Boarding House Blues

Sodom or Poor Man's Paradise?

1 July 2024

Coney Island, a three-mile peninsula off Brooklyn, NY, has always been both famous and infamous — which accounts for its early nickname “Sodom by the Sea.”

Until the turn of the century, Coney Island was an island. In the early 20th century, thanks to a great deal of landfill, it became "attached." The peninsula comprises Coney Island proper, Brighton Beach (aka Little Odessa), and Manhattan Beach.

By the 1940s it had become a seaside resort known for good fishing and swimming. Until the turn of the century, Coney Island was a playground for the rich and famous, who came to see the horse races in nearby Sheepshead Bay and enjoy the delights of the oceanfront hotels; but their incoming ferries and carriages were greeted by prostitutes and gamblers. However, by the 1920s, four BMT subway lines to Coney Island were completed and the working classes could escape from the constricting heat of the inner city. In 1920, over a million after the subway opened. That's when the area garnered its second soubriquet: “Nickel Empire”, where for a nickel, you could get a hot dog or a knish (deep-fried, baked potato cake), or ride on any of the thrilling amusements. However, the more passive seaside pursuits of fishing, swimming, and beach lounging were always overshadowed by the pervasive razzle-dazzle and flim-flam.

Coney Island was home to several of the best-known amusement parks in the world. There was Steeplechase Park, Luna Park and Dreamland.

Luna Park was the largest and had the most to offer, with an innovative mix of rides and shows. Dreamland offered shows and scenic boat rides within buildings, as well as a few thrill rides: Chutes, Aerial Circle Swing, L.A. Thompson Scenic Railroad, and Coasting Through Switzerland. Most of Steeplechase's attractions were fun houses.

Carousels and Ferris wheels were popular attractions. While roller coasters existed in the early days of Coney Island, it wasn't until the mid-20s that they flourished with new designs demanded by the area's tiny lots, some as narrow as 50 feet. Californian Fred Church designed a revolutionary ride with a five-foot overhang. The ride was 71 feet high and cost $250,000 in 1926 (equivalent to $4.4 million today). Happily, it earned $300/hour, so it paid for itself after only 833 hours (approximately 52 weekends).

So, which of its historical nicknames do you think fits it best: “Nickel Empire,” “America's Playground,” “Sodom By the Sea,” “Electric Eden,” or “Poor Man's Paradise”?

Fun Fact: Legend has it that Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest began in Coney Island on July 4, 1916, when four immigrants gathered at the very first Nathan’s Famous hot dog stand to determine which of them was the most patriotic by eating the most hot dogs. The rest is legend. 2023's winner polished off 73 dogs in the allotted 10 minutes.

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