Monday, August 3, 2009

Walk Coney Island to Brighton Beach

Saturday was going to be the first bit of sun in a long time. All those days of downpours were sure to bring out the mosquitoes and ticks in the woods upstate, and since one of us already caught Lyme disease this season, we gave up the hike and decided to take the F train for a NYC day at the beach. And for those of us raised in Brooklyn, it was a train ride to the past.

BTW, Coney Island gets its name from the Dutch words for Rabbit Island, but you won't see any rabbits in the wild there today. It was developed as a resort in the 1880s, and then as a destination for day trippers early in the 1900s with the development of the NYC transit system.

 The new Stillwell Avenue Subway Station lets you out at Coney Island. The station resembles European models, and is the world's largest above ground terminal, with 4 platforms and tracks for the D, F, N and Q trains. This station was originally built in 1919, and reconstructed in 2004.

Downstairs on the station concourse, Robert Wilson's silk screened glass brick, Coney Island Baby, depicts the rides, foods and other attractions of Coney Island

This mural by Os Gemeos (the twins in Portuguese) is opposite the station exit. It's a happy mix of fantasy and reality, in a way a perfect lead in to the culture ahead. The two Brazilian graffiti artists have recently completed a mural in Manhattan, corner of Bowery and Houston Street, as noted in the NY Times.

All roads lead to the Coney Island Boardwalk. It's straight ahead, right down Stillwell Avenue. Another institution, Nathan's Famous (hotdogs) is on the right.

Welcome to the crowds at the Boardwalk on a hot July afternoon. Grab a Nathan's Famous and a cold beer and just elbow your way through!

That sand's hot....and watch out for all the broken glass.

You can cool off between swims under the sprinkler palm trees and little gazebos.

Musicians on the boardwalk draw a crowd...and a few hot dancers.

Anglers on the Coney Island Pier try their luck in the ocean.

The water was too cold for a couple of aged hikers, but not for these hearty souls.

Looking east toward Brighton Beach from the Coney Island Pier. Those white buildings in the distance are new apartment houses. At the horizon is Breezy Point and gateway to the Rockaways.

The Parachute Jump, out of service since 1968, is one of the signature attractions at Coney Island. It's not working today, but the memory of the one ride lasts forever: the slow ascent, the bump at the top, and the seconds of free fall before the shoot opened. It's the only part of Steeplechase Amusement Park still standing.

This refreshment stand is topped by a Pillsbury Doughboy-like figure holding a burger. Astroland Park, home of the Cyclone, is just to the left.

...the Cyclone is an example of what some kids 50 years ago found to be the most thrilling roller coaster. Riders today laugh and call it tame.

...and so's the Wonder Wheel. Even we found it dull in the stationary car. Definitely ride the swinging ones.

Here's another (ugly) remnant of Old Coney Island--the Freak Show....You can shoot the Freak with a paint ball gun. Hit the poor devil and win a prize--probably a stuffed panda. A close look makes it a good guess that this fellow has set up a make-shift operation on an empty lot.

The New York Aquarium is just behind that wall. Enter and you will find yourself transported to the wonders of the deep, including exhibits of sea lions, stingers, penguins, and coral reef conservation.

Brighton Beach Playground, at Brighton 2nd Street and the boardwalk, is run by the NYC Parks Dept, and is a great place for kids to run through the icy, car-wash-like sprinkler, climb on the gym equipment, and enjoy the Japanese Flowering Cherry Trees and Montauk Daisies.

A short stroll East on the boardwalk takes you to Bay 3 in Brighton Beach. It's considerably less crowded than the Coney Island section of the Beach--and has a lot less broken glass and beer cans. In the 1950s and earlier, high schoolers spent many a summer day spreading blankets and baby oil, and eating a somewhat sandy, home-packed picnic lunch while scanning the crowd for friends.

Soft-serve ice cream, or "custard" as we used to call it back in the day, still tastes great but now costs $2.50 instead of 25 cents.

Tatiana Restaurant is a popular with Russians and tourists alike. Order their special sturgeon kebabs and a cool shot of Stoli. The most recommended restaurants, though, are away from the surf on Brighton Beach Avenue. We'll tuck the restaurant guide in here in case you're thinking of dinner already.

The Oceana Condo , at Coney Island Avenue in Brighton Beach, has replaced Brighton Beach Baths, a private pool and locker club, and center for the famous Brighton Beach handball tournaments. We called it Brighton Private and used the lockers and communal showers, men and women separately of course. After a swim in the pool, you could get your hand stamped for re-entry before going out on the public beach to find friends and take a run into the ocean.

These apartments start at $500,000 (but you won't get an ocean view for that price).

If you walk around the corner from the Oceana to this beauty, you'll find apartments are far less costly. It's a gorgeous example of Art Deco style.

You used to be able to catch a great double feature at the Atlantic Oceana cinema. Today it is a venue for Russian Theater.

The former home of Mrs. Stahl's Knishes, at Brighton Beach and Coney Island Avenues, is now a Subway shop. Back in the 50s, the first thing we would do when we came down from the elevated train was stop at Mrs. Stahl's for a hot potato or kasha knish to take to the beach. An innovation in the late 50s was fruited knishes, e. g. blueberry or cherry. That's when the choices got harder.

The bank at the corner of Brighton Beach Avenue and Coney Island Avenue marks the corner behind which the now-vanished institution, Brighton Beach Baths, once stood. We can still hear the smack of the hand balls against the concrete courts echoing from the past.

 Brighton Beach was invaded by the Russians (and other Eastern Europeans) beginning in 1970. Today, they've become so populous that Brighton Beach is known as "Little Russia."

Anyone here read Russian? The language dominates the area. Some restaurants have menus outside that are only in Russian. The fruit and vegetable markets have the best prices ever: 99 cents a pound for peaches, nectarines, watermelon and even cherries.

The Primorski Restaurant on Brighton Beach Avenue, is where we had a great dinner. The Chicken Kebab and the Salmon Kebab were was the Georgian wine and giant bottle of Russian beer. There was even a chanteuse crooning Popular Russian songs....

Inside the Primorski. Because it's also a night club of sorts, there was a 15 percent service charge. But we, tourists that we were, also tipped 15 percent. Oh, well....We'll know better the next visit.

If you are up for a Russian nightclub experience with lots to eat and drink, there are a few right here on Brighton Beach Avenue, just steps from the QB train station. Come with a group for the most fun.

After dinner, we took a last walk to the beach and caught the sunset. The boardwalk is a very different place without the crowds.

The QB line, up those stairs, right there in the middle of Brighton Beach, Little Russia, where we ended our walk, was straight ride back to Manhattan. We recalled our youths and the gritty, grimy discomfort of going home on the train with the sand and sea salt still stuck to the Bain de Soleil suntan oil.

Adieu Brighton and Coney. We took the Q train back to Manhattan. But we're sure we'll return.

We managed to clock 5 miles on the old pedometer in all our meandering and backtracking to see sights, get snacks and check out restaurants. Maybe next week we'll make it to the woods. D'ya think?

Coney Island: Lost and Found

 American Experience - Coney Island

 Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century

 Coney Island: The People's Playground

 The Kid of Coney Island: Fred Thompson