be there for my family to enjoy.

My boardwalk memories center on the lates sixties and early seventies in Rockaway — which could have mirrored the author’s long beach experience.
I did not much frequent Coney Island and my most recent visit their was before the resurrection of Luna Park — I’m glad new generations of New Yorkers will get to know the delights of having a real boardwalk experience in their lives — as the title says “plank goodness.”

renee fields says:

I took my niece (a 29 year old adult) to Luna Park last month when she visited from Minnesota. It was her first visit to Coney Island and we walked all the way to Brighton Beach where we ate at a Russian boardwalk restaurant.
We had a great time — and although my mother/her grandmother grew up in Long Beach in the 30’s we were hardly doing this with nostalgia. It was more like a sightseeing trip for my niece. For me, it was something I do a few times each summer.
I’m a secular/atheistic Jew who doesn’t demean myself with the phrase ‘lapsed’ — I practice my version of Secular/Humanistic/Cultural Judaism every day — along with more than half of the Jewish population in the US who may or may not be affiliated with any formal Jewish organization. We tend to not be joiners, but we are strong in numbers and outnumber any other Jewish group in America, including the Orthodox. We need to stand-up and be counted. I place more emphasis on Jewish ethics and tikkun olum and cultural traditions than on religious imperatives from a god that I don’t believe in and a torah written by men. I’m an active member of a community in New York City — check out http://www.shj.org and http://www.csjo.org and http://www.circle.org if you want to be part of an active larger community of like-minded secular Jews.

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Plank Goodness

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

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