TIME Culture

LIFE at Coney Island: Sea and the City

As summer 2013 gets into full swing and on the anniversary (June 26, 1920) of the opening of the legendary Cyclone roller coaster, LIFE.com celebrates a tough, unpretentious, welcoming place.

The boardwalk. Nathan’s Famous hot dogs. The Cyclone. The blue-gray waters of the Atlantic. Not too many places in America so readily evoke the evanescent pleasures of summer as the gloriously shabby environs of Coney Island. Running for nearly three miles along the southern coast of Brooklyn, “America’s Playground” (or “Sodom by the Sea,” as it was also once known) has been part of New York City lore for more than 150 years.

Packed from Memorial Day to Labor Day with sun worshipers, bathers, entertainers, people-watchers, pickpockets, partiers and other assorted characters — and with loners, Polar Bear Club members, beachcombers and birders the rest of the year — Coney Island has outlasted countless other amusement parks and summer destinations around the country, enduring boom times and years of decay and blight, alike, with a tough, unpretentious and welcoming spirit.

[MORE: See the gallery, “LIFE Goes Surfing.”]

Here, as summer 2013 gets into full swing and on the anniversary (June 26, 1920) of the opening of the legendary Cyclone roller coaster — beneath which, as all films buffs know, lived Alvy Singer’s family in Annie Hall — LIFE presents one of Margaret Bourke-White’s famous aerial photographs of Coney Island from the 1950s. It might not evince the white-sand glamour of the Côte d’Azur, or the laid-back, effortless beauty of a place like, say, Malibu, but in Bourke-White’s portrait of Coney Island one senses the energy positively pulsing from the place.

One gets the sense that, even at the beach, New Yorkers are constantly doing something.

[MORE: See the gallery, “Air America: Picturing the U.S. From Above.”]


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