It is difficult to articulate what exactly it is about Coney Island that I find so lovely. Strolling along the boardwalk there is a faint lingering of still sadness. Although this particular day is humid the high dew point is not what accounts for the heaviness I sense around me. The Coney Island of today is a kitsch filled dilapidated corpse of the grandiose Mecca it had once been. It is difficult to imagine that one hundred (yes one hundred!) years ago this place was teeming with bourgeoisie Victorian families in search of leisure. Even before that it was a tawdry respite for the workingman. Walking along the boardwalk I cannot help but be enthralled with the breadth of existence this place has had. The existence of Coney Island is at once comforting, disturbing, and strangely perplexing.
While sitting at Cha Cha’s, a Coney Island boardwalk bar I am struck by what can only be described as time standing still. Maybe it’s the cheap Sangria but what strikes me about Coney Island is its likeness to a skipping record. It is like a proverbial needle stuck in an eternal groove playing the same endless melody. Time has no place here. Coney Island’s needle is stuck and cannot work itself out and if it could, I am not sure I would want it to. The magic of Coney Island exists in its mesmerizing whimsy. My experience wandering the boardwalk is akin to that of decades of precursors. My own digital photos are even similar in appearance to those taken while film was still in fashion. Located in a large metropolitan area, what is great about Coney Island is that it feels as though it should not exist. Having been to Chicago’s Navy Pier it is perplexing why Coney Island’s fate hasn’t steered toward a more corporate future.
In the mid 20th century Walt Disney’s disgust with Coney Island inspired him to create his own brand of amusement park. According to an essay appearing in the Journal of Popular Culture (June 1992-cited below) Disney criticized Coney Island for being “dirty, disorganized, poorly run, garish” and “honky-Tonk” (Weinstein 131). Today the island stands in an even greater state of dilapidation. However, what draws me to Coney Island are the exact reasons that turned Disney off. New York is filled with thousands of spaces that serve as a beacon to the past but none transport me the way Coney Island does. Its gruffness makes it undeniably attractive. Maybe it’s because I’m predisposed to amusement park enthusiasm or maybe it’s because the unrecognized potential I see at Coney Island mirrors my own. If Coney Island were a record it would be a beat up Charlie Parker album. Both share a past of amazing success and startling despair. The vinyl would have pops, screeches, and skips in places that would make a music aficionado cringe but, to me, those defects are gold because they are the interesting part of the story. To appreciate the defects is to appreciate/acknowledge the presence (passing) of time as something larger than oneself. The battered and tawdry edifice of the boardwalk is characteristic of what I find so beautiful about the place. There is no beauty in perfection.
A Brief History of Coney Island
Coney Island is a five mile span of beach on the Atlantic Ocean in Brooklyn. It was once separated from Brooklyn by a creek which is how it garnered its “island” status. ‘Discovered’ by Henry Hudson in 1609, it was “part of the land sold to the English in 1643 by the Dutch West India Company” (Weinstein 136). The name Coney Island derives from the rabbits, or “conies”, that inhabited the marshy island at the time. In 1824 construction began to develop it into a seaside resort. By the 1870s it was almost completely stripped of its rustic charms. In the late 1800s a corrupt politician by the name of John Y. McKane had Coney Island in a stranglehold. It had earned a reputation for “immorality, vulgarity, crime, vice, and public disorder” thanks to Mckane’s sanctioning of “voting fraud, illegal land deals, gambling, and prostitution.” In my opinion tarty histories are the best kind (hence-bona roba). In 1894 McKane was sent to the penitentiary and the clean up of the Island began. The reform of Coney Island coincided with late 19th century advances in technology culminating in the birth of the modern amusement park. Coney Island was transformed from a male dominated den of hedonism to a family friendly (relatively) paradise.
Capitalizing on the practice of selling leisure as a commodity, Coney Island quickly became a fashionable vacation destination. The amusement parks at Coney Island emphasized design, illusion, spectacle, and ambiance and catered to mostly middle-class patrons. America’s first roller coaster opened at Coney Island in 1884 and maxed out at a whopping six miles per hour.
One of the first amusement parks erected was Luna Park, the largest and most popular of the three main parks, which featured live spectacular shows. In an essay appearing in the Smithsonian, Bruce Watson writes, “Luna Park was a fairyland of moons, lagoons and towers. By day it looked like a wedding cake, and by night it looked like a dream.” At Luna Park viewers could be awed by live re-creations of public disaster. One of their main attractions featured the repeated burning of a four story building complete with firemen battling a fiery blaze and people hurling themselves into safety nets.
At Luna Park patrons could take a trip to the moon. Upon a swaying ship replete with the smoke of lift off and starry panoramas, riders would be transported through space to the moon’s alien surface. Once there they were taken through celestial caverns and fed bits of green cheese offered to them by lunar maidens. Other adventures included trips to the North Pole, 20,000 leagues under the sea, and to the Streets of Delhi (with “an astonishing number of real Eastern People”).
There was also a onetime electrocution of an aging elephant. Allegedly the elephant, Topsy, had killed three park visitors, one of whom was attempting to feed her a lit cigarette. After surviving carrots laced with poison it was decided that Thomas Edison would use Topsy to “prove the power of alternating current” (Watson-cited below). Luna Park capitalized on the turn-of-the-century public’s fascination with death, horror, catastrophe, tragedy, and technology.
Dreamland was another of the first three main Coney Island amusement parks. It was built by a group of politicians to be the “Gibraltar of the Amusement World.” Lit by one million light bulbs on its 375-foot Beacon Tower, Dreamland’s magnificent illumination could be seen from miles away in the night sky. If that is not enticing enough, it also featured partially nude female sculptures at its entrance, hired theatrical stars to run concessions, offered live spectacles (such as the Fall of Pompeii), featured a Lilliputian village inhabited by 300 midgets, simulated submarine and airplane rides, a three ring circus, real infant incubators (complete with premature babies), and a ballroom that could accommodate 25,000 dancers. It also had rides, fun houses, and animal shows.
The last of the three main amusement parks was Steeplechase which catered primarily to working class clientele. Steeplechase featured rapid-motion rides with “sexual overtones”. In rides such as the Wedding Ring, Barrel of Love, and Dew Drop men and women were thrown together creating compromising and embarrassing results. Steeplechase produced cheeks reddened with embarrassment over such improprieties as a lifted skirt or blown off hat. It offered its patrons a reprieve from the harsh standards of Victorian idealism. Revealing my own childish sense of humor I am amused to no end by the fact that Steeplechase had a ride entitled “Blow Hole”. I do not know what this ride entailed but am pretty sure that the image it rouses in my own imagination is most likely better than reality.
On the Boardwalk
Outside on the boardwalk the atmosphere differed. The boardwalk offered numerous types of entertainment from mechanical rides to shooting galleries to freak shows. Also, on the boardwalk, could be found some of the classic Coney Island lurid attractions such as saloons, bathhouses, and more sexually explicit themed exploits. Also to be found on the boardwalk were soon to be famous performers such as Irving Berlin as a singing waiter and Cary Grant on stilts promoting Steeplechase.
The 1910s brought great change for Coney Island. Strict gambling laws were passed in the state of New York and Coney Island lost the draw of its three horseracing tracks. In 1911 Dreamland was completely destroyed in an accidental fire and was never rebuilt. Coney Island was beginning to lose its novelty and excitement to other forms of entertainment. By 1919 Luna Park was turned over to creditors and “the creative spirit behind much of the amusement industry’s technical and visual innovation was lost” (Weinstein 144-145).
In the 1940s television became the new popular form of entertainment and Coney Island was able to maintain its status as the “capital of amusement” despite its limited offerings and deteriorated condition. New amusement parks were just not being built.
Steeplechase remained the last standing of the three original parks. Its tenure lasted 68 years, finally succumbing to the urban decay of the Island on September 20, 1964. Modern day Coney Island, with its carnival like atmosphere, most resembles Steeplechase.
Modern Day Coney Island
Although being there is somewhat akin to traversing a ghost town I think that Watson is accurate in his comparing Coney Island to a phoenix. Quite literally it has overcome multiple fires but it also, though a little more worse for the wear, has stood the test of time. While it may not draw the crowds of yesteryear it is still a fascinating specimen of Americana. Condemned in 1969, the Cyclone was set for demolition but ultimately saved by a petition signed by fans around the world. At seventy years old, it was rebuilt piece by piece and it still attracts plenty of visitors today. Coney Island’s ability to endure from generation to generation, amidst huge cultural shifts and waning attention spans astounds me (and fills me with a perturbing sense of hope).
In 1980 Dick Zigum, a Yale School of Drama graduate, began Sideshows by the Seashore which produces special events to rejuvenate Coney Island by harkening back to the days of side shows and freak shows. This past summer (2010) Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson reigned as King Neptune and Queen Mermaid in the popular Mermaid Parade. Sideshow by the Seashore features sword swallowers, contortionists, fire-eaters, and more.
Also this past summer, what was formerly Astro-Land reopened as Luna Park. The new management has plans for the park to hearken back to the days of the former Luna Park.
Only time will tell what is to become of the American cultural institution known as Coney Island. Its ubiquity remains untouched. My hope is that it endures many more generations without losing all of its gruff charms.
“Disneyland and Coney Island: Reflections on the Evolution of the Modern Amusement Park” by Raymond M. Weinstein from the Journal of Popular Culture June 1, 1992 131-164
“Three’s a Crowd, they say, but not at Coney Island!” by Bruce Watson, Smithsonian, Dec96 Vo.27, Issue 9