Summer Retreats: New York Style


“By the way, old chap, what do you people do in New York when summer comes?”

“We get out,” Miss De Peyster broke in . . . “New York is simply deserted in summer. There is not a soul in town.”
Rupert Hughes, The Real New York (1905).

Summer picnic in the city, 1919
There is nothing more delightful than a summer picnic. But for many city-dwellers, fleeing the city in the summer months is a goal to be pursued as doggedly as any other. Anything to avoid the drama of summer’s heat simmering on the streets; Anything to avoid a Dog Day Afternoon.
Once upon a time, fleeing the city meant something quite different than it does today.


Greenwich: Just north of the “foul” city

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, those seeking more pleasant pastoral sites might simply venture north on the island of Manhattan to Greenwich (Village). The area was seen as “the most attractive portion of New York. It has the positive individuality, the age, much of the picturesqueness, of that fascinating region of which the centre is Chatham Square; yet it is agreeably free from the foul odors and the foul humanity which make expeditions in the vicinity of Chatham Square, while abstractly delightful, so stingingly distressing to one’s nose and soul. ” Thomas Allibone Janvier, In Old New York (1894).

Or,  later (in the 1830s) one might venture to “Niblo’s Garden,” at the corner of Broadway and Prince. This was a spot viewed as one of “the most fashionable places of resort in the city, during the summer months. It has been laid out with great taste, and when open to the public, is handsomely lighted, and decorated with paintings, mirrors, & c. The walks are bordered with shrubbery and flowers in great variety. Fire works are occasionally exhibited; and in the saloon, which is a very tasteful and airy building, theatrical and musical entertainments are given.” New York As It Is (1837).

Niblo’s Garden, for city-bound, pleasure seekers
After the American Civil War, “the traditions of Saratoga and Newport were formed, and the city was nearly deserted in the summer by large numbers of the inhabitants,” according to Clarence Cook. “No person, who aspired to any rank in the fashionable world, was ever known to be in the city in July or August, and ‘not at home’ if it did not mean ‘in Europe,’ meant  ‘at a fashionable watering-place.’ ” A Description of the New York Central Park (1869).

But what about the “unfashionable people?”

Summer in the park

Well, they too had their summer spots; The Central Park being a very attractive location within the city; but they also had their own out-of-town watering-places, and none was more popular than Coney Island, which, owing to the advances in transportation in the 1870s and 1880s, attracted huge crowds by the turn of the 20th century.

“For several years prior to 1874,” Coney Island was “but little patronized by the better classes, owing to the difficulty of reaching it, and the reputation for disorder which it obtained through various causes.” In 1874 a railroad line from Brooklyn to West Brighton Beach was erected, with a large pavilion and restaurant erected at its terminus.

Soon other means of transportation were constructed and getting to the four-mile stretch of shoreline on the Atlantic Ocean, with its several beaches (Brighton, Manhattan, et al) was only an hour’s trip.

Coney Island’s massive Manhattan Hotel was completed in 1877

But prior to the height of Coney Island’s popularity, city dwellers had to be instructed and enticed to venture to the sea.

Coney Island: Where the “even-tempered breezes” blow

In the 1887 The Tourists Companion and Guide to Coney Island, Fort Hamilton, Bath Beach, Sheepshead Bay, Rockaway Beach and Far Rockaway potential visitors were beckoned to these seaside sites through near poetic description:

Luna Park,”the freshness of a new world.”

“When the days grow hotter inland; when the dust of July begins to settle in the streets of the great city, and the nights become more and more insufferable, here along the coast, the even-tempered breezes charm away the heat. The pure salt breath of the ocean as it greets you is a tonic invitation to resist depression and decay. The resistless, eternal splash of the waves—the deep blue waves—suggest power with ease and beauty, as each scattered drop is gathered and dashed again and again at your feet. Your prompted energies quicken and revive; you realize to the full, intensities of expression. You are delighted with the briskness of life; the exhilarating air; the marked sense of health; the gay colors which are so agreeable in the cool shadows of the afternoon; – the faint sound of music and the sea; the laughter of children —all this, and more, come to you with the freshness of a new world. For this you have forsaken a sunburnt city; baked and dusty sidewalks; languid streets; a marked sense of physical depression; people with fever in their faces and dejection in their walk; where there is no sound of music, except it be the monotonous strains of a German band before a beer saloon. Who would not exchange such a metropolis for the sea?” 

The answer was a resounding “yes,” and by the early 1900s, even “proper” young ladies might venture out to Coney Island, as seen in a 1905 film. 

Boarding School Girls at Coney Island, 1905

In the 1906 edition of A Pocket Guide to New York, Coney Island was described as “a famous pleasure resort for people of all classes. About 3 miles of bathing beach, bordered with bathing-pavilions, sea-shore restaurants, music and dancing halls, vaudeville theatres, games, and every kind of show. ‘Luna Park’ and ‘Dreamland’ are world-famed spectacles, where diverse entertainments of much merit are provided” (181).

These entertainments included: Horse-racing, minstrelsy, dancing, necromancy, “merry-go-rounds,” “Aunt Sally,” weighing machines, lung testers, strength testers, swings, photograph tents, dime museums and side shows, acrobatic feats, pistol and rifle shooting, and donkey and pony riding on the beach.

The Elephant Bazaar & Hotel (destroyed by fire in 1896)

Coney Island was known for its massive hotels, including the elephant (hotel!) which could be seen from afar, especially from sea-faring vessels. It was also known for its massive restaurants (some feeding up to 30,000 diners per day) which offered table d’hote fare that included clams, beer, and host of other treats from sandwiches to frankfurters. In 1885, the “Coney Island Refresher” was introduced, a drink made of “cognac, a dash of peach brandy, or Noyeau [an almond flavored liquer].” New Guide for the Hotel, Bar, Restaurant (1886).  

On July 17, 1881, Englishman Henry Spencer Ashbee ventured to Coney Island for the day to see what all the hub bub was about. His book, A Sunday at Coney Island (1882), is an account of his visit to the place he determined to be “a reproduction in miniature of the United States, an epitome in fact of the great country—as active, as pushing, as materialistic, as unartistic. To New York one goes for business, to Coney Island for pleasure; the difference is in the name only, the equivalent for the dollar is the same in both places.”

Smiles, Please! Posing For Fun at Luna Park

By the latter part of the 20th century, Coney Island was no longer what had been at the height of its popularity. It was a place that existed as a kind of “dreamland” of America’s past. It was a place where we imagined somehow that we all grew up, as Woody Allen’s character asserts in Annie Hall.

Its memory is now an imagined escape from the real city of New York; although fleeing the city still takes residents to its shores, where the even-tempered breezes blow.

Hannah’s summer retreat: A Post Industrial Picnic



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