Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
In 200 images, this book catalogs how a swath of sand and surf has captured artists’ imagination for more than 147 years.
On any given summer afternoon, if you were to tumble out of the D train at its terminus at Surf Avenue in Brooklyn, you’d see fluorescent signs hawking pizza and splashy drinks, and the rickety wooden skeleton of the Cyclone roller coaster against a blue backdrop, some mix of water and sky. It would be loud. You’d hear folks trumpeting their midway games, or snippets of music blaring from rides. It would smell like sunscreen and fryer grease, and maybe a little bit of brine.
Over a century ago, of course, the landscape was strikingly different. Samuel Carr’s 1879 painting Beach Scene (above) depicts a swath of sand that doubles as a promenade—men in three-piece suits escorting ladies twirling parasols. This early depiction of the beach that would become Coney Island just begins to nod to its status as an amusement park. There’s a modest, portable puppet theater at left; in the center of the painting, a family poses for a tin-type photograph. It’s already a place to be seen, but bears little resemblance to today’s raucous environment.
That quickly changed. Spurred on by the technological innovation on display at World’s Fairs and in the business of building skyscrapers, Coney Island installed mechanical rides lit by electrified bulbs. It dialed up the fantasy. By 1885, a 150-foot-tall hotel in the shape of an elephant towered over the beach. (The 31-room structure burned down in 1896; it’s memorialized in the Barnum & Bailey lithograph, below.) By 1909, Hampton’s Magazine had declared of Coney Island:
It is blatant, it is cheap, it is the apotheosis of the ridiculous. But it is something more: it is like Niagara Falls, or the Grand Canyon, or Yellowstone Park; it is a national playground; and not to have seen it is not to have seen your own country.
In the catalog, Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008 ($50, Yale University Press), Robin Jaffee Frank—a curator at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut—tracks the evolution of Coney Island through 200 images of art and ephemera spanning nearly 150 years. (The book accompanies an exhibition by the same name; it’s in San Antonio from May through September, and made previous stops in Hartford, San Diego, and Brooklyn.)
Coney Island is an amusement park, of course, but Frank proposes that it’s also a theater of public life playing out by the sea. It’s captured the imagination of all manner of writers, singers, painters, and visual artists. (It’s starred in Seinfeld, The Golden Girls, Futurama, Annie Hall, in songs and music videos by Lana del Ray and even the New Kids on the Block, and—in fictionalized form—in the video game Grand Theft Auto IV.) The park served as a diversion during the Great Depression, World War II, and crises before and after—a spectacular microcosm of (and distraction from) life in the city. The composition of the throngs of visitors also nods to sweeping changes in urban demographics; Frank describes the crowds becoming ever more heterogeneous in terms of class, race, and ethnicity.
And even as increasingly dazzling entertainment outpaces the roller coasters and fun houses, rendering them humble in comparison, the area hasn’t lost its cultural significance. “Though the historic amusement area has contracted, now to a small fraction of its expanse a century ago,” Frank writes, “its contents and contradictions remain not only a site of memory, but the stuff of contemporary American life.”