Thursday, February 11, 2021

Then and Now: Jack's Discount Center, Coney Island NYC

Jack's Discount Center, Coney Island
Jack's Discount Center, 1970.
Few New York City neighborhoods have gone through as many ups and downs over the years as Coney Island. The area we call Coney Island isn't actually on its own island (though it used to be kind of an island until Coney Island Creek was filled in during the 1920s/1930s) unless you count it being on Long Island. It is located on the western portion of the Coney Island peninsula west of Ocean Parkway.

Coney Island was a sleepy little town until 1878, when two major things happened to it. The huge Brighton Beach Bathing Pavilion opened that year as well as the Brooklyn, Flatbush, and Coney Island Railway, which opened on 2 July as the predecessor to the New York City Subway's present-day Brighton Line aka Brighton Beach Line. The original two-track line was acquired by the Brooklyn–Manhattan Transit Corporation BMT in 1923, which in turn was folded into the modern subway system in 1940. The subway was the defining feature of the area, resulting in businesses being constructed along its route.

Coney Island reached its peak in the 1930s through the 1950s. It was the preferred way for city residents to "beat the heat" in the days before the widespread use of air conditioners. Even though the beaches were far away for most people and insanely crowded, they were still better than sitting in a sweltering apartment. However, by the 1960s the area fell into a steep decline.

Anyway, I spotted the photo above from 1970 of a typical old-school "dollar store" before they were known as such. This one was called "Jack's Discount Center," and it was located at the current street address of 1403 Mermaid Avenue, Coney Island. So, I decided to do a comparison of Jack's Discount Store in Coney Island then and now.
Jack's Discount Center, Coney Island
A shot in 1978 taken from the subway platform gives a little more perspective. Note the top of the subway car in the foreground.
The property, located at coordinates 40.5772094,-73.9818174, was originally built in 1930. Located a few blocks from the beach, it already was starting to look run down by 1970, and things didn't get any better during the 1970s. These types of discount stores used to be much more common in New York City than they are now. While you may still some scattered in various places such as Jackson Heights in Queens, the Lower East Side in Manhattan, and the South Bronx, they've largely been supplanted by gentrification, exorbitant rents, and smaller, more focused chain retailers.
Mermaid Horizon
Undated, but the same site perhaps ca. 2000. Note that this version was called "Mermaid Horizon Discounts" in honor of the street location. Now it became a "99 Cent" store.
These days, businesses have to be real money machines to survive. That's why you see so many of these quaint old businesses disappearing, to be replaced by bank branches, pharmacies, and Starbucks establishments. Nothing wrong with that, it's what the people who are voting with their dollars want.
McDonald's at 1403 Mermaid Avenue, Brooklyn, NYC
The new McDonald's in 2012, boarded up for Hurricane Sandy.
Around 2008-2009, the building, which was located on two parcels. Fiserv Mastermoney was drastically renovated and replaced with a McDonald's restaurant. While it certainly looks like the building was completely torn down, complete tear-downs don't happen too often in New York City for tax reasons. You want to keep just enough original structural elements to be able to classify it as a "renovation." But, basically, the old 1930 building disappeared around that time.
McDonald's at 1403 Mermaid Avenue, Brooklyn, NYC
A recent photo of the location. Note that this angle gives you a little perspective, showing a sliver of the massive elevated subway line that is just across the street.
That area of Brooklyn has become a rough area over the years, and there was a fatal stabbing at that McDonald's on Easter Sunday 2014. That's just a reflection of the neighborhood, which has never completely recovered from its steep decline during the 1960s and 1970s.

However, lest you be left with the wrong impression, the McDonald's gets an "A" grade from the NYC Health Inspectors, though, so it has that going for it. It gets onto Coney Island's "Ten Best Eating Establishment" lists, which probably tells you as much about the current state of Coney Island as it does this particular burger joint. The world needs fast food, and this looks like a great location for one.
McDonald's at 1403 Mermaid Avenue, Brooklyn, NYC
This capture from Google Street View in November 2019 gives a little more context. The subway line is revealed right across the street. One can imagine that the original Jack got a lot of business from the subway trade, thus explaining all of his garish signs facing in that direction.
The story of this parcel of land really speaks volumes about the evolution of New York City. The small, independent businesses in their colorful but ramshackle buildings had their day, and now it is a time of chain restaurants and sleek architecture and everything served to you the same way it is served to people in Florida and Nebraska and Wyoming. The uniqueness, the individuality, the quirkiness is gradually but inexorably disappearing. That's what the people want, so that is what they are getting. There are some constants such as the subway lines, however, that maintain the structure of the city even as everything around them changes. Really, the story of this particular little plot of ordinary land in a remote corner of New York City speaks volumes about larger trends that are at work.

I hope you enjoyed this little walk through the past in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. Please visit some of our other entries!


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