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How Coney Island became the people's playground

How Coney Island became the people's playground
How Coney Island became the people's playground 06:11

Even if you've never stepped foot in Coney Island, you've felt the influence of Coney Island.

For over 40 years, Dick Zigun has run a Coney Island cultural center, museum, side show, and the annual Mermaid Parade. People call him the "Mayor of Coney Island." He said, "If you're eating cotton candy, if you're eating soft ice cream, if you're riding a rollercoaster … "

"Was that a Coney Island invention?" asked correspondent David Pogue.

"Of course, it's all a Coney Island invention," Zigun said, "and if it wasn't, I'd lie and tell you anyway! Fun began here, is my point."

By the 1870s, rides had begun opening on this stretch of seaside in Brooklyn, New York.  There were restaurants and hotels. It became the people's playground in 1923, said Zigun, when people could get there via the subway for five cents.

A view of Coney Island c. 1910. Library of Congress

Coney Island has been an American fixture ever since. It survived the Great Depression and the Great Recession, the 1918 pandemic and the 2020 pandemic, and even the 1970s, when Coney Island got a reputation for seediness and neglect.

The iconic attractions are still here: The fabled Coney Island boardwalk … The Nathan's hot dogs joint, exactly where it opened in 1916 … and the Cyclone, build in 1927, making it one of oldest wooden rollercoasters in the world.

Pogue had to try it out…

Correspondent David Pogue dares to ride the Cyclone at New York's Coney Island. CBS News

And, of course, the Wonder Wheel. D.J. Vourderis and his family have run this iconic Ferris wheel since 1983, when his grandfather bought it from its inventor's family.

"This is its 101st year," Vourderis said. "Labor of love. A lotta maintenance. My uncle says once you get sand in your shoes, you never leave."

Pogue asked, "Has anyone ever tried to do the math on how many people have ridden that ride?"

"I think it's, like, 40 million at this point," Vourderis said.

"Let's make it 40 million and two."

The Wonder Wheel has had some upgrades, but the fun part hasn't changed in over 100 years: The outer cars just go in a circle, but the colorful inner cars sit on pairs of winding rails, so they spring a little surprise on you: "It's like you're on a roller coaster!" Pogue exclaimed.

The Wonder Wheel, still spinning after 101 years. CBS News

Today, you'd probably go to Coney Island for a trip to the past. But in its early days, you'd go to get a look at the future.

Robin Jaffee Frank is the curator of an exhibition, and the author of a book, about Coney Island in art and film. "There were escalator rides, there were steam elevators, and of course more importantly, that blaze of electricity from all the parks extended leisure far into the night," Frank said.

Pogue asked, "When you were growing up, what was it then?"

"Well, as a child, to me it was still magical. But it was also then, as it is now, a kind of anti-Disney World. It's definitely grittier. It's not owned by a company. It is owned by families, some of them who have been here for generations."

Grittier, yes, but also weirder. Over the years, the attractions here have included everything from the electrocution of an elephant in 1903 (which Frank deemed "horrifically brutal and cruel"), to rows of babies in incubators. "That was the brainchild of Martin Couney," Frank said. "He had this idea that incubators could keep premature babies alive."

"What a weird way to get a medical development into the mainstream," said Pogue.

"He tried to get hospitals to accept incubators, and they did not."

The annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade.  CBS News

But fans like D.J. Vourderis don't mind the grittiness, the weirdness, and the sprawling hodgepodge of Coney Island. In fact, that's what they love about it: "It doesn't matter where you're from, where you pray, or who you love. This place embodies inclusivity. And as long as we remember who we are, Coney Island will always be a place for all people to come and play."

Dick Zigun would certainly agree. Pogue asked him, "In this era where you can watch any movie on demand, instantly, ever made, what's the role of Coney Island?"

"Actual, authentic human experience," Zigun replied. "Shut off your phone. The experience of fear, of fun, maybe a smile on your face, maybe you throw up your hot dog? But it's all human. And what's wrong with that?"

Correspondent David Pogue and Dick Zigun, the "Mayor of Coney Island," check out the funhouse mirrors.  CBS News

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Story produced by Gabriel Falcon. Editor: Chad Cardin.

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