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Don’t listen to what anyone says. It is a magical place, full of unique sights, sounds, smells, people. I don’t think there’s anywhere else quite like it, and this is something to be thankful for. A couple of days ago I was blessed with a rare morning off from the normal rigours of my current routine, and I decided that instead of my standard morning cycle, I would make the trip that thousands of New Yorkers do every year when the sun reappears in the sky – I was headed for Coney Island.
I awoke early enough to avoid fellow revelers who had a similar idea of sun, sand and sea, but I couldn't avoid the Brooklyn Rush Hour Traffic. My route takes me from down Myrtle Avenue until I hit Vanderbilt –a street that transforms midway from a pothole-ridden nightmare full of badly parked cars, into a road characteristic of why Brooklyn is becoming a veritable biker’s inner-city paradise. A broad cycle path leads me smoothly to the Grand Army Plaza. Consisting of concentric circles arrange as streets, this is not only the Brooklyn equivalent of the Arc d’Triompe, but also forms the entrance to Prospect Park.
I freewheel past the arch and fountains, and negotiate my way through the Farmer’s Market that gathers every Saturday morning. One clear of traffic, mechanical and human, I hit the ring road that forms a loop of the park.
It’s an enjoyable cycle, and an experience shared by numerous fellow bikers and runners, although never so many that it feels crowded. Effectively it can be thought of as a microcosm of Brooklyn, if we stretch our imaginations a little - busy, yet but with breathing room, beautiful, but understated. It's maybe better to think of it relation to the hustle, bustle and in-your face awe inspiring structures of Manhattan; the differences become much clearer.
Upon exiting the Park to the South, I hit Ocean Parkway, which I ride for the eight miles that remain until my destination. The route is a delight – a fully segregated bike path with mostly good surfaces that are only interrupted by the stream of cross streets.
This is easily forgiven though when you have such a rare extended escape from cycling alongside depth-perception challenged drivers.
The houses slowly turn from tenement buildings, projects and apartment blocks into large, semi detected suburban homesteads. Watching wealthy, middle class families relax on their porches areas, equidistant from the beach and the city, I can’t help but wonder if this is the American Dream that I so often hear about. I continue to wonder.
The path is a hotbed of interesting characters, almost as if building up excitement for what lies ahead in Coney Island. I freewheel past orthodox Jews basking in the sun, groups of Russians playing backgammon, elderly Italians strolling home from the bodegas, and, well, a chubby man who has dozed off in the heat.
In no time at all I roll up to some large intersections, which I pass on autopilot as my mind has been taken elsewhere. I can smell the sea. I can taste the salt in the air, and that cool breeze that blows in off the water hits a place in my psyche that has been dormant since I moved to New York. Man, I miss the ocean!
Within seconds I’m on the boardwalk, and I’m transported to every movie I’ve ever seen that takes place on Coney Island. My favourite, The Little Fugitive (1953, Dir. Morris, Engel, Orkin) sets the scene in my head, and I’m not to be disappointed.
I stand for what must be nearly thirty minutes, just watching. Looking down the expanse of the boardwalk a tall, red ride from the Steeplechase amusement park dominates in the distance.
Leading up to it are a continuous row of ice cream parlours, hot dog stands, fun parks and rides. On the opposite side the boardwalk drops away to the beach, which extends smoothly into the ocean.
The stands look like they may not have changed in 50 years, except for perhaps the prices. As an outsider, it seems as if the people haven’t changed much either. They are exactly as I imagined, and it’s wonderful. I make no judgment on those that I watch, I just try to blend into the background and enjoy – I hear thick Italian American accents argue over the best hotdog, I watch overly tanned bellies rest proudly on the midriff of their tattooed owners.
I am drawn towards the sound of a loudspeaker and soon arrive at ‘Shoot the Freak.’ It proclamations as the only game where you can shoot at a live target gather quite an audience, and we all watch some hopeful youths try and hit the freak good ‘n proper. It seems they never do – perhaps his freakishness comes from being unusually good at avoiding paintballs? No one cares really; they just like the idea of how un-PC the game is. As, I admit, do I.
Next door is the Wonder Wheel, which spins dutifully behind a packed play park. The image is like a postcard snapshot – Wish You Were Here, Love from Coney Island. It could be a sad picture, with the brash colours and peeling paint, but there’s something majestic about it, proudly rotating high above the tackiness below. That’s my reading anyway.
Not far away however there does lie a sad sight. The Cyclone ride sits abandoned, with the crowds of day-trippers passing it by as if it were just a large inconvenience in their way. And it it certainly is large, which makes the picture even more pitiful – there’s definitely something unnatural about something so vast standing deserted in the middle of crowds. Kind of like an empty football stadium I guess – curious, but with a definite charm that stems from the peculiarity.
Getting hungry and not wanting to spend the prices charged at the stalls, I call it a day. There’s time for one last stroll along the boardwalk, a glance at the Coney Island history graffiti, and then back on the bike to head home. The cycle back passes in a haze as I think about just how unreal the whole Coney Island experience is. It’s probably because I’ve seen it so many times in movies without actually being there, but it definitely felt stepping into some other world, or at least some other time period.
I want to go back and indulge my people watching tendencies some more. I stop. I am home. Food is no longer on my mind – instead I think ‘All Coney Islanders have sand in their shoes. Once it gets in, it never gets out.”
Check out the rest of the pictures on my Flickr photostream here