Demon exhibit at Coney Island Hell HoleMy first association with Coney Island was a copy of ‘Coney Island of the Mind’ by Lawrence Ferlinghetti my parents had brought in a fit of youthful bohemia, long since abandoned to a top shelf. I was too young to have any grasp of poetry, much less Ferlinghetti’s free verse experimentalism, but I loved the black and white cover image of the fantastic lights, spreading  out for what seemed like miles. It seemed such an iconic place, embedded so deeply in the American psyche that everyone knew what it was to have a ‘Coney Island of the Mind’ (in that mid-70’s era of ‘Happy Days’, ‘American Graffiti’, everything I thought I knew about America seemed vastly more comfortable and inspiring and convivial than the spartan, parochial backwoods Canada where we lived.

Vulture biting dog at Coney Island Hell Hole

But when I  made it out nearly two decades later, it wasn’t Ferlinghetti I thought of, but the closing act of ‘The Warriors’ which I’d seen about nine times when I lived in a group home in my teens. The decrepit subway train clattering through the last bend of the elevated, the bedraggled, exhausted gang confronting a psychotic Sean Penn rattling coke bottles in his fingers while the trash blew past the graffiti shutters outside. The station was almost derelict, and panhandlers and drug dealers lurked around the station entrance, and the street outside the carny looked disheveled, half-abandoned.

As I noted in a previous feature, I’m a sucker for abandonment and Coney Island became a regular part of my NY itinerary. Who could not love the abandoned roller coaster, half-overgrown with vines, or the vista of the elevated elongating out behind the ferris wheel, and the Cyclone, or the old-time creepiness of the carny itself (what gives carnivals this slightly sinister quality? they have have given expression to some buried pagan mysticism, the allure – and power – of the outcast, the freak. The Disney version gets rid of this hint of sleaziness and danger, this hint of the subconcious, the dream).

Painted garbage cans on boardwalk Coney Island

I liked Coney best in winter, when everything was shut down, and the boardwalk was deserted but for a few forlorn Russians out on the pier, hauling in their traps. The fog made the carny, the projects at the end of the boardwalk almost otherworldly. An old guy from the area pushed a shopping cart up and down the boardwalk selling hot latkes wrapped in tin foil. Once, not long after the collapse of communism, he said, “I’m not going to say communism was a perfect system, far from it, but the world has lost something with the disappearance of a state built around the working man.”

The carny retained a few freak shows: a sign promising a ‘man-eating chicken’, a ‘flesh-devouring rat’. I paid one dollar to a very bored looking teenager to see the rat. The two black women behind me giggled nervously, and I wasn’t sure what to expect but the killer rat turned to be an oversized hamster, half-buried in straw next to a bowl of kibble.

I did go to the stage show once. I think it cost three bucks. The audience was mostly Puerto Rican teenagers, the performers a troop of very unhappy looking white people, some with piercings and neck tattoos. One guy hammered a nail through his (pierced) tongue, another guy put on a straitjacket, and had someone from the audience tighten it up then, after some struggle, broke free. Between acts, the emcee plugged whoopee cushions – I guess they had a shipment they needed to get rid of. The kids were amused enough but the performers obviously hated their show, their audience, and wanted the whole thing to be over. The seats and the stage were hammered together with uneven lengths of plywood, the floor littered with trash; in those moments Coney Island seemed a symbol of the decay of Brooklyn itself.

But even in its decay it was surreal. A friend told me once how she’d been on the ferris wheel, and the guard dog down below, a Rotweiller or maybe a pit bull, had gotten it’s head stuck in a trash can and for the whole length of her ride she’d watched the dog thrashing about, banging the can against some nearby posts while the ride supervisor looked on, oblivious.

Freak Show on the side of the Coney Island Film Festival

I didn’t go back for a long time, part of a general withdrawing from New York and the world I went through at the time. Friends told me it had become hip, with the Coney Island Museum, the Coney island Film Festival. When I did go back last year, I was shocked at how little of the old Coney remained. Gone the overgrown roller coaster, the derelict bath house, and the flesh-eating rat. Bloomberg plans to revitalize ‘the people’s playground’, but we’ll see if it will indeed be for the people or just another of the rich man developments Bloomberg seems to favor, whether the spirit of Ferlinghetti’s book cover, the Warriors, and that seedy old carney will live on.

Sunset on Boardwalk, Coney Island

More Coney Links:

Coney Island Freak Show in the 40’s

CO Moed’s ‘My Private Coney’

Coney Island Mermaid Parade

Classic Coney Island Movie: Little Fugitive (thanks to CO Moed)

8 Comments

  1. “A friend told me once how she’d been on the ferris wheel, and the guard dog down below . . . had gotten it’s head stuck in a trash can and for the whole length of her ride she’d watched the dog thrashing about, banging the can against some nearby posts while the ride supervisor looked on, oblivious.”

    That’s a great detail.

    The sideshow banners are good, wouldn’t mind one of those.

    Every city needs a centre of tacky venal pleasures like a permanent carney or fairground.

    • Ian – Thanks for the message. Yeah, that’s a memorable scene. I can picture it, even though I wasn’t there. So fitting with Coney, or the Coney of that era . . . actually that quality is still there, some bizarro thing always happens when I go out. I hope that quality isn’t entirely erased when they renovate . . .

  2. First THANK YOU for linking to my little “home movie” of Coney. And Second… oh what a beautiful love letter to my favorite place in the world.

    The movie “the Little Fugitive” also captures Coney in the 1950s (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Fugitive) when it was a thriving playground of the people. Each time I see it I search for my family. And that is the Coney I remember being taken to as a little girl in the 60’s by my gramma.

    There are pictures which I’ll uncover soon of my family on the boardwalk on New Years Day. It was a tradition (not sure why – maybe it was too cold to fight and since fights happened on holidays it was good planning…). I wore a full sky mask and my coat looked bulky because I had a broken arm which was still in a sling. oh. good times good times.

    Once again, Tim, thank you for the wonderful post and for more inspiration!

  3. CO . . . Thanks for the kind words. I was a little worried that perhaps I was being unkind to ole CI . . . I caught it on the downswing after all, and never went out in the summer, when it was packed (okay, once – I went on the Cyclone). But I’ll add ‘Little Fugitive’ to my Netflix queue . . . I put the trailer on the film list at the bottom.
    I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but it’s amazing the metamorphosis that Coney Island has gone through, from playground to seediness to near-abandonment to rebirth to . . . ?? I guess this is true of so many towns and cities across the land.

    Ah, family memories. New Year’s Day always sucked in our household for some reason . . . I think we share a nostalgia for childhood, or a lost childhood era at least. Look forward to seeing your pictures . . .

    T.

  4. Andrew,

    Yeah, even now it’s so nice to get out and walk that boardwalk – or along the beach – on a good day. Makes you think that maybe, just maybe, you can leave the city behind . . .

  5. Have you read Delirious New York by Rem Koolhaas? There are some wonderful musings and illustrations of Coney in this retroactive explanation of Manhattan’s architecture. Manages to capture the utopian, carnivalesque spirit of the place (much like the Ferlinghetti).

    • HI Cynthia – I’ve not the read the book but I’ll have to look for it, sounds great. Thanks for mentioning it.

      T.

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