Go anywhere in Coney Island and chances are that you've walked down Mermaid or Neptune Avenues. These roads recall with wistful affection the fabled history of Coney Island in its heyday. They're also the inspiration for the Mermaid Parade.
In 1983 residents on Coney Island organized the first Mermaid Parade with 300 participants and 10,000 spectators. The idea was to bring the area's seafaring mythology to life for people who lived in this small enclave in Brooklyn. The parade was also meant to boost the morale of an area known primarily as the "People's Playground," and often associated with the seedier side of entertainment.
These days the event in Coney Island attracts more than 800,000 people.
The parade is considered an "art parade," allowing New Yorkers to express themselves through handmade floats and costumes. Organizers say it's the largest parade of its kind in the United States.
Others have tried to copy the parade. The Mermaid Parade has sent out cease-and-disist letters to events in Portland, Oregon, and Chicago. Organizers in Coney Island say they don't mind other parades showing their creative side, or even having a nautical theme, but they don't want parades stealing their name and traditions.
But the Mermaid Parade isn't the first spectacle to roll down Surf Avenue. In 1903, in its gilded age, Coney Island hosted a week long Mardi Gras festival. It had nothing to do with Lent, instead business organized the event to raise money for the Mission and Rescue Home for Wayward Girls, which burned down that same year.
While the Mermaid Parade heralds the beginning of summer, Coney Island Mardi Gras parades were held in mid-September, as amusement parks were shutting down, to close out the summer season.
Organizers held the last Mardi Gras parade on Coney Island in 1954. By then it had gained the infamous reputation of being "an orgy of cheap glitter and thrills," and for attracting gangs of hooligans.
The Mermaid Parade almost didn't happen. Residents first pitched a Fourth of July parade which was turned down by Coney Island's Community Board. The reason: July 4th was just too busy. So organizers chose the middle of June and turned the parade into an American version of a summer-solstice celebration. Now the parade rivals the Fourth as the busiest day of the year on Coney Island.
It takes about an hour to get to the parade from many places in the city. It's a long way, but some believe the distance helps discourage troublemakers from showing up to the festivities.
The parade's gregarious nature, and its focus on art and self-expression, has made the parade a family-friendly affair. Every year hundreds of children and their parents either line up to view the parade, or dress up and participate. The event is fun for people of all ages and, really, brings out the kid in all of us.
In New Orleans, ghost stories are legendary, spirits come alive, and the dead live in cities.
The Dead Will Rise...
Take any ghost tour through New Orleans and you'll hear enough stories of haunted homes and voodoo queens to make you think that ghosts have crawled out of the ground and are standing over your shoulder. But when New Orleans was founded, in 1718, people had a real problem keeping the dead buried.
New Orleans is surrounded by marshes and swamps. It sits up to six feet below sea level in some places and it's sandwiched between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River, giving the city it's distinctive bend and it's nickname "the Crescent City." Needless to say, the water table is very high.
You could say that the high water table haunted the living because of what it did to the dead. Settlers of New Orleans struggled to dig graves. Water eventually filled the holes causing caskets to float. People improvised by putting rocks inside and on top of caskets, but rainstorms saturated the soil and airtight caskets literally popped out of the ground.
A Spanish Influence...
New Orleaneans eventually adopted the tradition of burying the dead in vaults from the Spanish who governed the city from 1763 until 1803. Hundreds of years later, up to 90 percent of the dead are interred above ground.
Cities of the Dead...
Wall vaults were once temporary housing for caskets waiting to transfer to larger tombs. But eventually people bought them as less expensive burial sites. Wealthier residents built more extravagant structures that looked like miniature palaces and mansions creating cemeteries that resembled small cities of the dead. In fact, the land in cemeteries are sold in a similar way as homes, with people first buying lots and then erecting tombs on top.
And families were not the only groups to build large mausoleums. Societies and fraternal organizations also paid for large tombs to bury its members.
Today, residents can dole out between $60,000 and half a million dollars for their final resting place.
In 1969 police raided the Stonewall Inn. It was a routine sweep of gay establishments meant to harass LGBT members and enforce discriminatory and demoralizing laws. At the time, it was illegal for gay people to dance with each other or to have sex.
But something different happened during the raid on June 28th. People inside the bar, led by a group of trans women, fought back. They spilled out onto Christopher street and soon the crowd overwhelmed the officers, throwing pennies, bottles, and bricks. The officers, fearing for their safety, hid inside Stonewall until other officers showed up to rescue them.
The event kicked off the Stonewall riots and reignited the gay rights movement.
A year later the gay community seized on the fear, the fury, and the momentum that came from the riots to organize a historic march from Greenwich Village to Central Park.
It was not a parade. The New York Times described it at the time as a “protest rally.” In fact, a militancy was simmering as people expressed their anger about discriminatory laws and practices that made it hard for gay people to keep jobs or rent apartments.
But the riots at Stonewall were not the start of the gay rights movement. The first major action came three years earlier with a simple act of ordering a drink.
Members of the Mattachine Society staged a “Sip-In” at Julius Bar on west 10th Street. At the time, the New York State Liquor Authority prohibited the sale of alcohol to “known or suspected gay men or lesbians,” people it deemed “sexual deviates.”
On April 21st, members sat at the bar and announced they were gay. As expected, the bartender refused to serve them. The “Sip-In” prompted action by the Commission on Human rights and eventually the rule in New York was changed.
In New Jersey, the Mattachine Society sued bars that refused serve gay patrons -- and won. The New Jersey Supreme Court offered a tepid victory: “In our culture, homosexuals are indeed unfortunates,” adding “their status does not make them criminals or outlaws.”
Governors Island still has that military base smell, like fresh cut grass and aging leather. It recalls a time when the island guarded New York Harbor as a "silent sentinel," against the British during the War of 1812, and against the Confederate Army during the Civil War.
Castle Williams was designed by, and named after, Chief Engineer of the US Army Corps of Engineers, Lt. Col. Jonathan Williams. Williams planned the coastal defense structure after serving as the first superintendent of West Point Military Academy.
The Continental Army stockpiled enough canons and munitions in Castle Williams to deter the British from entering New York Harbor. But when the Civil War erupted Union leaders converted the fortress into a notorious prison. Large numbers of enlisted Confederate soldiers died from rampant diseases like cholera, typhoid, and measles. Conditions were miserable with no heating, no running water, and often no beds.
Fort Jay is the heart of Governors Island. The stronghold, once renamed Fort Columbus, began as earthen fortifications made by Continental Army troops in 1775.
The Island played an integral role in the liberation of Europe, serving as the headquarters of the U.S. First Army. The First Army drafted initial plans for the D-Day invasion, which led to the American landing in Normandy, at Governors Island.
The US Army operated the base until 1966 when it transferred control to the US Coast Guard. The island continued to serve the military for the next 30 years until 1996 when budget cuts forced the Coast Guard to close the post.
The Secretary of the Interior designated 93 acres of the island as a National Historic Landmark in 1996. In 2001, President Clinton declared 22 acres of the island, including Fort Jay and Castle Williams as Governors Island National Monument.
The federal government sold the rest of the land back to New York City and the state for just a dollar in 2003.
If you don't recognize the flag billowing over Governors Island you're not alone. The flag is known as the "Star Spangled Banner." The design, with 15 stars, is the only American flag adorned with 15 stripes.
It's the same type of flag that flew over Fort McHenry when British attacked on September 13th, 1814. Seeing the flag waving during that assault inspired Francis Scott Key to write our national anthem, "The Star Spangled Banner."
Landmark status protects the island's stately homes, storehouses, barracks, and office buildings. Liggett Hall (pictured above) was built to house an entire Army regiment. According to one media report at the time, the structure is longer than the Chrysler Building is tall.
Now the former military installation is just a short ferry ride away from Manhattan. Every year art shows, festivals, and events like the Jazz Age Lawn Party attract thousands of New Yorkers to travel across the harbor to this urban oasis.