Physical education: Cycling tour to teach Coney’s history

Physical education: Cycling tour to teach Coney’s history
Photo by Elizabeth Graham

The Peoples’ Playground was not always so inclusive.

A bike tour of Coney Island on July 3 promises to give history buffs a glimpse of how Coney Island went from a haven for the wealthy to a landmark public beach — and where it may be headed in the future. More than a history lesson, the two-wheeled tour aims to provide context for current development trends on the peninsula, the guide said.

“The debate over development today is just the latest chapter in an ongoing identity crisis on Coney Island,” said historian and Kensington resident Adam Schwartz. “It’s about who the shore is for.”

Schwartz’s pedal-powered presentation will cover the history of the whole peninsula — and so will the roughly six-mile tour, in which riders will roll from Sea Gate in the west to Manhattan Beach in the east.

The Coney Island peninsula — once a series of barrier islands — has agrarian roots and served as grazing land for sheep until swimming became the thing to do, Schwartz explained.

“People didn’t think about the value of the land until European beach bathing came into fashion in the 19th century,” he said.

After that, developers filled in the salt marsh and quickly erected a seaside getaway for the rich, with hotels that excluded minorities and private bath houses only accessible by those who could pay to get in, Schwartz said.

But a tide of political pressure washed gentried interests away, and laid the groundwork for a public beach and boardwalk accessible to all, he said.

“It became a working man’s paradise,” said Schwartz.

In addition to tracing the island’s entertainment history, and the push and pull over public and private land, Schwartz will talk about waylaid plans to turn the Coney Island Creek into a canal, as well as the key role rail transportation played in the Coney’s ascendancy to a regional recreation destination.

The evening tour will be by bicycle and on foot. Bring your own bike, a helmet, and lights, because the tour will end after dark, Schwartz advised.

Beyond Coney Island bike tour starting at Calvert Vaux Park (2015 Shore Pkwy. between Bay 46th and Bay 48th streets, www.newyorkcityh2o.org) July 3 from 6:30–9 pm. $25.

Reach reporter Max Jaeger at [email protected] or by calling (718) 260-8303. Follow him on Twitter @MJaeger88.