It is a place for families and the funky. A destination for the rich and the regular folks. A spot that has been seedy yet always full of marvels.
Coney Island has been an escape for New Yorkers since about the 1830s and for photographer Harvey Stein, who has been taking images of the Brooklyn neighborhood for decades, the draw is clear.
‘It’s the people that attract me,’ Stein told DailyMail.com. ‘The environment’s always changing. It’s always inviting. There’s always something new there.’
Stein has been photographing its beach and boardwalk, rides and games, neighborhood characters and tourists since 1970. He has published two books on Coney Island with a third on the way, which was delayed due the pandemic.
‘It used to be dangerous when I started there,’ he recalled, adding that while it has gentrified and is more family friendly, ‘it will never be Disneyland.’
There’s just something about Coney Island. The beach spot in Brooklyn started attracting vacationers in the 1830s and soon luxury hotels were built in the 1870s and ’80s. Street photographer Harvey Stein pointed out that once the subway was built, anyone could go there. It was popular place until after World War II, when people had cars and more choice for leisure activities, such as TV and movies, during the 1950s and ’60s. For many, it lost its allure, Stein said. But not for him. Stein started photographing Coney Island in 1970 and hasn’t stopped. Above, Legs in Photo Booth, 1974. He told DailyMail.com that he didn’t want to reveal anything more than her legs
Stein grew up in Pittsburgh, attended Carnegie Mellon University and graduated with a degree in metallurgy engineering. While he didn’t particularly like the field, he eventually got a job at Bethlehem Steel. To pay for college, he had signed up for the army and was sent to Germany for about 20 months. Above, The Hug, Closed Eyes and Smile, 1982, which Stein said is probably one of the most famous pictures of his collection. ‘He’s so full of life.’ Stein pointed out the Parachute Jump in the background. Built for the 1939 World Fair, it was moved to Coney Island and opened in 1941, but was closed by the 1960s. It languished for years before it was landmarked in the late 1980s and has been restored a few times
The Thunderbolt opened on Coney Island in 1925. The wooden roller coaster, seen above on the right, was closed in the early 1980s but left standing. ‘They didn’t have the money to tear it down,’ Stein told DailyMail.com. Above, three kids and one woman in an image called Looking at the Thunderbolt, 1990. ‘I love this picture because it’s ambiguous,’ he said. After the ride was demolished, it was an empty lot for about 10 years, according to Stein. There is now a minor league baseball stadium at the site. Stein noted that there once was a house underneath the roller coaster where the owner lived in at one point
While in Germany serving in the US army, Stein picked up a camera. The base had a darkroom and he learned how to develop what he shot. He came to New York City to attend graduate school with the thought that he might go back to Europe. But instead he stayed and has mostly resided on the Upper West Side. Stein has photographed the Polar Bear Club and it annual swim on New Year’s Day for years. Above, the Polar Bear Club, 1981. Stein said he didn’t pose them – they just happened to be standing like that. ‘I love the way they are composed. This was a gift.’ There was a time where the boardwalk had space underneath it but the city has since filled it in. At one point, the Polar Bears had their clubhouse there
While there is no consensus as to how Coney Island got its name, what is clear is that by around the 1830s, vacationers flocked to its beach. Luxury hotels sprouted up in the 1870s and ’80s and for a time, it was a playground for the rich.
On June 16, 1884, the country’s first roller coaster – the Gravity Switchback Railway – was unveiled, according to the current amusement park operator’s website.
After the subway was built, anyone could go to Coney Island, Stein explained. The beach spot was popular until after World War II, when people started buying cars and had more choices for leisure activities, such as TV and movies, during the 1950s and ’60s.
‘It lost its allure,’ he said, adding that rides weren’t maintained. ‘It went downhill.’
Stein, who grew up in Pittsburgh, recalled he went to Coney Island as a teen sometime in the late 1950s. He attended Carnegie Mellon University and graduated with a degree in metallurgy engineering. While he didn’t particularly like the field, he continued in it and got a job at Bethlehem Steel. To pay for college, he had signed up for the army and was then sent to Germany for about 20 months to serve.
‘I picked up a camera in Germany,’ he recalled. ‘I started teaching myself.’
In the 1960s, the base had a darkroom and Stein was able to develop his images. He fell in love with photography.
Back in the United States, Stein went to graduate school at Columbia University with the thought that he would soon be in Europe again. Instead, he stayed in New York City and took a class with Ben Fernandez, a well-known photographer, while working a full-time job. Fernandez became a mentor, advised him to buy a Leica and also told him to go Coney Island to shoot. It was 1970.
‘I’ve been photographing at Coney Island ever since,’ he said. ‘This year will be my 50th year photographing there.’
When he first started taking images in 1970, Coney Island was not crowded and things were falling into disrepair: it was full of peeling paint and the boardwalk had holes. Nor was it safe. ‘There were gangs,’ he recalled.
There was a period of time in which people could go underneath the boardwalk and people used the space to take drugs and have sex, Stein said.
In the 1970s, New York City was in the throes of a financial crisis, mired in debt and almost declared bankruptcy. Stein pointed out that Coney Island’s fortunes are tied to the city’s health. ‘When the city goes bad, Coney Island goes bad.’
Coney Island was a dangerous place in the 1970s and there were gangs and drugs, Stein said. Above, Amusement Rider, 1990. Stein told DailyMail.com that he was drawn to the mural, which was painted on the side of some sort of scary ride. There was a lot of nudity at one point. ‘I wanted to show the seediness,’ he explained. ‘All of that is gone – they wouldn’t do that anymore.’ Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, barbwire, fences and guard dogs were used to keep people out. Many rides were closed and then left standing
The Coney Island Polar Bear Club has been swimming in the Atlantic Ocean during the winter since it was founded in 1903. Stein has been regularly photographing the club’s annual swim on January 1. ‘I thought everyone is running in… but the kid is running toward us,’ he said of the above image, New Year’s Day Run into Ocean, 2009. Stein goes to Coney Island in the winter to take pictures to provide a complete portrait of the place. ‘I like the isolation there – the quietness of the winter.’ While the Polar Bear members and others jump into the ocean in bathing suits, Stein noted that he and other visitors are wearing winter coats
There have been many rides and operators during Coney Island’s history. Some iconic rides such as the Wonder Wheel, which turns 100 this year, have been landmarked and maintained. In May 2010, Central Amusement International Inc unveiled Luna Park in Coney Island that had 19 new rides. The company that manages and operates the amusement park is owned by the Zamperla family, according to its website. Above, one of those new rides in an image called The Brooklyn Flyer at Luna Park, 2010. Stein said he wanted to capture the ride when every seat was filled. To the left, is part of a ride called the Astro Tower
After Stein finished graduate school, he started working a full-time job. But he also took a class with Ben Fernandez, a well-known photographer. Fernandez became a mentor, advised him to buy a Leica and also told him to go Coney Island to shoot. It was 1970. When he first started taking images, Coney Island was not crowded and things were falling into disrepair: it was full of peeling paint and the boardwalk had holes. Above, The Pier from the Beach, 1970. Stein said that it was a wooden pier during that decade and that now it has been rebuilt and reinforced
Stein looked to show the spot’s seediness in the 1980s and pointed to one of his images – Amusement Rider, 1990 – that shows a mural of a half-naked woman on the side of a ride. There was a lot of nudity at one point. ‘All of that is gone – they wouldn’t do that anymore,’ he said.
But also in late 1980s, the city landmarked many of Coney Island’s iconic rides, like the Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone, a wooden roller coaster. Throughout the 1980s and the 1990s, barbwire, fences and guard dogs were used to keep people out. Many rides were closed and then left standing.
By the 2000s, a developer was planning a hotel resort, which lead to a backlash from the community. The city ended up buying back some of the land from the developer.
In May 2010, Central Amusement International Inc unveiled Luna Park in Coney Island that had 19 new rides. The company that manages and operates the amusement park is owned by the Zamperla family, according to its website.
Late last year, longtime shops on the boardwalk, like Ruby’s Bar and Grill, were fearful that their rent would be raised so high that they would have to shutter, the Brooklyn Paper reported. Then the pandemic hit and the city shut down in March. Businesses such as the Wonder Wheel, which had planned celebrations for its 100th anniversary, are still closed.
Stein, who has shot Coney Island in the winter and the Polar Bear Club swim on the first day of the year, said that his upcoming book wouldn’t be complete without images during the pandemic. He went to Coney Island with a friend in July.
‘It lacked its typical energy,’ he said. ‘It was like half what it usually is. Understandably, it wasn’t the same – the music, the noise.’
Stein has published two books on the Brooklyn neighborhood: Coney Island, which was came out in 1998, and Coney Island 40 years, which came out in 2011. His third book, Coney Island People: 50 years, is slated for early 2022. It got pushed back because of the coronavirus pandemic. A teacher at the International Center of Photography, Stein has also bought many classes to Coney Island.
‘I didn’t plan it,’ he said of his many decades photographing Coney Island. ‘It’s like a home away from home.’
‘It’s the people that attract me,’ Stein told DailyMail.com about Coney Island. ‘The environment’s always changing. It’s always inviting. There’s always something new there.’ Above, an image called Head Stand and Walkers, 1977. Stein said that the Polar Bear Club was going out for a swim during winter. One man asked Stein if he should do a handstand and then did one. Even though it was a sunny day, Stein pointed out that it was winter and cold. He said of the above image: ‘It looks like to me it could be the surface of the moon’
The Wonder Wheel, seen left, is an symbol of Coney Island and New York City. Built in 1920, the ride was originally called the Dip-the-Dip, according to the current operator’s website. It turns 100 this year but celebrations have been postponed because of the pandemic and the ride is currently closed. Above, an image titled Black Hooded Man, 2009. Stein said he shot the above picture quickly and he captured a serendipitous moment. ‘Sometimes you get happy accidents,’ he told DailyMail.com. ‘I’ve never done a photograph quite like this’
Stein has been photographing New York City, including Midtown Manhattan and Harlem, for years. He said: ‘My approach on the street is to engage my subject.’ He explained that he tries to be about three to four feet away from his subject, which is difficult to do during the pandemic. Above, Happy New Year Man, 2010. The man pictured was about to participate in the annual Polar Bear Club swim. ‘A person like this wants attention,’ he said. And so Stein took his picture
Stein told DailyMail.com that he didn’t plan to spend almost five decades taking pictures of Coney Island. ‘It’s like a home away from home.’ Stein has published two books on the Brooklyn neighborhood: Coney Island, which was came out in 1998, and Coney Island 40 years, which came out in 2011. His third book, Coney Island People: 50 years, is slated for early 2022. Above, an image titled View from the Wonder Wheel, 2007. ‘I wanted to get a scene from up high’