Coney Island and the 20th Century Avant-Garde
In the late 1980s I wrote my last short story, “Skinny Takes a Walk,” which I self-published at that time in my magazine The Portable Lower East Side. In the story I take the subway out to the last stop in Brooklyn, walk over to a residential building a few blocks away, ride an elevator up to the 12th floor and stand in front of a door behind which my father is living. In the end, though, I don’t ring the bell, but rather turn around and take the elevator back down and walk around the Coney Island amusement park, boardwalk, and beach. Instead of actually avoiding my father, all I think about that fictional day are the stories he used to tell me about hanging out here as a kid. My trip to Coney Island in the short story is aimless, devoid of any great adventure and without any real connection to the place, and the story ends on a depressed note, wondering how I can do anything of value in a world in which everything of any consequence has already been done, a world in which my father had done so much more than I ever will.
As I mention in the story, Ida, my grandmother, lived in one of the dozens of identical International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union co-op buildings in Coney Island. As a young kid, the gangs of elderly Jews sitting on benches outside the buildings sunbathing and gossiping as they awaited approaching death used to scare me, as did the plastic seat covers on the toy-like furniture and the smell of camphor in my grandmother’s cramped apartment. Ida was a tiny old white-haired woman by the time I knew her, an immigrant from Odessa who had come over as a child during the pogroms and worked in Manhattan sweatshops throughout the Depression. At the beginning of the 20th century, more than one-third of New York City residents were immigrants, most from Europe and Russia, and although the majority of Russian and Eastern European Jews settled in the Lower East Side, many moved out to Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Williamsburg (where my father was born) and to Coney Island, where his mother moved after he ran away from home at the age of 16.
My grandmother died in the 1970s, and my father, an artist living in funky studios on the Lower East Side, moved into her Coney Island apartment, where he was living when I wrote this short story. On the not-so-frequent occasions that I visited him there, my father would get stoned and bombard me with messianic diatribes and artistic rants. To bring him down to earth a bit I would try to get him to tell me more stories about his life growing up in Brooklyn. The story that most disturbed and fascinated me was how he used to go on the Cyclone rollercoaster with the pinhead girls from the Freak Show and as the car careened around the curves and the pinheads were screaming in fear my father would reach over and squeeze their titties. The fact that my father as a young man (along with his friend and future filmmaker Mel Brooks) had worked as a barker for the Freak Show to get people to “Come on in and see the show,” meant that he had taken part in a significant piece of New York City history, while the pinhead breast-squeezing was a detail better than anything I could invent in fiction. This is probably the reason I gave up semi-autobiographical fiction and began writing semi-autobiographical nonfiction, instead.
If “Skinny Takes a Walk” has anything of value beyond what I lifted directly from my father’s life, it’s the references to Coney Island’s unique history. As I research this history more seriously today, I realize how my own experience of using Coney to bolster my own (meager and minor) literary production was common practice, and that in fact Coney Island provided not only essential material but also, more importantly, a fantastic, fictionalized aesthetic to many of the leading artists, writers, performers, and thinkers responsible for producing the 20th century avant-garde.
Although neither they nor any other indigenous group actually lived there, the Canarsie Indians would comb the Coney Island beach, which they called the “land without shadows,” for seashells to barter for other goods. When he sailed the Half Moon through uncharted territory in 1609 for the Dutch East India Company and first caught sight of this small beach island off the Atlantic coast of Brooklyn, the English Capitan Henry Hudson was one the first Europeans to behold what would eventually become the United States of America. Much like the famous purchase of Manhattan (which Hudson discovered the following day), the Dutch bought Coney Island from the local Indians for a few guns, gunpowder, and beads, among the sweetest real estate scams ever conducted.
In 1839, the pirates Gibbs and Wansley, after having jacked the treasure from the Vineyard as it sailed to Philadelphia, buried the chests of Mexican gold and silver coins within the uninhabited dunes in Coney Island. Caught soon afterwards, they were given the opportunity to return the treasure they had stolen and have their lives spared, but as the shifting sands had rearranged the monotonous landscape, the pirates wound up swinging from a rope. Almost 10 years later, during an exceptionally low tide, one local resident stumbled upon a thousand coins and a mini-gold rush overtook Coney Island. Since that time, Coney Island has been a constant destination of treasure seekers, gold diggers, and fortune hunters from all over the world, including those who traded in ideas and images.
The earliest seaside hotels in Coney, built in the 1840s, enticed NYC’s wealthy and cultural class to make the long trip in carriages for fresh air and tranquility. Few visitors of that time, however, actually went into the water, as most feared drowning or having the sea leech them of their essential salts, and it took decades and the assurance of doctors to convince visitors that it was not risky to bathe in the ocean. Herman Melville, Washington Irving, and Edgar Allan Poe all wandered around Coney Island, and Walt Whitman was a fan of Coney’s “long bare unfrequented shore […] where I loved after bathing to race up and down the hard sand, and declaim Homer or Shakespeare to the surf and seagulls by the hours.”
The Coney Island Elephant, one of many hotels designed to attend the needs of the increasing crowds of visitors, was built in 1885 out of wood and tin in the shape of a giant pachyderm, 122 feet high and seven floors tall. A cigar store operated out of one leg, several body parts were used as hotel rooms (and at times as a brothel), and the head was an observatory that offered vistas of the Atlantic Ocean through the eyes. The Elephant Hotel was merely the first of a long line of fantastic constructions in Coney as three huge amusement parks soon rose up in Coney Island, each one more spectacular and surreal. Steeplechase Park, Luna Park, and Dreamland boasted hundreds of extreme rides, lavish performances, and improbable structures, the latest and greatest in vernacular visionary aesthetics. Like the magic tricks performed within the parks, the architecture relied more on sleight of material and façades than actual foundations and constructions.
The Elephant Hotel was built one year before the Statue of Liberty, but even after the Iron Lady began officially greeting immigrants in the New York City harbor, the first glimpse of America that the “tired, huddled masses” saw as their ships arrived in the New World were the quixotic constructions and bright lights of Coney Island. Coney Island’s dream world was the perfect greeting card advertisement for America, a country that has always sold itself to the world not so much as a land of freedom but rather as a fantasy world where the most extravagant dreams come true.
Like Hollywood today, Coney has always fueled people’s fascination with death and disaster. Spectacular fireworks provided the special effects for the recreation of famous battles, such as the defeat of the Spanish fleet at Manila or that of the Russians at Vladivostok. Other natural disasters, such as the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, a tenement fire, and The Last Days of Pompeii (a show recreating the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, complete with a cast of 400 extras), were reenacted several times a day.
Miniature cities were erected in Coney to simulate exotic cultures. The Streets of Cairo, which opened in 1897, boasted Egyptian architecture and Kasbah-like alleyways. Besides offering camel rides, the attraction featured the wonders of the Turkish dancer named Little Egypt, the first and most famous hootchy-kootchy, muscle and belly dancer in all of America. Thousands of natives from far-off lands were brought to live permanently in Coney, including a tribe of more than 200 Spanish-speaking Filipinos who spent their workday blowing poison darts through reeds and making crafts; 18 Algerians who did tricks on horseback; a tribe of over 100 Somali warriors with self-inflicted scars on their bodies; 19 near-naked Wild Men from Borneo; and a real Hindu village transplanted intact to Coney.
Beauty and ugliness, physical prowess, and physical deformity were all equally exploited in Coney. Lilliputia, a half-scale city built to resemble 15th-century Nuremberg, housed 300 midgets from all over America who enjoyed their own Parliament, a Midget City Fire Department, and their own beach. Midgets were publicly married and divorced daily (unintentionally leading to dozens of children born out of wedlock). The Dreamland Circus Sideshow, the first major freak show in America created in 1911, included albinos, a man billed as a tattooed “art gallery,” a human salamander, a legless man, the tallest and the fattest lady in the world, and the very popular Zip, also know as “What is It,” a black-skinned pinhead with a small tuft of hair on his head. Several other freak shows sprung up in Coney Island to compete with the original, often employing simulated freaks (such as the famous Mexican Siamese twins who after a fight during one of their shows each walked their separate ways).
Many of the scientific wonders associated with Coney were actually imported or copied from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and later World’s Fairs. While these World’s Fairs displayed the latest technological advances to educate people and to advance science, Coney Island used technology to titillate people’s morbid curiosity. The Infant Incubator, basically a small hospital that housed a dozen or so iron-and-glass incubators heated by hot-water pipes connected to a central boiler, was designed to care for hundreds of babies that had been born prematurely. The fact that the emaciated babies could die at any moment made this one of the most popular exhibits in Coney.
Even more so than any single theme park or act, the greatest new technology on display in Coney Island, however, was electricity.
Only recently discovered, electricity powered the futuristic rides and at night lit up the amusement parks’ million electric light bulbs. Thomas Alva Edison, America’s most prolific inventor, not only patented the first electric light bulb he also patented a system to distribute electricity in 1880 and supplied much of New York City (including Coney) with direct current (DC).
Edison’s monopoly, however, was threatened by the higher voltages and cheaper distribution costs of alternating current (AC), invented by the Serbian Nikola Tesla and promoted by George Westinghouse. To take out the competition, Edison devoted much of his time and money convincing people that AC was dangerous by creating the electric chair just to illustrate the lethal potential of his competitor’s electricity. Edison offered public displays of the dangerous AC current in which he electrocuted (or as he referred to it, “Westinghoused”) all sizes and species of animals up to and including horses and cows. His greatest publicity stunt came in 1903 when Topsy, an elephant at Coney’s Luna Park Zoo, squashed three handlers (including one who had fed her a lit cigarette) and had to be put down. Copper wires attached to her feet were connected to an electrical plant and a 6,600-volt AC charge slammed through her body, frying Topsy instantly.
Besides killing animals in public, Edison was also responsible for another form of entertainment first introduced to the masses in Coney Island. Edison was granted a patent for the motion picture camera Kinetograph and for the Kinetoscope, a peephole viewer, both first publicly exhibited in 1891, and in 1896 the Vitascope, also manufactured by the Edison factory, was used to project motion pictures in public screenings in nickel theaters and outdoors at night. By 1906 as many as 30 moving picture venues were operating in Coney Island, with hundreds of tents and movie boxes showing films, as well.
Not only were the earliest films being viewed there, but Coney also served as the ideal location for producing films. In 1896, Edison started to film the rides, acts, and theme parks at Coney Island, and continued to do so over the next 10 years. Between 1895 and 1905, over 50 films were shot at Coney Island, including films of Harry Houdini performing such acts as the Substitution Trunk or Metamorphosis Illusion.
Films by the French production company Éclair brought Coney’s unique dreamlike theme parks and architecture to Europe and influenced a whole generation of artists and thinkers, including the avant-garde filmmaker George Méliès, known as a “cinemagician.” A Trip To The Moon, one of Luna Park’s most popular rides (850,000 tickets sold during the first summer), was installed in 1902, the same year that A Trip to the Moon, directed by Méliès and credited as the first science-fiction film, was shot, and the film’s theatrical sets and futuristic effects are surprisingly similar to the ride of the same name in Coney Island. Méliès was unable to release his film in the United States but Edison managed to get his hands on the film and made pirate copies that he distributed in movie venues in Coney Island and throughout the country, netting him a huge profit.
Coney Island dreamland architecture and theatrical extravaganzas might have been a major inspiration for the dream-drenched artwork and films of the European Surrealist movement, but their influence was even more direct in the creative horizon of many other avant-garde U. S. and European filmmakers. Little Fugitive, directed and shot by photographer Morris Engel in 1953, portrayed a day in the life of a kid lost in Coney Island, filmed in and around the amusement parks, boardwalk, and beach with camera in hand. The film won the Silver Lion prize in the Venice Film Festival and was a major influence on François Truffaut and his film 400 Blows, as well as a major influence on French New Wave Cinema.
Coney also provided the film world with future stars of the big screen. The Marx Brothers first performed together in Coney Island in 1908, while one of Buster Keaton’s first appearances was in Fatty Arbuckles’ 1917 movie entitled Coney Island. Although not shot in Coney Island, Freaks, directed in 1932 by Todd Browning (who had just made the box office success Dracula with Bela Lugosi the year before) was cast with many of the freaks from Coney Island’s Sideshow, including the bearded lady, midgets, and pinhead girls. (The idea of treating freaks as real human beings created such a scandal that Browning’s career never recovered.)
Even more than the featured performers, in Coney the crowds were the protagonists and the biggest attraction. Marilyn Monroe’s famous pose, with her white dress fluttering up in the air over a subway grating, might very well have come from Coney’s crowd-pleasing air vent that lifted women’s dresses as they stepped off of certain rides. One ride, the Barrel of Love, forced strangers, both men and women, into intimate physical contact, or had them come tumbling out head over heels into the jeering crowd, creating a semi-erotic reality show for the crowd’s enjoyment.
Walt Disney loathed Coney Island for he saw it as too crude and vulgar and too full of low-rent immigrants. Although the urban, erotic, exotic Coney was the opposite of the all-American fairytales Disney created, one of Disney’s finest films, Dumbo, about a female elephant who turns on her trainers when provoked, was based on the story of Coney’s Topsy. Even though Disney films dominated the animated film market in the U. S., Disney’s amusement parks could never match the success Coney Island enjoyed for decades (only five million people went to Disneyland the year it opened in 1955, compared to the 46 million people who visited Coney in 1943).
Although Disney attempted to avoid Coney Island’s cultural anarchism and cheap thrills, his work was very much inspired by the comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland. Little Nemo, the dream-child of Winsor McCay first published in the New York Herald at the beginning of the 20th century, was arguably the most surreal children’s comic ever, and by far the most avant-garde in its design and layout. Living in nearby Sheepshead Bay, McCay lifted many of the most fantastic architectural landscapes within his comic strip directly from Coney’s theme parks, and the typography and titles were inspired by its sideshow posters and signs, while the very name Slumberland in the comic’s title was surely inspired by Dreamland. McCay’s versions of Coney Island’s Human Roulette Wheel, the Laughing Mirror Gallery and the Loop the Loop, as well as the air vents in the floor routine, were amongst the most striking images within Little Nemo. Like many other artists, the settings of Little Nemo’s worldwide adventures that McCay didn’t get from firsthand travel experience were mostly likely borrowed from Coney Island’s theme
Due to all the film and cultural production that was inspired by its theme parks, Coney Island’s fantastic allure reached far and wide, stimulating the European subconscious. Intellectuals and artists from all over the world were irresistibly drawn to the buzzing lights of Coney. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung stood and watched Coney Island pass by as their ocean liner, the George Washington, was tugged into the New York harbor in 1909. On deck that day Jung gushed about how they were bringing enlightenment to the New World, to which Freud dryly replied that they were bringing with them the plague (the dreamland called psychoanalysis). Freud, an analyst of dreamlands of the mind, also remarked: “The only thing about America that interests me is Coney Island.”
The Russian writer Maxim Gorky came to Coney Island in 1907 and, wowed by the electric lights and fantastic constructions, wrote about the “fantastic city all of fire […] Fabulous and beyond conceiving, ineffably beautiful, is this fiery scintillation.” Another visit in the daytime changed his views. In his essay “Boredom,” Gorky went on to note: “The city, magic and fantastic from afar, now appears an absurd jumble of straight lines of wood, a cheap, hastily constructed toy house for the amusement of children. […] Everything is stripped naked by the dispassionate glare. The glare is everywhere, and nowhere a shadow,” (unknowingly referring to Coney’s original, indigenous name). Along the same lines, E. E. Cummings remarked how in the “theater we are merely deceived, at Coney we deceive ourselves.”
In 1926, the Mexican José Juan Tablada, a longtime New York City resident and the man credited for bringing Mexican poetry into the modern era, wrote about the Coney Island Freak Show: “... long before Coney Island rose out of the ocean like a common, commercial Venus, Montezuma had jesters, dwarves and hunchbacks, caged beasts and botanic gardens.”
José Martí, another longtime New York City resident, realized Coney Island’s importance to American culture, calling it “that immense valve of pleasure opened to an immense nation.” Yet this champion of popular culture and democratic values wrote disparagingly about the crowds at Coney, condescendingly noting that “such people eat quantity; we, quality.” Martí wasn’t referring so much to the hot dog, invented and sold by the millions in Coney Island, but about the whole Coney experience, which he believed epitomized the cheapness and excesses of the American imagination.
Federico García Lorca felt the same as Martí, describing Coney Island as, “monstrous,” as well as “stupendous although excessive.” Yet it is just the monstrous American technological and cultural excesses best epitomized by Coney Island that gave rise to the surreal, grotesque flights of fancy in Lorca’s own poetry. In his “Landscape of a Vomiting Multitude (Dusk at Coney Island),” his greatest poem from the collection Poet in New York (1929), an afternoon trip to the amusement parks inspires delirious images that perfectly mirror the spectacles in Coney and helped usher in European avant-garde poetry.
With jammed-packed crowds of summer beachgoers and fun-seekers letting it all hang out and playing up to the camera, Coney Island has long provided the raw material for some of the 20th century’s greatest photographers. Weegee’s best known photo was taken of the Coney Island beach on the 4th of July in 1938, while Coney provided Diane Arbus and many other photographers with some of their most iconic images of freaks, decadence, and failed dreams.
The mere inclusion of Coney Island within their work has given many artists and writers a huge boost in both critical and commercial success. In his 1935 story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” Delmore Schwartz uses the Coney Island boardwalk and amusement parks as the backdrop for a filmic recreation of the day his father proposed marriage to his mother. Written when he was only 21 years old and hailed by the poets Wallace Stevens and T. S. Eliot for ushering in a new narrative form, the story achieves its vanguard status in large part by introducing Coney Island’s working-class culture and history into a highbrow literary medium (my own short story, inspired in part by Delmore’s work, created no such literary excitement).
Lou Reed, a student of Delmore and his greatest fan, struck gold as well with his 1975 album Coney Island Baby, in which the title track, despite its name, is actually about his football team in a Long Island school and only mentions his “Coney Island baby” in passing at the end of the title song. In 1958, the San Franciscan Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti published a collection of poems entitled “Coney Island of the Mind.” Even though it was barely referred to within the book, Coney Island’s presence in the title and a photo of one of its theme parks at night made it the best-selling American book of poetry ever and showed just how much influence Coney exerted on the American highbrow imagination.
By the mid-1960s, the three main amusement parks that had inspired so many filmmakers, poets, artists, and thinkers from all around the world had burned to the ground (a victim of their own electric fantasies), marking the end of Coney’s golden age. Despite the fact that some rides and games survived, and despite the fact that the boardwalk and beach still attracted millions of visitors in the summer, Coney Island ceased being America’s favorite dreamland destination. Like other inner-city neighborhoods with large minority populations in New York City during the economic downturn in the late ’60s and ’70s, social services were slashed, the white middle- and upper-classes fled to the suburbs, and Coney Island was overrun by gangs and crime. Low-income housing projects, with mainly black and Puerto Rican families stuffed into tiny apartments, replaced much of the area the amusement parks had occupied. At this time, right when I first starting going out there with my family and then later on my own, most tourists kept away from Coney except during the summer weekends or holidays, and the elderly, Jewish residents, such as my grandmother, tended to huddle nervously within their apartments.
The dreamlike fantasy of Coney that had so inspired poets and intellectuals for decades was replaced by a tough, crime-ridden world. Yet, even during these hard times Coney managed to find its way into and inspire some of the greatest works of urban realism, including Sol Yurick’s 1965 novel Warriors (adapted to the screen by director Walter Hill in 1979), a tale of New York City gangs that travel from the Bronx all the way to their home turf in Coney Island. Hubert Selby’s 1978 novel Requiem for a Dream (decades later directed for the screen by Darren Aronofsky), the story of the amphetamine addiction of an elderly Jewish woman living in the Jewish housing projects and the crimes her son commits to feed his heroin habit, all take place within the bleak backdrop of Coney Island.
Yet just when it seemed that the Coney Island dream world had smashed against the daily grind, a new wave of Russian-Jewish immigration began to repopulate the area in and around Coney Island in the ’80s and ’90s. Jews were among the few people allowed to emigrate from Russia before the Berlin Wall came down, and Odessa in the Ukraine supplied the largest portion of early immigrants to Brighton Beach (which soon became known as Little Odessa), settling along a beach community that remarkably resembled the city they had just left. (The sea-front city of Odessa had itself been an artistic motor, home to a group of avant-garde Jewish writers that were eventually executed for being “rootless cosmopolitans” during the 1949 Stalin-orchestrated Night of the Murdered Poets).
Although much of the immigration was organized and populated by the Russian mafia, it helped “whiten” the neighborhood, lower crime, and increase real estate value, thus eventually making the area attractive for larger, corporate developers. In 2005, a developer purchased Coney Island’s last remaining amusement park and razed it to install three expensive, Disneyworld rides. This same developer has been lobbying to receive permission to build a shiny glass and metal, Las Vegas-style hotel complex so tall it would dwarf the Wonder Wheel. While approval for this hotel complex is currently pending, several decades-old boardwalk restaurants have been torn down and replaced by venues where middle- and upper-class families can consume behind thick windows that buffer the noise and sight of the “huddled masses” outside.
In his book Delirious New York, superstar architect Rem Koolhaas dedicated a chapter to Coney Island in which he describes it as the “fetus” of what was to become Manhattan’s skyscraper center. Yet it is precisely this corporate skyscraper culture, the same one which recently decimated the ethnic and cultural hotbed that was once Times Square, that now threatens to drag Coney Island into the global tourism market. As it inevitably tilts toward mid-American and European package tourism, as glass towers and insurance-friendly rides displace the old theatrical façades and haunted houses, and as corporate interests consolidate their stake in the area and national chains such as Hooters are set to arrive, the artistic and intellectual attraction of Coney Island has finally ended.
Due to its bawdy excesses, cheap theatrics, and technological innovation, its prefab fantasy and futuristic fictions, Coney Island remained at the forefront of modern life and culture for nearly a century, and more than any other single place on this planet figured prominently in and inspired the work and imagination of some of the greatest American and European avant-garde thinkers and creators. This privileged cultural position has been lost, and Coney Island will never again provide material for our era’s greatest fictional fantasies.
Twenty-five years after writing my short story “Skinny Takes a Walk,” I step off of the elevated subway in Coney Island and walk through the 4th of July heat and crowds on my way to visit my father. More than two decades ago, I abandoned New York City, which I felt had betrayed its long history of political and cultural opposition, to live in Mexico City, where corporate culture is only now devouring the city and its working-class culture, but I’m back here now on assignment to write about and photograph Coney Island for a Mexican cultural magazine that paid my plane ticket and expenses. I spend the day smoking pot and taking photographs of all the people sitting on the boardwalk benches, and in the afternoon I walk over to visit my dad.
After having lived and painted for a couple of decades in upstate New York in a 20-room house with half a barn in front of a river and train tracks, my father is currently spending what’s left of his life in a retirement home 20 blocks from Coney Island. Within this modern “home,” elderly Jews, Russians, and Brooklynites shuttle around the hallways in wheelchairs in no hurry to go anywhere. Although I wish my father would once again recount to me his early adventures, filling in some of the blanks of his early life and what it was like hanging out in Coney Island over 70 years ago, he will never add a single word to his past stories, as he suffered a massive stroke over 10 years ago and is now semi-paralyzed and unable to speak.
I unsteadily wheel my father out through the huge revolving door of the retirement home and then speed up, exaggerating the curves and maneuvering him over to the oceanfront walkway as if we were making a run for it. Instead, I slam the brakes on and then sit down on a bench next to him, watching the seagulls fly overhead, the dirty waves bumping against the concrete wall, and take a few photos of him in front of the Atlantic Ocean. The Wonder Wheel, the Cyclone, and the abandoned Parachute Jump, locally known as the Brooklyn Eiffel Tower, colossal structures that have witnessed the rise and fall of “America’s Playground,” appear as dim lines in the background of the photos.
The sun beats down hard on my shaved head and when I can’t take the heat any longer I stand up and slowly wheel my father back inside the air-conditioned building. An image of the elderly people here ramming their wheelchairs into each other like the Coney Island bumper cars I used to ride as a kid flashes through my mind but quickly fizzles out as we arrive at my father’s room. The reality of aging and dying is just too overpowering to let imagination take wing within these grey-green walls. I park him in front of the television and kiss him goodbye on his forehead in a clumsy, ashamed, and sad way, not knowing when or even if I will see him or Coney Island ever again.