Journalist and author Julian Ralph (1853–1903) was born in New York City and is best known for his work as a reporter for the New York Sun from 1875 to 1895. In 1893, Ralph covered the trial of the infamous Lizzie Borden, writing a series of articles that provided a compassionate portrayal of the defendant as an isolated and dispossessed woman. In “Coney Island,” published in Scribner’s in July 1896, he compares Coney Island to a great comedian who cheers and lightens the hearts of many. Ralph emphasizes that Coney is different from “the great watering-places” of Europe because it is not primarily a place where visitors come from afar to spend days or weeks at a time, but is “purely and wholly an excursion resort.” Coney attracts the great majority of its customers from New York City, and most visit just for the day. Ralph considers it a blessing that people can travel to Coney “in an hour at the cost of a quarter of a dollar” and return “home at a reasonable time.”
now and then, upon the death of a great comedian, we are reminded of the thousands of lives he has cheered and hearts he has lightened. Suppose, when Coney Island was absorbed by the city of Brooklyn, a year or two ago, that its future as a pleasure resort had been threatened. What sermons the chroniclers of the press and of history might have preached upon the good it had wrought—not to mere thousands, and not in the simple, unplanned ways in which other resorts have scattered their benefits, but in unique ways, by means better and more varied than the masses knew of or enjoyed anywhere else on the continent. For Coney Island was not only the pioneer with modern improvements for giving the crowds a good time: it still remains sui generis, enthroned, the king of all the popular resorts of America.
The drama which it daily provides for the delight of its patrons, is declared to freshen the souls of so many millions annually that in order to comprehend the bulk of the multitude we must fancy gathered together all (p.78) the inhabitants of London, all the people of New York, every soul in Chicago, and every man, woman, and child in Brooklyn. And even then, we would be assuming that the largest boasts of those cities were truths, for one year’s crowd on Coney Island was composed of eight million souls!
No painter has perpetuated its bewildering scenes, and no poet has sought to immortalize its wonders. It is doubtful whether the foreign world—the “other barbarians” as the Chinese call the others—has heard of the place; certainly the Atlantic Garden, in the Bowery, is tenfold farther and better known. And yet eight millions of fares were paid by travellers to it in a year—by travellers who journeyed only the time that a cigar lasts. It no more wants or depends upon better fame than grass needs painting, or fresh air needs a rhymer. It is New York’s resort almost exclusively; our homoeopathic sanitarium, our sun-bath and ice-box combined, our extra lung, our private, gigantic fan. All our cities, except Chicago, have such places, and we are content that they should. Boston may keep little Nantasket; Philadelphia may continue to reach across New Jersey for her beaches; New Orleans is welcome to all of Lake Pontchartrain, and San Francisco may monopolize her opera-glass spectacle of the Seal Rocks, if she pleases. We do not want their resorts or need their patronage. In this we are as narrow and provincial as every stranger delights in saying that New Yorkers are in all things. Certainly, New York and Coney Island are sufficient to each other—whether they are sufficient in themselves or not. […]
This glance at Coney Island shows us that while it has some of the main features of the great watering-places of Europe, it is yet different from all of them in being purely and wholly an excursion resort. It is true that the Oriental Hotel at Manhattan Beach is the summer home of hundreds, but the secret of that hotel’s success and the charm of it is, that it is not at Coney Island at all, nor even at Manhattan Beach, as its proprietors say, but is, of and by itself, cut off from all the neighborhood, with its own beach and, I was going to say, its own ocean. Its tenants see the tip-ends of the fireworks and they hear the tooting of the railway locomotives, but these things are to them, like seeing Saturn and hearing the distant guns of a man-of-war in New York Harbor. What is peculiar to Coney Island is that no one lives there. It embraces practically no cottage settlement—none at all, except a few homes of those who are in business there—and from one (p.79) point of view, all its tenements, halls, hotels, and houses are temporary, like its delights, all being wooden, however costly some may be. Other resorts offer change and rest, but Coney Island offers only change. A reporter having to announce the formal opening of one of the beaches there, put the case of Coney Island in a verbal nutshell in this brief sentence, one day: “Manhattan Beach has opened, and now New Yorkers have a place by the seaside where they may go for dinner, spend an evening enjoyably, and get home at a reasonable time.”
That is true, and since that is all Coney Island is for, we understand why it is peculiar among the really crowded resorts in the absence of summer costumes among its votaries. What we call the typical “summer girl” is seen there, now and then, in sailor hat and thin white gown, but her champion in white flannels, yachting cap, and tennis shoes never, perhaps, set foot on this glistening strand. In his place we see the costumes of Broadway and the Stock Exchange, of Tompkins Square and Central Park. On summer Saturdays the clerks and merchants and the professional men who are kept in town, take an early luncheon in the city and catch the Bay Ridge boat for the races at Sheepshead Bay, across the creek from the island. Such a crowd, dressed as this is, would look out of place in Saratoga or Narragansett Pier, but on the boat it looks like a tatter torn out of Broadway and when, after the races, it bursts upon the verandas of Brighton and Manhattan Beaches, it fits into the multitude there precisely as if it was of the same web and woof.
Another bit of evidence that Coney Island’s crowds are made up most largely of those who are town-stayed all summer, lies in the color of the crowd’s hands and faces. From the waxen whiteness of the women and girls whose waking hours are spent amid gaslight, to the pinker hue of the men who have leisure to walk to and from luncheon—if not to business—every morning the color of all is the same and only the shades of it differ. How much more admirable, how almost blessed, Coney Island seems in the light of these facts! How grand an acquisition it is for us to possess a beach to which we can go in an hour at the cost of a quarter of a dollar, to get a new environment and have old ocean’s pure tonic breath blow the cobwebs out of our brain—and then, as the chronicler saith, “get home at a reasonable time.” (p.80)