August/September 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 4
Nathan Ward says in his essay on Brooklyn in this issue that one in seven American families has its roots in that borough’s soil. This sort of claim is a fact-checker’s nightmare, but nobody can deny the powerful hold Brooklyn has on the national imagination.
It colonized mine in a curious way long before I ever set foot there. I became obsessed with Coney Island when I was about 10 years old. I had no reason even to think about Coney. I was a Westchester County boy, but all I wanted was to go to Steeplechase Park.
The first of the three spectacular amusement parks that made Coney world famous in its most effulgent era, Steeplechase was opened by a showman named George C. Tilyou in 1897 and rebuilt a decade later after one of the fires from whose ashes the Island was always rising “sphinxlike,” as one old guidebook confidently put it. The reborn Steeplechase was a long glass and cast-iron shed with a clerestory roof, a cross between a greenhouse and a European railroad station, set in gardens and ringed with the horserace ride that gave the park its name.
Steeplechase outlasted its rivals. It was still going strong when, some 65 years after opening day, I badgered my father into taking me there. The tall, bright summer Sunday was gorgeous, but Coney itself was clearly in its long decline. Still, there was glitter and clatter, and pitch-and-toss games you couldn’t win, and four coasters running. And Steeplechase.
I lurched through the rolling barrel that had tumbled couples into each other’s arms for half a century and into the underwater light of the Pavilion of Fun, which was clamorous with rides: a polished wooden slide down which I went on a fragment of carpet, a lavish three-tier carousel, and the Steeplechase itself. A sort of hybrid—part roller coaster, part merry-go-round—it sent wooden horses off four abreast on tracks that undulated around the pavilion. So away I went, peering not at sea or sky but at the ground beneath me as I glided over enticing heaps of industrial clutter: fragments of rides abandoned or under repair, a mound of greasy machinery, what appeared to be cans of creosote. It was fun, but nowhere near so exciting as the Dragon Coaster back in Westchester. And yet I find that to this day I can spool that ride through my memory in something like real time.
I went back to the Pavilion of Fun just once, on a windy October night in 1965, after leaving a Columbia College mixer barren even by my very modest freshman expectations. I was with my friend Mark, who had come in from Westchester for this wan event and had a car. “Let’s go to Coney,” I said, and affable Mark said sure, and after acquiring some beer to drink along the way, as was then the suicidal custom, we set off down the West Side Highway toward the Battery Tunnel.
Into baffling Brooklyn—big as Belgium, thatched with strange parkways—and, eventually, to Coney Island, which we entered going west on Surf Avenue. It wasn’t quiet that autumn midnight; bumper cars spun and scuttled in a cold radiance of neon, and Nathan’s had several grills working. But west of the world’s greatest hot dog stand lay shuttered concessions, and a block beyond them a choir of columns ran oceanward, bone white under a fat moon, marking the boundary of Steeplechase. The Pavilion loomed behind them. Painted across its glass facade, the Steeplechase Man’s face leered carnivorously out from vanished summers, his toothy grin part welcoming, part sinister. “Jesus Christ!” said Mark. “What is it?”
As we left the car at a deserted curb, I told him about the park and how I’d seen on the news that it wasn’t going to open again. We went to the boardwalk, turned right, put the black Atlantic to our backs, and discovered a chain-link fence, perhaps 10 feet high. Beyond it, lit up like a cunning display in a Christmastime shop-window, a watchman slept open-mouthed in a sort of peaked-roof sentry booth. I pointed to him and to the park beyond; Mark shrugged and put the point of his boot into one of the fence’s diamond openings. We clawed upward and dropped to the ground inside.
We went past the guard, past shrouded rides, and into the Pavilion of Fun. In a silver-gray bloom of shadowless light, we walked through thickets of pillars, around a bungalow-size elephant, saw the stored horses stacked as tightly together as planes on a carrier’s hangar deck, and then Mark stopped abruptly and asked, “What’s that?” I listened, heard a distant whistle, and looked to where the room’s clean perspective narrowed toward Surf Avenue. Half a dozen low black shapes were coming our way.
Mark squeezed my arm. “Dogs.”
We were near a circular enclosure—refreshment stand?—and we scrambled over into it to lie face-down, side by side. I found we were holding hands. “I’ve heard,” Mark whispered, “if a dog attacks you, you punch it in the nose, and it’ll go away.”
To this day I have no idea what a guard dog does to you if you don’t resist it (I wasn’t buying Mark’s suggestion), but in later years on Coney I often saw German shepherds bellow and fling themselves against fences to get at me as I passed by the desolate little attractions they were protecting, and I’m not sure I shouldn’t have been just as scared as I was.
We heard the doomsday click of claws on the floor and then excited yips and snufflings and the bump of their noses against the curving plywood wall. They began to growl.
And suddenly they were snarling and yapping a hundred yards away, drawn off in an undeserved miracle to the spot where Mark had unshipped some beer shortly after we’d come in. A week or two passed, there was another whistle, and when we finally hazarded a glance over the counter, we saw nothing moving in the pale chaos of dead rides. We were up; we were running; we were at the fence. It dipped beneath us as obstacles do in your best dreams, and I left Steeplechase there in the moonlight, the park already halfway between being a real place and a place one can visit only in dreams, as I have done on and off ever since.
A year later Steeplechase was gone. But I had emerged from my nocturnal foray with a minute flake of it, a Steeplechase Man face painted on a piece of Masonite, about the size of a pie pan, that I’d pried off a column while Mark was saving our lives by peeing in the corner, and had somehow kept hold of during our retreat. It grimaced down at me from the walls of various dorm rooms and apartments; and then, like Steeplechase, it disappeared.
I’ve been a loyal visitor to Coney, regularly bringing my daughter to shriek on the excellent kiddie rides in Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park, where the owners, the Vourderis brothers, are a near-constant, vigilant, and unfailingly amiable presence. But every season the seas of time carried off yet another terra-cotta prodigy from the great days. So it is deeply gratifying to be able to ratify Nathan Ward’s thesis: Brooklyn is coming back, and with it, finally, Coney !
For years all the island had to sustain it was its history. Now that history is nourishing a revival I hope will again make Coney one of the great places of the earth.