Connect with us


Drugs, hookers and a roller coaster: Inside Coney Island’s lecherous past



coney island

When LaMarcus Adna Thompson, a textile manufacturer in the Midwest, quit his job to start building amusement rides for fairs, he had loftier goals than just providing people with a good time.
His original, 6-mile-per-hour, 5-cents-a-ride Switchback Railway, built in 1884, would be so fun it would drive thrill-seekers away from the “vice and crime” poisoning society at the time.

And what better place to debut such an invention than in the world’s most debauched adult playground of the era: Coney Island.

Before the Wonder Wheel or Cyclone — and long before a day at the beach became a national pastime — Coney was a “four-mile-long, half-mile-wide coastal citadel of grime, crime, intoxication and fornication.” That’s according to the new book “The Amusement Park: 900 Years of Thrills and Spills, and the Dreamers and Schemers Who Built Them” (Black Dog & Leventhal).

“Coney Island was where anything goes,” author Stephen M. Silverman told The Post. “It epitomized Sodom.”

Preachers railed against it. Journalists chronicled its sins. Even its food generated controversy: When the hot dog debuted in 1867, peddlers had to rebrand the sausage-on-a-bun as “Coney Island Chicken” to assuage customers who thought they were eating actual canines.
Despite such scandals, Coney Island would become the most famous, most influential amusement park in the world, inspiring ­every park that came after — from the hokiest state fair to Disney World.

“It absolutely set the pace for the rest of the amusement parks in the country,” Silverman said. “You know how we always think of New York setting the pace for the culture? Well, it was Coney Island that first established that precedent . . . It was because of the reputation of Coney Island that New York got that reputation.”

Coney Island wasn’t always a destination getaway. When European immigrants first arrived there, around 1702, it was to raise cattle and grow corn and tobacco. As for the beach, they stayed away.

“At the time, bathing in the ocean wasn’t popular,” said Silverman. Even in the late 1800s — with the publication of Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” — swimming in the Atlantic was a niche activity. “People were scared. They were convinced there were monsters [in the water].”

But when a new railway connecting the Brooklyn town of Gravesend to Coney Island opened in 1823, entrepreneurs sensed an opportunity. Ramshackle wooden “bathhouses” popped up along the shore, allowing visitors to change from their city clothes into rented wool swimsuits.

The area’s first hotel, the Coney Island House, opened in 1829, and by the 1870s train service had been extended to the island, all making the Brooklyn spot a popular escape for Manhattanites. Early fans included P.T. Barnum, Herman Melville (who would work on his epic “Moby Dick” at the Coney Island House) and Walt Whitman, known for reciting Shakespeare and Homer to seagulls while swimming naked in the ocean.

There were also places that sold beer, which, noted Silverman, hastened Coney ­Island’s descent into degradation.

“There was this mix of . . . being healthy and swimming in the ocean, but also going out there and being down and dirty,” he said.

Those looking to get “down and dirty” would head to the Gut, on the west end. The unregulated 10-block area included betting parlors, opium dens, dance halls, boxing rings and ladies “loose of scruple,” per Silverman. Its residents were, fittingly, called Gutters.

Meanwhile, men drilled holes into the old bathhouses, transforming them from changing rooms into peep-show booths. Prostitutes began setting up camp in them, charging a buck (equivalent to $25 today) for an eyeful — and more if there was physical contact.
Other establishments advertised the lascivious Coney Island Can-Can dance and illegal drag cabarets, although the “la-de-da boys,” as the cross-dressing performers were called, were largely left alone by the authorities. After all, the police were busy with the female prostitutes drugging and robbing men at saloons.

“Things were unchecked back then,” said Silverman, adding that corrupt Police Commissioner John McKane encouraged the vice. “He raked profits from the saloons and the whorehouses,” Silverman said. When a journalist called McKane out on the area’s depravity, the Tammany Hall-backed politico replied: “This ain’t no Sunday school.”

That didn’t stop the city’s well-heeled set from hotfooting it over to Brooklyn. Gilded Age tycoon “Diamond Jim” Brady would spend weeks at Coney Island’s hoity-toity Manhattan Beach Hotel — a restricted property that barred Jews and other minorities — “devouring breakfasts of eggs, bread, muffins, grits, pancakes, steaks, chops, fried potatoes and pitchers of orange juice.” That is, when he wasn’t betting on horses at Brighton Beach or night-swimming with his paramour, actress Lillian Russell.

“It was shocking,” said Silverman of the co-ed bathing at the Manhattan Beach Hotel, its most sensational attraction.

Always seeking new thrills, even the most vice-ridden visitors went wild for Thompson’s wholesome Switchback Railway. Coney’s first roller coaster — a bench, facing sideways, traveling from one tower to another — not only went the then-thrilling speed of 6 miles per hour, it allowed riders to get close to the opposite sex.

“Their hips rubbed up against each other, and the man had to grab the woman or maybe vice versa,” Silverman explained.

Soon there were dozens of rides — and eventually whole enclosed compounds full of them, including the illuminated Luna Park (the Disneyland of its time) and the ostentatious Dreamland (which burned down in 1911).

The most popular was Steeplechase Park, which opened in 1897 and upped Switchback’s sexual frisson: Its marquee ride was a mechanical racehorse track that disembarked at the Blowhole Theater, a dark maze ending in a wind tunnel that would blow women’s skirts up.
“Nobody saw ladies’ undergarments [intentionally] in those days, but this place put them on display,” said Silverman.
Other “rides” weren’t rides at all, like the attraction California Bats — a treasure hunt that led to a box full of broken bricks. But customers didn’t feel ripped off.

“They would laugh,” said Silverman. “It was all about adults shedding inhibitions, and it really introduced the notion of finding the child within us all.

“Remember, this was before people had cars or movies,” he added. “There were no stories to sweep us away and take us into different worlds. If you wanted to be swept into a different world, go to Coney Island.”

And that’s still true. Other parks may have bigger, higher, faster roller coasters or fancier hotels or more immaculate beaches. But Coney Island was the first, and it retains its ragtag, unpretentious and childlike sense of fun.

As Silverman put it: “You take the subway and see all the bright colors and things revolving and moving and, well, it stirs the heart to see.”


Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


9-year-old genius to graduate university




Laurent Simons

(CNN) – A child prodigy from Belgium is on course to gain a bachelor’s degree at the tender age of 9.

Laurent Simons is studying electrical engineering at the Eindhoven University of Technology (TUE) — a tough course even for students of an average graduate age.

Described by staff as “simply extraordinary,” Laurent is on course to finish his degree in December.

He then plans to embark on a PhD program in electrical engineering while also studying for a medicine degree, his father told CNN.

His parents, Lydia and Alexander Simons, said they thought Laurent’s grandparents were exaggerating when they said he had a gift, but his teachers soon concurred.

“They noticed something very special about Laurent,” said Lydia.

Laurent was given test after test as teachers tried to work out the extent of his talents. “They told us he is like a sponge,” said Alexander.

While Laurent comes from a family of doctors, his parents have so far not received any explanation as to why their child prodigy is capable of learning so quickly.

But Lydia has her own theory.

“I ate a lot of fish during the pregnancy,” she joked.

The TUE has allowed Laurent to complete his course faster than other students.

“That is not unusual,” said Sjoerd Hulshof, education director of the TUE bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, in a statement.

“Special students that have good reasons for doing so can arrange an adjusted schedule. In much the same way we help students who participate in top sport.”

Hulshof said Laurent is “simply extraordinary” and praised the youngster.

“Laurent is the fastest student we have ever had here,” he said. “Not only is he hyper intelligent but also a very sympathetic boy.”

Laurent told CNN his favorite subject is electrical engineering and he’s also “going to study a bit of medicine.”

His progress has not gone unnoticed and he is already being sought out by prestigious universities around the world, although Laurent’s family wouldn’t be drawn on naming which of them he is considering for his PhD.

“The absorption of information is no problem for Laurent,” said his father.

“I think the focus will be on research and applying the knowledge to discover new things.”

While Laurent is evidently able to learn faster than most, his parents are being careful to let him enjoy himself too.

“We don’t want him to get too serious. He does whatever he likes,” said Alexander. “We need to find a balance between being a child and his talents.”

Laurent said he enjoys playing with his dog Sammy and playing on his phone, like many young people.

However, unlike most 9-year-olds, he has already worked out what he wants to do with his life: develop artificial organs.

In the meantime, Laurent has to finish his bachelor’s degree and choose which academic institution will play host to the next stage in his remarkable journey.

Before that, he plans on taking a vacation to Japan for an undoubtedly well-deserved break.

Continue Reading


New award to honor arts and activism named after Lena Horne




Lena Horne

Continue Reading


Gang members slam BMW into rival and his 8-year-old son in Harlem




Gang members slam BMW into rival and his 8-year-old son in Harlem

Two gangbangers aimed their BMW like a missile at a father and his 8-year-old son on a Harlem sidewalk in a horrifying incident captured by video distributed by police Thursday.

The BMW — driven by a man police believe is a member of the Gorilla Stone Bloods Gang — was zeroed in on the father, a rival gang member, said cops.

Around 3:45 p.m. Nov. 6, the boy and his father were walking on W. 112th St. by Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. when the BMW jumped the sidewalk and slammed into them both, said cops.

Father and son were both knocked through a gate.

The BMW driver then backed up — and its driver and passenger, also believed to be a gang member, jumped out of the car and ran toward the father and the son.

One of the attackers slashed the father, identified by sources as 32-year-old Brian McIntosh, who’s served prison time for robbery and bail jumping.

McIntosh and his son went to Harlem Hospital. Miraculously, the boy escaped serious harm.

McIntosh was so adamant about refusing to help police catch his attackers that the young boy’s mother had to file a police report alleging he was the victim of a crime, police sources said.

Cops released video of the attack, and ask anyone with information about the suspects to call Crime Stoppers at (800) 577-TIPS.


Continue Reading