Coney Island Nights: Ferris Wheel Junkies and Tilt-a-Whirl Ghosts Collide

Coney Island Wonder Wheel Luna Park
The Coney Island Wonder Wheel rises over Luna Park.

Popping out of the Q train’s NY Aquarium subway stop in Coney Island is — in a word — gritty. A fenced-in walkway leading toward the street is lined by twirls of razor-sharp barbed wire. A weed-strewn parking lot lies to one side and apartment complexes with signs written in Russian rise from the other. Shattered glass dots the street and path; it sparkles in the late-day sunlight.

In the distance, the aquarium sits along the boardwalk’s edge, partially under construction. Kids and adults are smacking balls on handball courts along the boardwalk’s edge, and just ahead, waves crash along a litter-strewn stretch of sand.

The beach and boardwalk is so very crowded; lines snake from the public restrooms as beachgoers make one final pit-stop before they head home or to amusement park rides for the evening.

I took my first trip here about a decade ago to see the notorious Mermaid Parade, a quirky display of humanity if ever there were one. Since that parade, I’ll visit Coney Island occasionally and each time marvel at it in all its faded glory.

To my eye, Coney Island is a monstrous mix of gritty, glittery, weird and heartbreaking.

Coney Island sunset
Coney Island sunset

This year, I had arrived on what was, quite literally, a midsummer’s night: Friday at sunset, the heart of July.

Families and people of all ages filled the boards on this summer’s night, but there were also more than a fair share of lost souls meandering about hustling, looking to make a buck. And po-lice. Lots and lots of po-lice.

And yet, look closely and there’s a lot of wonder still to be found, like on the famed Wonder Wheel in Luna Park, which is itself a world of peeling, rickety rides still ridden by children and grown-ups yelping in joy.

From the top of that great old Ferris Wheel, you’ll be forgiven for crying out in surprise as your basket rocks and rolls. Peering beyond the caged-in seats it’s easy to gape at the sea, the crowds, the shrill rides, and just beyond the park, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs — a must-eat if ever there were one at a beach.

Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs
Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs

Old-timey signs and vestiges of historic rides, like the iconic Cyclone roller coaster, lurk in the shadows. And let’s not forget the Coney Island Freakshow (though I sort of did — I can’t bring myself to visit).

A pop-up dance party had begun in earnest in the middle of the boardwalk; enormous speakers had been raised, and people of all ages were shaking their moneymakers.

boardwalk dance party
Shake your moneymaker!

A stroll along the massive fishing pier jutting into the water took us past all manner of people soaking in the warm, windy evening air. In the near-twilight, the sea shone so brightly, the apartment towers appeared as shadows, the sands glowed warmly — litter fading into the shadows.

It’s a mysterious place, that Coney Island.

Coney Island Luna Park
More rides … this way …

I can’t say I love it, but I can say it stops me in my tracks, makes me think a moment. In a city where the average person is so quickly being priced out, where the daily lives of your typical human are slowly erased and replaced by a city filled with glossy, over-priced everything, Coney Island feels remarkably real.

And the thing I love about real? It’s gritty, glittery, weird and heartbreaking.

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