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August 1st, 2007

CONEY ISLAND—LABORATORY FOR THE MASS CULTURE

by Mr. Norman Maine

Although the name of this article sounds like something from the pompous Village Voice or the “we wanna be cool” New York Press, it’s not. It’s actually a quote from Historian John F. Kasson, referring to Coney Island at the turn of the century–the last century, not this one, although I guess it might apply then too, though in a more abstract way.

Luna Park, Dreamland, Steeplechase Park, and much later on Astroland Park all comprised what was once the world’s most famous playground, Coney Island. To this very day, no other city or single attraction has managed to match the overwhelming number of visitors as Coney did in 1943, when 46 million people came to the resort by the sea. Imagine this: in 1955, the year it opened, Disneyworld had 5 million visitors. Last year New York City and Las Vegas, two of the three biggest tourist destinations in the USA, couldn’t crack 40 million visitors. Orlando, Florida boasts of over 50 million visitors, and yet in this age of air travel and beautiful interstates, these three destinations still average one million less than Coney Island drew 64 years ago.

The long and sordid history of Coney Island is a fascinating one. What started as separate beaches for the residents of the area blossomed into arguably the greatest resort town ever. The idea was to have beaches for the three social classes. Manhattan Beach was for the wealthy, so they wouldn’t have to mingle with the help on their days off, the middle class would spend their leisure time at Brighton Beach, feeling better about themselves because they didn’t have to associate with the poor, who were relegated to spend their pennies and sun their withered bodies at West Brighton Beach.

In 1895 Paul Boynton brought his idea for family fun to Coney Island. His inspiration was his visit to the Ferris Wheel at The Midway Plaisance at Chicago’s Colombian Exposition of 1893. Boynton’s Sea Lion Park would be the spark that ignited the imagination of those who would soon follow.

But, before there was Boynton or any of the other family friendly parks, there was the Coney Bowery: a street lined with beer gardens, concert saloons and dime museums; the area’s real first attraction was debauchery. Many tried to curb the excesses of the Coney Bowery with bitter results; this Bowery was the original adult playground. Only when the Sea Lion opened did the shoreline reveal it’s real potential. In the first few years of the 20th century the renaissance began and the three most famous parks opened.

The first and perhaps greatest of the three was Fred Thompson’s Luna Park. This was considered the most spectacular amusement park of all time; it was a shimmering arcadia of minarets, trellises, promenades and swirling fountains of light! This was a blueprint for virtually all future amusement parks.

The second to open was Dreamland, the self proclaimed Gibraltar of the amusement world. This was a more opulent park, and although much of its architecture and design was borrowed form Luna Park, the more glitzy and upscale entry never really caught on. Like so many of Coney’s parks and buildings, Dreamland burned to the ground in 1911, the fire started ironically enough in an attraction called Hell Gate. Coney burned often, almost a natural order to be able to rebuild itself. Dreamland was never rebuilt, but was replaced by Sam Gumpertz’s Dreamland Circus Sideshow, with acts like Zip The-What-Is-It and Joe Joe The Dog faced Boy.

The third and last of the originals, George Tilyou’s Steeplechase Park, was dubbed “The most enchanting and magnetic, fun-making resort in the world.” This park owed it’s great success by making it’s visitors unwitting accomplices in their own fun. Mazes of mechanical amusement devices, slides and even human pool tables seduced all those who passed the gates of Steeplechase Park. A new park wouldn’t be opened until 1962 when Astroland made its debut. The 1920’s saw the subway reaching Coney Island and, along with the Wonder Wheel and Cyclone, changing the skyline; the new nickel fantasyland was now a celebrated icon. This paradise by the sea entertained the masses for almost a decade until the great depression hit and Coney wasn’t so much a resort as it was a last resort.

Having lost over half its attractions during the depression, it’s greatest feature, the blue waters of the Atlantic, continued to draw record crowds. By the end of the war, Coney had become the home front to countless servicemen, a beacon of hope. It symbolized home.

After the war, New York Parks Commissioner Robert Moses wanted to replace the parks with high-rise affordable housing. Mayor John Lindsey had poorly designed, low cost housing built, which hastened the decline of the entire area.

By 1964, the beginning of an unending drug problem and urban decay had started to take over. Other high-rises were built, anchoring the parks in basic despair. Steeplechase Park’s Pavilion of Fun was closed the same year and was leveled for more housing that was never built. Luna Park was closed and was replaced by more housing. The area had become little more than a ghetto, supporting all forms of blight, racial tensions and social division.

In 1980 a campaign to revitalize the area was devised and Coney Island USA was hatched. It’s best known and perhaps only achievement is the grand Mermaid Parade, which takes place every June. This fun-filled parade of color, light, and inclusion shines as bright as the parks of old and the attendance grows each year! The parade has also served to bring much needed attention to the area, and it gave birth to many preservationists who tirelessly work to protect the original flavor of Coney Island and whatever is left of the area. Which isn’t much.

Enter THOR Equities and their proposed 1.5 Billion dollar redevelopment of the area. A recreation of a once great creation brings a new world for a new generation, a world of high-tech sights and sound for the iPOD babies. The plan is so ambitious that it includes megaplexes, music venues, an indoor water park, and a 500-room, four-star hotel. Imagine a glittering resort paradise right next to the Coney Island boardwalk–a retail and entertainment mega-structure every bit as outrageous or obnoxious (depending on how you see it) as the Las Vegas Strip.

But remember, this is still New York City and one can be assured nothing will get built without the approval or appeasement of many a neighborhood board and those self-appointed guardians of the past. Former Mayor Ed Koch wanted to build casinos in Coney Island, a good idea until the state failed to legalize gambling! There is also City Hall to deal with and this being Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s last term, he’s not going to want the total disregard for the fond memories of the past to be a part of his legacy, especially if he has higher goals. Right, Governor Bloomberg?

The city has just invested 240 million dollars into the newly unveiled subway station at Surf and Stilwell Avenues, so they are at least in theory pretending to care about what gets built miles away from Manhattan.

There is a mystique about Coney Island that some say should be cherished and revered. Others agree, but their ideals are not so loftily guarded that they stand in the way of progress. Days gone by are to be remembered and archived, but just as the original Coney Island and its then modern parks rose to greet the ocean and the masses, a new park, and a new day await us all. It looks like John Kasson is right again; Coney Island will be a Laboratory Of the New Mass Culture. For those of you who fret about new development, remember; if Coney’s history is any indication, it’ll probably burn to the ground, just like it did in 1903, 1911, 1933, 1939, 1944 and 1998!

I say…Come on Jake, let it go…its only CONEY ISLAND.

Filed Under: Arts & Leisure | Community | New York

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