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Poor Man’s Paradise

Marjorie Kondrack

SUMMERTIME HOLDS great memories for me. I’m reminded of my upbringing in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn. We were average folks living in a modest house. But our home was just outside a private gated community called Sea Gate, at the westernmost point of the island. It was formerly called Norton’s Point.

There, you could find mansions from the Gilded Age, some designed by the noted architect Stanford White. It was also home to the famous opera singer Beverly Sills. When I visited a school friend’s home in the community, it was the first time I saw an actual real-life maid in a uniform—and not just the ones I’d seen in movies.

At every opportunity, weather permitting, Mom took me to the beach. I loved people watching and, as a quiet little girl, I was an unnoticed spectator. The ocean was restful, too. Somehow, being near water is sort of magical. It has a calming, peaceful, soothing effect on the senses, and we were mesmerized by the sound of the ocean and by the ebb and flow of the waves, the sea breezes and the smell of salt air.

Some days, Mom’s errands brought us near the boardwalk. The big attraction for me was the B&B Carousell. I always chose the horse who, I imagined, looked like a noble warrior horse—eyes flaring, head held high, the fearless look of a conqueror. I had a far-ranging imagination. Every time the carousel completed a round, Mom was there, waving to me.

We didn’t often go to the amusements area on the other side of the Island. The iconic Parachute Jump ride terrified me. Ditto the famous Cyclone rollercoaster ride. The Wonder Wheel looked a little safer and more my speed, but I never liked heights. I was too young to go on most of the rides. A block from the boardwalk, the carnival barkers bombastically urged passersby to witness amazing, never-before-imagined sights—sword swallowers, tattooed ladies and human oddities, to name a few, all promoted by colorful posters, garish but fascinating.

Sometimes, we would stop at the Nathan’s Famous hot dog stand. When you bit into those hot dogs, there was a satisfying crunch and snap. But to this day, I still think the frozen custard ice cream cone is the best treat ever.

My favorite fun place was Steeplechase Park. A large enclosed amusement park, you could have all-day entertainment by buying a ticket for 70 cents, which entitled you to nine rides. There were also the monkeyshines of the clowns, with a small theater area where you could sit and watch their antics. But best of all was the horse race ride where people rode on a mechanical horse side by side, two by two, pulled by cables along a 1,000-foot track, simulating a horse race.

Later, we moved to a community called Sheepshead Bay, east of Coney Island. It was quieter and more subdued. The neighborhood had the charm of a fishing village—at least back then. There were lots of fishing boats, party boats, sail boats and a unique enclosed bay area with a footbridge that spanned the bay to the opposite side. People would go there to fish, cross to the other side or just idly watch the daily activity. And for $2 you could take a roundtrip boat ride to Breezy Point, a private community in Queens, known as the Irish Riviera, to enjoy the summer sea breezes and beautiful beaches.

The Bay was an idyllic setting. In the summer, it would come alive with vendors and artists who set up around the perimeter. The sun always seemed to be shining in Sheepshead Bay. The shops and subway station were more convenient, and somehow the winters didn’t seem quite as desolate because of the greater population of year-round residents. But I missed the boardwalk and, of course, the carousel.

We moved from Brooklyn in 1963. America’s largest suspension bridge, the Verrazzano-Narrows, was just nearing completion. By the late 1960s and 1970s, the Coney Island area and parks began a great decline. Sheepshead Bay fared a lot better, but most of the modest houses were torn down to make way for McMansions and newer homes. It’s now overcrowded but still considered one of the nicer places to live in New York City.

I’ve never been to Paris or Prague, Timbuktu or Tokyo, but I consider having lived in Brooklyn gave me broad exposure to various cultures, people of diverse backgrounds, and a good understanding of human nature and all of its elements. And I lived there during the best of times.

Marjorie Kondrack loves music, dancing and the arts, and is a former amateur ice dancer accredited by the United States Figure Skating Association. In retirement, she worked for eight years as a tax preparer for the IRS’s VITA and TCE programs. Check out Marjorie’s earlier articles.

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