Jews in Coney Island: A History

From the fashionable to the freak-show.

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Sodom by the sea, the Electric City, the Nickel Empire, the poor people’s paradise…

Coney Island is a peninsula, formerly an island, in southernmost Brooklyn, New York City with a beach on the Atlantic Ocean. For hundreds of years, Coney Island has been a place of tremendous popular pleasure as well the site of inglorious land disputes. As early as 1800, a newspaper account shows the area being used for recreational bathing. Its first hotel opened in 1829. Centuries before, Canarsie Indian villagers used the island for catching its plentiful fish and collecting shells for wampum–traditional, sacred shell beads, later used as forms of currency. Wampum of a different kind motivated real estate developments and land grabs for the past 150 years, as member of other “tribes” enjoyed the beauty–both natural and manufactured–of Coney Island.  

famous cyclone coney island

The famous Cyclone Rollercoaster

 

 

Jews have played a notable part in the history of Coney Island’s development since the late 19th century and up to the present.

Summer in the City

In the 1870s, Coney Island’s newly-developing Manhattan Beach was a destination for wealthy, fashionable vacationers, among them affluent Jews. However, August Corbin, developer of the opulent Manhattan Beach Hotel, publicly declared in 1879 that he did not wish to welcome Jews [“Israelites”], claiming that their “uncouth manners” were distasteful to gentile patrons.

Even though laws did not exist to prohibit segregation such as this, a public brouhaha erupted. The exclusion of Jews was short-lived, but many Jews, like other ethnic groups, tended to congregate informally in certain sections of Coney Island.

Inspired by the national expositions of the late 1800s and their displayed wonders of technology, Coney Island by 1900 featured, alongside sea-bathing and raucous midway areas, three amusement parks: Steeplechase, Luna Park, and Dreamland. Their lavish rides, fantasy landscapes, and honky-tonk carnival atmosphere transformed the American amusement industry.

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Dr. Ilana Abramovitch was formerly the manager of curriculum at the Museum of Jewish Heritage--A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. She is a writer, ethnographer, educator and co-editor of Jews of Brooklyn (Brandeis University Press, 2002).

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