“Behind the innocent facade of fun, rides, shows and cotton candy are the powerful themes of fear, lust, abandon, adventure, irony, comedy, salvation, gluttony, mystery, pain, monsters, gambling, and voyeurism.” – Quote from northstargallery.com
I heard about Coney Island roughly six years ago, right before I moved to New York. A friend insisted I go there in the dead of winter to check out the deserted amusement park. Needless to say I headed straight there to see if it lived up to my friends descriptions, and since I’ve always had a fascination for abandoned places, Coney Island sounded like it had potential! However, after taking the 60 minute train-ride out there I was disappointed by how busy it was. There was a whole community of people who shattered any illusion I had of urban abandonment.
Despite this early disappointment however I’ve been back to Coney Island quite a few times, and have gotten to know it quite well. The reasons I go are partly because it feels a million miles away from New York City, and also because it’s a great place to go and watch people. My fascination has a lot to do with the many interesting visual textures Coney Island has and how people here interact within this unique environment.
Roughly four miles long and about a mile wide, it’s got it’s share of guidebook worthy traditions: it’s home to the famous Nathan’s Hot Dog, The “Cyclone” roller coaster, an aquarium, the annual Mermaid Parade, a huge windswept beach and enough badly painted boardwalk signage to make your eyes hurt. All this juxtaposed with the characters you come across make things here interesting and sometimes unexpected. The people here, as far as I can tell all seem to co-exist without any real need for New York City, or at least it feels that way.
Somewhat oblivious to the frantic, materialistic pursuits of city goers, people here seem detached from the chaos while they go about their business. Fishermen trying their luck off the pier for anything they can reel in, Latin dancers on the boardwalk, Russians who spill over from the neighboring community in Brighton Beach and Italian American pensioners, perfectly content to do absolutely nothing more than sit. Other Brooklynites with kids also end up here in their hoards during the summer months to take full advantage of the beach and fried grease they serve up on the boardwalk. All of this activity is coupled with the rich backdrop of Coney’s famous amusement park and other run down buildings that you don’t find elsewhere in the city.
For the uninitiated, Coney Island seems to have avoided the sweeping gentrification like a lot of the city. Apartments are still comparatively cheap to rent here; I’m guessing because the distance from here to the city is that bit too far for gentrification to take any advantage of. But plans have quietly been underway to change the makeup of Coney’s rundown demeanor. Urban development schemes have seen to the renovation of the neighborhood’s Stillwell Avenue subway, the construction of Key-Span park and the renovation of over 800 apartments in Sea Park in 2004. And all of this has paved the way for a slew of projects to clean up the area still further. Movie theaters, bowling alleys, arcades, shopping malls, casinos and more luxury apartment buildings are all on the drawing board. So it’s little wonder that the locals here are worried, driven by all this redevelopment rents would of course sky rocket and sadly strip Coney Island of the character that has made it unique. I’m guessing they would scrub the place squeaky clean and replace every hand painted sign for a plastic prefabricated one, polishing all the really interesting texture to a smooth shine. I say go there while you can, there’s a sea of change looming!
To reach Coney Island take the D, Q, or F subway train to Stillwell Ave.
Text and Photos: Garry Waller