By Nicola Sayers
A visit to Coney Island in the high heat of summer gives one the definite impression of being in the thick of something. Sweaty New Yorkers of all kinds, colours and levels of crazy bat it out on the boardwalk. On the beach, flesh is less distinguishable from sand than both are from the brightly coloured kites that bluster impatiently above, as if longing to break free from the murky mass to which they are tied. But – even up as high as the kites – squeals of delight and horror reverberate from the rides across the boardwalk, mocking the poor kites in their stunted search for silence. On the ground, stillness fares no better. The drunk and downtrodden lurk in corners and on benches, their groans muffled by the children’s eagerness and the parents’ weariness, a cacophony of moms and maybes and mwahs and mehs.
And yet it could not be said – not now, and not for a long time – that to visit Coney Island is to be in the thick of ‘it’. The din of dirty fair-goers is not the sound of apprehension; its ring is off-kilter, strangely out-of-date. This was not always the case. Around the turn of the century Coney, as it was then known, was a potent symbol of America’s promise. The premier tourist destination in the country, its bright and sparkling light was also the first American sight that immigrants arriving on boat via New York Harbour beheld. Steam-trains from downtown Brooklyn brought droves of visitors in and out daily - both the working classes, who sought romance and escape from the monotony of the factory, and the affluent, who were catered for by cutting-edge luxury hotels and restaurants. The excitement was palpable.
From its beginnings, Coney Island has always been something of a kaleidoscope, presenting a contradictory picture to different eyes, and from different angles. In its multifarious inhabitants and visitors Walt Whitman, way back in 1847, saw reflected the inclusive democratic American ideal to which he, perhaps more than any other, gave voice; and the appeal of this vibrant outpost – home to Jews, Latinos, African Americans and more – would find many defenders over the years. To others, it epitomized sin: the drunks, hustlers and harlots each outdoing one another in vice. That it was for a long time home to some serious criminal networks gave the indignant bourgeois a further perch to stand on, of the crowd but morally apart from it, bolstered by a dizzying mix of desire and fear. These same bourgeois – who continued to visit Coney Island in increasing numbers – were themselves the subject of scorn to yet other eyes. The Russian author Maxim Gorky, on visiting Coney in 1907, wrote damningly of ‘the slavery of a varied boredom’. To Gorky, the electric lights shone only with a ‘dead, indifferent sparkle’ which concealed ‘weary faces’ and ‘colourless eyes.’
Perhaps the ability to read the whole range of human possibility in Coney is true in all funfairs, theme parks, and circuses: indeed anywhere where capital and carnival combine, throwing off any too neat distinction between freedom and un-freedom, hope and despair. In Vegas, too, looking into the eyes of an old couple clutching their annual savings in plastic chips, my heart hurt - equally for the hope, the humanity, that shone in their eyes as for its tragi-comic outlet. But in Coney the sense of a place that can’t once and for all be tied down, or ever fully made sense of, is heightened by two things: its geography and its changing historical fortune. As Isaac Bashevis Singer, Yiddish novelist and former Coney resident, reflects in a 1971 New Yorker article, ‘No matter how time and space are defined […] it is impossible to be simultaneously in Brooklyn and Manhattan’. Coney Island is always at the same time both not-Manhattan but defined by its proximity to the metropolis; how it is conceived and experienced stands not only on its own merits but on its relation to that more prominent other.
The tide of history has not been kind to Coney Island. At the turn of the century its light shone auspiciously, and it remained an exciting fixture of the New York landscape through the pre-war years, immortalized for many in Woody Allen’s depiction of having grown up in the house under the roller coaster in Annie Hall. Post-war, however, due to a variety of factors, Coney began a grim decline into near collapse – always just ticking on, admittedly, but with an increasing reputation as antiquated and irrelevant. Its once-shiny technologies now appeared historic, its shows lacklustre and its visitors humdrum. Where the gritty and the glamorous had once jostled together, now the elites vacated and the hotels shut down, leaving only the poor and the middling to muddle along. The sole resurrection and source of vitality in these dreary years was gang-life, which flourished anew in the fifties and sixties – in Coney as well as in other Brooklyn frontiers such as Red Hook, as reflected in Marlon Brando’s watery eyes in On The Waterfront.
Beginning in the 1980s, an effort at renewal has ensured some commercial success, but it is still more concerned with legacy than any genuine revitalization. The advertising, the hot dogs served at the now iconic Nathan’s, and even the rides themselves seem unchanged since Coney’s pre-war hey-day – somewhat worryingly in the case of the infamous Cyclone: built in 1927, restored in 1975, and still trilling unnervingly with the same rickety wooden slats that must have seemed so fresh to its original riders. Its proximity to Manhattan, having once lent it relevance on the American stage, now merely serves as a reminder that while Manhattan has moved headlong into the twenty-first century, Coney remains stuck. Its marginality to the heaving centre now provides a dusty, almost homely quality: like that of a film star’s poor cousin, who was once afforded a moment of fame by the relation, but whose return to the ordinary then stings all the more, every item in her wardrobe palpably less-than her cousin’s.
And yet part of the allure of Coney Island today is exactly in its antiquation, the almost eerily out-of-date sense that today’s visitor experiences. In Coney, time is out of joint. This out-of-joint-ness, this in-between-ness, aligns with a current nostalgia aesthetic. Anywhere or anything that emanates a vague past-ness is desirable to today’s young, and so, ironically, Coney Island finds itself strangely in vogue precisely because of how outdated it is. Photographs of its hotdog stands and rollercoasters populate endless blogs and tumblrs, a testament to a kind of collective longing. What do the young seek in these dilapidated signs, this weary outpost? Perhaps they are searching for vestiges of the lost dream of the carnivalesque, faded in the face of more totally and totalizingly corporate entertainment? Perhaps they see glimmering in Coney’s rickety rides the impossible promise of authentic experience, of a world outside of Baudrillard’s simulacra? Or is it the anti-utility of the place? Just as Walter Benjamin was mesmerised by the outmoded Paris Arcades, do today’s searchers hear in the tinny tunes of Coney a truth that is obscured by relevance: the magic of the marginal.
Another thing: unlike for its starry cousin, the train of gentrification has not stopped yet at this remote station. The gangsters may be gone but the middle classes have not colonized these elusive streets. On a recent visit to Coney, I found myself mesmerised by a Hasid in a baseball cap and bare feet, himself mesmerized by a sand-castle competition. The image of this unlikely enthusiast somehow typifies the delightfully errant logic of that breezy boardwalk.
But above all, to me, it is in the off-season that Coney Island’s magic really comes to light. All of the sweaty crowds and clowns disperse and the rollercoasters stand, sometimes under a thin film of snow, creaking quietly. And everything waits for the now-tired cycle to begin again. A visitor in these eerie months would be forgiven for thinking it abandoned, were it not for the promise of renewed vitality brimming through in small signs here and there: an open 7-eleven, the odd stray tourist who has heard of Coney Island but hadn’t realized it would shut shop, or a lone photographer there to document the gentle but imposing emptiness. It stands proudly; during the winter it is unaffected by changing fortunes and reputations. After all, no one is there to laud or lambast it. Yet still it stands: a strangely magisterial testament to the forgotten fact of summer, and childhood, and of a promise that lies dormant but might yet surprise.
Nicola Sayers is working on a PhD about nostalgia in contemporary American culture. Like many of the Frankfurt School theorists that inspire her work, she is drawn to the obscure, the marginal and the outdated, and believes that among such ruins and faded dreams there are clues to understanding our contemporary condition. She lives in London but dreams often of America.