Having a summer birthday (on Monday I turned 31, what what!) in Brooklyn was always the same thing. I would bike to Coney Island, ride The Cyclone (built in 1927! Out of wood!) and then head to Ruby’s Old Tyme Bar and Grill on the Boardwalk for clams, beers and chat. A pretty solid summer tradition. Wish I could say I’d been doing it the last 31 years, but if that were true, then my folks would’ve been pretty worried about a 7 year old drinking beer and riding a roller coaster as a religious rite. I started this delightful tradition just since 2003, when I returned to Brooklyn after college.
For those not in the know, Coney Island invented fun. Really. Starting in the 1830s with oceanside resorts and heading through the turn of the Century, America was stuck in a Victorian era of proper social etiquette. You weren’t supposed to have fun in public, or see other people enjoying themselves. Coney’s 3 major amusement parks changed all that – Dreamland (1904-1911,) Steeplechase Park (1897-1964,) and Luna Park (1903-1944.) All of a sudden, it became en vogue to laugh, scream, twirl, hoot and holler for more, all amongst the clamoring masses.
After Eisenhower’s Interstate Act of 1956, and the ensuing Great White Flight of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, Coney lay in ruins. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the City of New York started to turn things around by buying up parcels of Coney in order to revitalize it. My beloved Cyclone got landmark status in 1988. In visiting Coney every year on July 25th, in addition to taking tour groups down there (including our weekly AYUSA teenagers this summer,) I have a first-hand view on the changing face of Coney Island. The new amusement rides are fine for what they are (fast, cool, expensive) but the real tragedy is in the wholesale eviction of Coney’s boardwalk clam shacks and dive bars. The best of which is Ruby’s.
Started in 1934 by Rubin Jacobs, Ruby’s was voted the 14th sexiest beach bar in the world by Travel Magazine, as well as they serve up a mean plate of clams on the half-shell. In 2009, as part of a reinvention of the dilapidated, derelict, falling-apart amusement park, the City decided not to renew the leases of 7 different food stands on the Boardwalk. All of whom are family-owned and operated, and most of whom had stuck it with Coney through the good, bad, and worst of the times. The Italian-run amusement park operator Zamperla decided that the old time Coney atmosphere wouldnt fit with the new shiny rides and espresso culture being developed on the beach. The “Coney Island 7” as they’re now known, managed to eke out two more years, but at the end of this summer season, there’s a good chance I’ll have to move my birthday tradition elsewhere.
Brooklyn changes. Traditions have to follow suit. Nothing is sacred, and history is history. And Lord knows its not possible to build for the working class anymore. Its just a shame that the city would rather raze a half-dozen family purveyors of working-class culture, in the form of clams, beers and dive bars. I’ll still ride the Cyclone every July 25th. But I’ll take my beer and clam money elsewhere.
By Matt Levy