WPA Guide Series

By Fern Nesson

Fern Nesson takes us on the road following the original WPA Guidebooks. Follow along as she re-enacts these journeys, discovering what’s old and what’s new.

Travels With the WPA State Guides: Coney Island, New York

The American Guide Series, produced by the Federal Writers’ Project, is one of the most well-known WPA projects. Written as a collection of travel guides, the series included suggested tour routes as well as essays on the history and culture of each U.S. state and territory. Major U.S. cities and several regions were also given their own separate guidebooks.  

The state guides give a fascinating snapshot of American life in the 1930s. Written in a lively and approachable style, they detail and celebrate the rich diversity that our country displayed at that time. The writers’ enthusiasm is infectious and their guide is as much fun to read today as it must have been for travelers in the 1930s.  

Several historians have written about the American Guide Series over the past 80 years, but no one, to my knowledge, has used them as current-day travel guides. That is just what I set out to do. I am an American historian, art photographer, and enthusiastic traveler. I have read each of these guides. I love them for their wonderful enthusiasm and their curiosity about every aspect of regional life—from food, to linguistics, to folklore, to statistics, to geography, to environment, to history—and especially for their liberal attitudes and respect for diversity. In this series, I will be posting photo essays and articles based upon tours recommended in the guides.

Fern L. Nesson

In an absolutely masterful piece of writing, the anonymous writer of New York City Guide described Coney Island in profusely colorful, engaging language.  It is hard to imagine that any writer could have done it better: 

“CONEY ISLAND, the sand bar that became the “world’s largest playground ,” fronts a six mile long beach on the Atlantic Ocean. Into Coney Island proper are crammed rows of flimsy shacks, modern apartment houses, two-story residences, an occasional cottage surrounded by lawns, and a wild array of bathhouses, dance halls, freak shows, fun houses, carrousels, roller coasters, penny arcades, assorted game booths, waxworks, Ferris wheels, shooting galleries, souvenir shops, restaurants, tearooms, chop suey parlors, hot dog stands, and custard counters to feed and divert the millions. Two miles of excellent boardwalk, a steamboat pier, two large amusement parks, and a number of famous restaurants maintain the popularity of the resort.

In 1829 the first hotel was built, and other hotels soon sprang up. In 1844, Eddy and Hart erected the pavilion and bathhouse which began the spectacular career of the place as a summer resort. Later, race tracks opened … and gambling flourished openly. Championship prize fights attracted “Diamond Jim” Brady and Lillian Russell … and in the wake of this gaiety came the three-card monte man, the prostitutes, and the peep shows.

With the introduction of “rides” the island began to take on the aspects of a true amusement park. The Ferris Wheel, a device introduced at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, carried passengers to great heights [and] the roller coaster, designed by Stephen E. Jackman, hurtled crowds over its “gravity road.” Steeplechase Park opened in 1897, Luna Park soon followed.

Coney entered its present phase when the extension of the subway in 1920 made the beach available to millions of lower-income New Yorkers. The beach was widened, and breakwaters and jetties were constructed for its preservation; in 1921 the boardwalk was opened. A plague of hot-dog stands and cheap amusements followed. Coney Island was now a play-ground of the people, the ’empire of the nickel.’

Summer crowds are the essence of Coney Island. From early morning, when the first throngs pour from the Stillwell Avenue subway terminal, humanity flows over Coney seeking relief from the heat of the city. Italians, Jews, Greeks, Poles, Germans, Negroes, Irish, people of every nationality; boys and girls, feeble ancients, mothers with squirming children, fathers with bundles, push and collide as they rush, laughing, scolding, sweating, for a spot on the sand. 

The mass spreads southward in the direction of the beach and boardwalk and the numerous bathhouses … From the boardwalk the whole beach may be viewed: bathers splash and shout in the turgid waters close to the shore; on the sand, children dig, young men engage in gymnastics and roughhouse each other, or toss balls over the backs of couples lying amorously intertwined. 

Luncheon combines the difficulties of a picnic with those of a subway rush hour; families sit in wriggling circles consuming food and drinking from thermos bottles brought in suitcases together with bathing suits, spare clothing, and water wings. A moving throng covers the boardwalk from the outer rail to the food and amusement booths. The air is heavy with mixed odors of frying frankfurters, popcorn, ice cream, cotton candy, corn-on-the-cob, and knishes (Jewish potato cakes). Skee ball, ping pong, beano and other amusements and games of chance are played and watched by hundreds. 

After sunset the Island becomes the playground of a mixed crowd of sightseers and strollers. Barkers become more strident, the crowds more compact. Enormous paintings in primitive colors advertise the freak shows, shooting galleries, and waxworks “Chamber of Horrors.” Riders are whirled, jolted, battered, tossed upside down by the Cyclone, the Thunderbolt, the Mile Sky Chaser, the Loop-o-Plane, the Whip, the Flying Turns, the Dodgem Speedway, the Chute-the-Chutes, and the Comet. Above the cacophony of spielers, cries, and the shrieks and laughter, carrousel organs pound out last year’s tunes, and roller coasters slam down their terrific inclines. In dance halls and honky-tonks, dancers romp and shuffle to the endless blare of jazz bands. 

About midnight, the weary crowds begin to depart, leaving a litter of cigarette butts, torn newspapers, orange and banana peels, old shoes and hats, pop bottles and soiled cardboard boxes, and an occasional corset. A few couples remain behind, with here and there a solitary drunk, or a sleepless old man pacing the boardwalk. The last concessionaire counts his receipts and puts up his shutters, and only the amiable roar of the forgotten sea is heard.”

New York City Guide p. 471-475

The Guide mentions that Robert Moses (New York’s famous highway builder and destroyer of neighborhoods) was planning to “clean up” Coney Island:

“A Coney Island of the future has been projected by Park Commissioner Robert Moses. Less room for the midway and more for bathers is planned: the beach will be widened and the boardwalk lengthened. Landscaped play areas and ten acres of parking space will be provided and a cleaner and more orderly recreation center is foreseen.”

New York City Guide p.475

I visited Coney Island this month and was absolutely delighted to find that Moses was never able to get this done. Even in Covid time, and devoid of visitors, it offers joy and color to the eyes. Coney Island is a trashy masterpiece; it truly has to be seen to be believed.