Nostalgia. Let’s admit it: at this point in a baby boomer’s life, there’s a lot of it. Especially for Joe Nolan, who lives today in Hohokus, New Jersey, but was born in Brooklyn, and never quite lost his connection to Brooklyn’s star attraction, Coney Island. That’s what he writes about for BoomerCafé: “Can I Ride Forever?”
As a child I lived with my family in Brooklyn, and we took the subway to Coney Island a few times. It was the biggest and most wondrous place I had ever seen. To my inexperienced, five-year-old eyes, the beach went on forever and was so packed with people, I would have believed that everyone in New York was there.
Built long before places like Disneyland, Coney Island was considered the world’s center for seaside entertainment. The streets that ran to the Boardwalk were lined with a hodgepodge of amusements and attractions run by independent operators. There were a couple of larger “parks” near Coney Island that also offered rides, games, and food.
The most famous, Steeplechase, was named after a ride where you sat on a wooden horse that ran around the building on an outdoor track. There was a leather belt that was supposed to hold you on, but it seemed to me that if you fell off, you would probably be run over by the other horses, or get dragged across the ground until you were a broken, rumpled mess. This ride and many others would be shut down in today’s litigious society — and it’s a good thing because they were unbelievably dangerous.
The Coney Island of today is barely a shadow of its former self. Steeplechase itself is gone. A minor league baseball stadium stands where Steeplechase once was, and there are some pretty big empty lots abutting the Boardwalk, for which there’s talk of development. There is one place with a bunch of rides that look like fun, but most of the attractions that used to line the streets are gone. Only the famous Cyclone Roller Coaster is still operating, and I decided I’d better take a ride on it before it shuts down, too.
So when I went back to visit Coney Island and watch the Polar Bear Club take their annual New Year’s dip, I resolved to return again and ride the Cyclone. It wasn’t my first ride. It was only the first after many, many years. After that, I made a mini-documentary about my first ride on that famous coaster.