Brooklyn Riviera

In the shadow of Coney Island’s iconic boardwalk, the pier tribe waits on a bite
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A soda can rattles down the street. The Nathan’s Famous hot-dog stand is shuttered. Souvenir shops are padlocked. A biting wind whips from the west; to the east, the sun is just cresting the horizon over Brooklyn, New York. Most of Coney Island’s 25,000 souls continue to slumber while a dozen or so stoic fishermen line the Pat Auletta Steeplechase Pier.

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In the summer the pier is a favorite spot for tourists, its original 1950s timbers rebuilt after Hurricane Sandy in far tougher, recycled, plasticized lumber. But on this morning, more than a dozen anglers are spread out along the 1,000-foot pier, tending a couple dozen tired rods. Some are missing a couple of guides or the tip. No matter. The ragtag crew faces east, away from the wind. It’s too cold for small talk, and the fishing has been lousy.

A Chinese couple at the beginning of the pier are the only ones seeing steady action. The woman lowers a folding drop net baited with crushed crab from a line crocheted from purple yarn. The man pulls it up a few minutes later as the woman leans over the rail. A swift flick of her wrist, and she scoops up a few dozen silversides and dumps them into a 5-gallon bucket. He hands her a small mallet, and she crushes more crab. Depending on the time of year, the pier catch consists of everything from sea robins, scup and skates to striped bass and bluefish, with plenty of silversides and crabs tossed in.

Here where the Atlantic mixes with Lower New York Bay, pier life is straight-up and as diverse as the fish in the sea, with a tangle of cultures, languages and customs: Asian, Eastern European, Hispanic and more. When the weather is nice, people kick back and make a day of it, laughing, enjoying the sun and the onshore breeze while waiting for that heavenly tug. Fishing is fishing.

It’s also insular. Outsiders with notebooks and cameras, like me, are viewed with suspicion. “When I first stumbled upon the pier and started shooting, they were like, Who is this?” says photographer José Alvarado, 27, of Queens, who took the photos for this story. “I think they were worried I was DEP [Department of Environmental Protection]. Over the course of a week I started showing them my shots, and they slowly started opening up to me.”

What interests Alvarado most is the variety and inventiveness of the crude tackle the pier tribe employs with success. “Some would be using water bottles and string — that’s it,” he says. Others used welded pipes to scrape the bottom and pilings for lost hooks and sinkers that they can reuse, he notes.

“I love capturing subcultures of people that hunt or fish,” says Alvarado, who has been shooting the pier and its fisher-folk over the past two years. “To see these fishermen really get after it and look back and see the Coney Island landscape, it’s really different extremes.”

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The Asian couple with the drop net gesticulate wildly as a larger, younger interloper shoves a crumpled $5 bill into the man’s coat pocket, walks off with the bucket and dumps more than half of the silversides into his pail. No please and thank yous. During my visit, I sense a pecking order of sorts regarding fishing spots and who knows what else.

I lean against the rail and watch fishermen reel up sea robins and undersized fluke. Little goes back over the rail, and I’m not surprised. “I think that’s why they really keep to themselves,” the photographer says. Some undersized fish are kept out of ignorance. Some are tossed back. Few people spoke English on the day I visited, and I didn’t see any posters with size or catch limits.

The Coney Island crew eat almost everything they catch. They fish to pass the time, and they fish for the table. “I’ve watched the Asian fishermen catch and keep all size skates and sea robins. They eat them in a stew,” Alvarado says.

No Izaak Waltons reside out here, and hunger is hunger. I understand. Still, I was taken aback when a guy slid a palm-sized summer flounder into a plastic sandwich bag and slipped it into his coat pocket. He surely knew it was too small but kept it anyway. There are always a few.

Many pedal rusty bicycles loaded with their gear to get here. Others ride the rails, taking New York City’s D, F, N and Q subway lines to the nearby Stillwell Avenue Station. “There were three cousins I met that came from Staten Island,” Alvarado says. “They’d spend the whole day and go back. Others came from the South Bronx. It’s amazing because that location gained popularity by word of mouth.”

The day wears on, the sun warms the pier, and eventually the fishermen retreat, with well-worn rods under their arms and their meager catch in pails or pockets. These are their home waters. They’ll be back tomorrow.  

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