One way to get to know a neighborhood is by exploring its buildings. So we did. This story is part of a series in The Brooklyn Ink on some of the structures in the borough, and what they tell us about the life in and around them.
An unassuming section of the Coney Island boardwalk near the New York Aquarium is dedicated to the honor of Coney Island Polar Bear Club, which has called Coney Island home for over a century.
Each week during winter, club members—who call themselves “polar bears”—gather to test their mettle in the frigid water of Lower New York Bay.
Polar Bear Club Walk straddles a section of the boardwalk at West 8th Street, near the southern side of the aquarium’s Education Hall, where the swimmers meet for refreshments before and after their icy plunge. An honorary street sign hangs on the boardwalk—which spans Coney Island’s southern shoreline from West 37th Street to the east side of Brighton Beach—outside Education Hall, which bears an aquarium-themed mural by artist T. X. Tran on its beach-facing wall.
According to New York City Council documents, Polar Bear Club Walk was officially designated on Oct. 10, 2008. The club celebrated with a ceremony, according to Tom Mcgann, a Polar Bear Club member of 20 years. “It was a great feeling, it was a nice presentation,” Mcgann told The Brooklyn Ink. “We’ve been down at Coney Island since 1903, so it was a nice way of saying, ‘Here’s something for the Polar Bear Club.’” The sign originally stood near the south end of Stillwell Avenue, Mcgann added, but has since been moved.
Coney Island’s polar bears were inspired to apply for their own stretch of the boardwalk after witnessing the dedication of Ruby Jacobs Walk, a section of boardwalk dedicated to the Coney Island restaurateur whose Ruby’s Bar and Grill still faces the beach at West 12th Street.
“Ruby’s Bar has been there a long time—it’s one of the best bars in the world, in fact—and we were saying, ‘Hey, we’ve been around since 1903, aren’t we a landmark?’” said the Polar Bear Club president, Dennis Thomas. “We’ve been here longer than the Parachute Drop; than the Wonder Wheel; than the Cyclone. We should look into this.’”
Coney Island Polar Bear Club is best known for its New Year’s Day fundraiser—which drew about 2,500 swimmers this year—but the club’s core members swim weekly, all winter, with little regard for the elements. “The only thing that’ll keep us out is lightning,” Mcgann said. “The rain doesn’t matter; the snow doesn’t matter; rough weather doesn’t matter.”
The club was founded in 1903 by fitness magnate Bernarr Macfadden, whose Physical Culture magazine bore the tagline “Weakness A Crime.” Macfadden “was a big believer in natural living and exercise,” Mcgann said. “Charles Atlas was one of his protégés.”
Among his myriad—sometimes eccentric—prescriptions for healthy living, Macfadden touted the salubrious effects of cold-water swimming. In the mid-twentieth century, the beaches of Coney Island were home to several Macfadden-inspired swim clubs like the Tenex Icelanders and the Iceberg Athletic Club.
“In the past, there were four or five other clubs that existed and did the same thing,” Mcgann said. “A bunch of them worked in the different bath houses there. As the bath houses went away, so did the clubs.”
“We’re the last, but also the biggest and the most active of the clubs that did exist,” Mcgann added.