It is a place for families and the funky. A destination for the rich and the regular folks. A spot that has been seedy yet always full of marvels.
Coney Island has been an escape for New Yorkers since about the 1830s and for photographer Harvey Stein, who has been taking images of the Brooklyn neighborhood for decades, the draw is clear.
‘It’s the people that attract me,’ Stein told DailyMail.com. ‘The environment’s always changing. It’s always inviting. There’s always something new there.’
Stein has been photographing its beach and boardwalk, rides and games, neighborhood characters and tourists since 1970. He has published two books on Coney Island with a third on the way, which was delayed due the pandemic.
‘It used to be dangerous when I started there,’ he recalled, adding that while it has gentrified and is more family friendly, ‘it will never be Disneyland.’
While there is no consensus as to how Coney Island got its name, what is clear is that by around the 1830s, vacationers flocked to its beach. Luxury hotels sprouted up in the 1870s and ’80s and for a time, it was a playground for the rich.
On June 16, 1884, the country’s first roller coaster – the Gravity Switchback Railway – was unveiled, according to the current amusement park operator’s website.
After the subway was built, anyone could go to Coney Island, Stein explained. The beach spot was popular until after World War II, when people started buying cars and had more choices for leisure activities, such as TV and movies, during the 1950s and ’60s.
‘It lost its allure,’ he said, adding that rides weren’t maintained. ‘It went downhill.’
Stein, who grew up in Pittsburgh, recalled he went to Coney Island as a teen sometime in the late 1950s. He attended Carnegie Mellon University and graduated with a degree in metallurgy engineering. While he didn’t particularly like the field, he continued in it and got a job at Bethlehem Steel. To pay for college, he had signed up for the army and was then sent to Germany for about 20 months to serve.
‘I picked up a camera in Germany,’ he recalled. ‘I started teaching myself.’
In the 1960s, the base had a darkroom and Stein was able to develop his images. He fell in love with photography.
Back in the United States, Stein went to graduate school at Columbia University with the thought that he would soon be in Europe again. Instead, he stayed in New York City and took a class with Ben Fernandez, a well-known photographer, while working a full-time job. Fernandez became a mentor, advised him to buy a Leica and also told him to go Coney Island to shoot. It was 1970.
‘I’ve been photographing at Coney Island ever since,’ he said. ‘This year will be my 50th year photographing there.’
When he first started taking images in 1970, Coney Island was not crowded and things were falling into disrepair: it was full of peeling paint and the boardwalk had holes. Nor was it safe. ‘There were gangs,’ he recalled.
There was a period of time in which people could go underneath the boardwalk and people used the space to take drugs and have sex, Stein said.
In the 1970s, New York City was in the throes of a financial crisis, mired in debt and almost declared bankruptcy. Stein pointed out that Coney Island’s fortunes are tied to the city’s health. ‘When the city goes bad, Coney Island goes bad.’
Stein looked to show the spot’s seediness in the 1980s and pointed to one of his images – Amusement Rider, 1990 – that shows a mural of a half-naked woman on the side of a ride. There was a lot of nudity at one point. ‘All of that is gone – they wouldn’t do that anymore,’ he said.
But also in late 1980s, the city landmarked many of Coney Island’s iconic rides, like the Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone, a wooden roller coaster. Throughout the 1980s and the 1990s, barbwire, fences and guard dogs were used to keep people out. Many rides were closed and then left standing.
By the 2000s, a developer was planning a hotel resort, which lead to a backlash from the community. The city ended up buying back some of the land from the developer.
In May 2010, Central Amusement International Inc unveiled Luna Park in Coney Island that had 19 new rides. The company that manages and operates the amusement park is owned by the Zamperla family, according to its website.
Late last year, longtime shops on the boardwalk, like Ruby’s Bar and Grill, were fearful that their rent would be raised so high that they would have to shutter, the Brooklyn Paper reported. Then the pandemic hit and the city shut down in March. Businesses such as the Wonder Wheel, which had planned celebrations for its 100th anniversary, are still closed.
Stein, who has shot Coney Island in the winter and the Polar Bear Club swim on the first day of the year, said that his upcoming book wouldn’t be complete without images during the pandemic. He went to Coney Island with a friend in July.
‘It lacked its typical energy,’ he said. ‘It was like half what it usually is. Understandably, it wasn’t the same – the music, the noise.’
Stein has published two books on the Brooklyn neighborhood: Coney Island, which was came out in 1998, and Coney Island 40 years, which came out in 2011. His third book, Coney Island People: 50 years, is slated for early 2022. It got pushed back because of the coronavirus pandemic. A teacher at the International Center of Photography, Stein has also bought many classes to Coney Island.
‘I didn’t plan it,’ he said of his many decades photographing Coney Island. ‘It’s like a home away from home.’