Leonard Quart: Coney Island transformed



Since the early 1800s, Brooklyn's Coney Island has played many roles in New Yorkers' lives. It began as a quiet seaside town in the early 1800s, and in the late 19th century started to boom, with three amusement parks -- Dreamland, Luna Park and Steeplechase Park. During the Great Depression it transformed itself again with cheap amusements, becoming known as the "Nickel Empire" -- the cost of a subway ride to an urban beach attraction whose iconic Nathan's Famous sold 5-cent hot dogs.

But the amusement parks struggled to survive, Luna Park closing in 1946 after a series of fires, the parks replaced by low-income public housing that made Coney Island more threatening to middle class visitors. The automobile also began to provide much easier access to cooler, less crowded beaches than Coney Island, like Jones Beach on Long Island. And by the ‘50s, New York white Catholic street gangs (Bruce Davidson's photo book "Brooklyn Gang" provides a penetrating portrait of this milieu) and prostitution spilled onto Coney Island. The gangs did not bother the beachgoers, but they turned off people who used the rides and concessions, which were a staple of Coney Island's economic viability. In 1964 another death blow: Steeplechase Park closed.


Despite that, the beach still offered relief to millions of working class New Yorkers who crammed every open space, leaving little room to breathe, much less swim. The great tabloid crime photographer Weegee shot indelible photos of the teeming beach in the ‘40s. In the ‘50s Morris Engel made a critically acclaimed quasi-documentary "Little Fugitive" about a boy wandering around a Coney Island -- portrayed as an innocent, communal people's beach -- with no sign of the danger and decay that had begun to encroach on it. Recently, an exhibit was on view for some months at the Museum of the City of New York entitled "In a World of Their Own: Coney Island Photographs by Aaron Rose."

In the early ‘60s Rose surreptitiously shot the interactions and exhibitionistic displays of a working class melting pot of beach-goers. His photos emphasized the exposed human figure: a posturing body builder, all rippling muscles; a leathery looking older woman strenuously sunning herself; and an overweight woman in a bathing suit unselfconsciously staring out into the ocean. Rose felt that Coney Island was one place where he "would find bodies so abundantly." He captured the whole scene -- imperfect bodies of all sizes, intimate moments of love-making and conversation, and the striking image of a flamboyant gay man in full drag, rouged, with hair upswept walking through an unfriendly beach crowd that, despite its visible antipathy, allows him to pass through.

By the ‘70s and ‘80s, Coney Island saw crime increase and beach pollution as well. Yet it kept going, though with fewer people using it each summer. I learned from an observant aspiring writer who went there fairly regularly during those years, that for him its mythic image held up even then, especially the giant steel Ferris wheel, the landmarked Wonder Wheel.

But despite the whiff of danger he felt from street crews that drifted about the beach and entertainment venues, Coney Island for him emanated raw energy. It was the only beach he knew, an escape from the heavy air and concrete of summertime Brooklyn. It had a great arcade whose video games he loved, and there were Friday night hip-hop concerts and break dancing. But despite his warm memories, the fact was that many amusement owners had abandoned their properties, and the island was filled with empty lots. People still came, but it glittered no more.

When Bloomberg became mayor in 2002, Coney Island was already a shambles, its amusements having shrunk from 21 blocks, in its heyday, to just three. Given Bloomberg's outsized commitment to large redevelopment projects, it's no surprise that he began to envision it as a possible site for the 2012 Olympics.

When the city lost the bid for the Olympics, revitalization plans were rolled over to the Coney Island Redevelopment Corporation. That group came up with a plan to restore the resort by changing its zoning, thus threatening the existence of many of the remaining amusement owners. What they proposed to do was to primarily turn the area into a high-rise, big-box store enclave for the wealthy.


A documentary film, Amy Nicholson's "Zipper," one in a long line of documentaries critical of NYC development policies and gentrification, depicted the Coney Island community's losing struggle against the plans of the city and developers. For her the "Zipper" (she expends too much footage on it), a ride with its blaring neon sign, an emotionally committed owner and workers who sound like supporting characters in a Scorsese film, and shrieking young riders, is the essence of the old Coney Island that she clearly loves.

Nicholson gives the other side its due, though a montage of the plan's defenders is undercut by playing Strauss's "The Blue Danube Waltz" on the soundtrack. The politicos, planners and developer, all vow to save Coney Island's characteristic funkiness, but one knows that much of its unique past will be lost when a new, sterile Coney Island ultimately emerges. In fact, though new rides have opened, its character can never be resurrected.

"Money talks" as one protester declaims, and Nicholson's overly nostalgic, poignant film indelibly remembers a Coney Island that had "light and heart," but leaves its dark side out.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com.


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