Under the pier, down by the sea…..
by Richard McLachlan
Standing in the company of the immaculate and the chic heading into Manhattan, the man on the subway platform in shorts and sandals, with a bucket and a fishing rod, is most likely heading the other way to the pier at Coney Island. It’s that easy. You just get on the train and go there.
Coney Island is a legendary seaside attraction that has been exerting its pull on New Yorkers since 1840. Once a separate strip of sand named for its wild rabbit population (konijn in Dutch), it was later attached to the main body of Brooklyn by landfill. Like much of that part of the coast, and given the storm surges of Hurricane Sandy, Coney Island should be occupied only by clumps of grass and seabirds. Instead there are 60,000 people in multi-storey apartment buildings living among the faded remnants of a once-spectacular fantasyland.
Every year still, there is a Mermaid Parade in the middle of the summer where people dance in the street and paint their bodies like fish, wear scallop shell pasties and purple hair, or dress up as Neptune and carry a trident. Single prop light aircraft still fly back and forth towing banners advertising insurance products and showbiz events. Despite the mythic role of Coney Island whitefish (used condoms afloat in the shallows), the water is fine to swim in and the beach clean to lie on, even if you are all shoulder-to-shoulder.
Its heyday was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when giant amusement parks competed for customers with ever more elaborate offerings. But thousands of people still go there by train all through the brutally hot New York summer. Lines of slow-moving silver carriages – shining in the sun during the day, or their rows of lighted windows glowing in the night, provide a backdrop wherever you are as they rumble nonstop over the elevated lines to and from the giant subway terminal. Four different subway lines end at Coney Island – and one more just up the road at Brighton Beach.
If you live in Washington Heights on the upper, upper West side, or across the Harlem River in the Bronx, there is a day at the beach with food and rides just an air-conditioned subway trip away. For $2.75 you can get there from almost anywhere in New York.
Coney Island has been burned and pulled down and rebuilt many times over. Parts of its storied history are still there in paintings on the walls of its broken down and abandoned buildings – faded and peeling murals of anthropomorphic fish, mermaids, Neptune with his trident. Nathan’s Famous hot dogs and sauerkraut or deep fried clams are still a big item, and have been since 1916. The annual hotdog-eating contest is a dubious legend that both appalls and delights. Along with Brighton in the UK, Coney Island is the ur seaside resort. Its shabbiness is just fine – there is nothing to prove, nothing to re-present or thematize.
In the Museum of Folk Art in Manhattan there is a wooden lion carved by Marcus Illions in 1910. It’s from a Coney Island carousel. Illions, who came from Eastern Europe was known as the Michelangelo of carousel carvers. He was one of a group of immigrant Jewish wood carvers, who provided both ritual pieces for synagogues and carousel animals for fairgrounds. In the early 1900s there were ten of his carousels operating in Coney Island. The magnificent jeweled wooden horses decorated with gold and silver leaf were carved in what became known as ‘The Coney Island style’.
In its early days, Coney Island was so connected in the public mind with racketeering, gambling and ‘three-card monte men’, open prostitution and general louche behavior that it became known to the disapproving as ‘Sodom by the Sea’. The construction of the 15 acre Steeplechase Park in 1897 was a conscious decision, after the imprisonment of one of the gang bosses, to abandon petty crime and pursue a greater cash flow from fun-seeking middle and working class people.
Opening 5 years after Steeplechase, Luna Park had Venetian canals with gondolas, Irish and Eskimo villages, trained elephants, dancing girls, horses and golden chariots, regiments of soldiers, a Dante’s Inferno, and a cyclorama ‘Trip to the Moon’. This luminous fantasy world by the sea was made possible with 250,000 electric lights. Dreamland, which opened soon after, upped the ante to a million lights – and a Lilliputian village with 300 miniature human inhabitants, two scenic railways and a three-ring circus. This was Coney Island’s zenith with all three parks competing to be more amazing than the others.
Like vast film sets, the parks were built quickly and cheaply from wooden lathe covered with a mix of plaster and fiber called ‘staff’. It was very flammable. Steeplechase burned down in 1907 and was rebuilt. Dreamland was entirely razed in 1911, sending a panicked lion out onto Surf Avenue. Luna Park finally closed after several fires, in 1946.
All that remains of the rebuilt Steeplechase Park is the parachute jump, a steel frame tower that flares out at the top – the ‘Eiffel Tower of Brooklyn’. It is illuminated throughout the summer nights with shifting patterns of colored lights moving up and down its 250 feet.
Steeplechase Park was bought and erased in 1964 by a developer called Fred Trump, father of Donald. Fred wanted to build luxury apartments on the property. He had determined to destroy Steeplechase before it could be given heritage designation. He believed that once the big theme parks had all disappeared, Coney Island’s amusement area would die off and be ripe for development. In fact he had trouble getting the property rezoned and ended up with a vacant lot for ten years, before leasing it back to a small-time amusement park operator, and then selling out to the city.
Among his much less entertaining efforts to get the property re-zoned, Fred organized a funeral for amusement parks in Coney Island. Here’s what he did: he invited the press and had young women in bikinis hand out hot-dogs – and then stones. Fred, having cast the first, invited the participants to throw their stones through the stained-glass windows of the pavilion. He then had the Beaux-Arts building bulldozed and pronounced the amusement park dead as a concept.
Donald, heir to the family business and a proud philistine himself, has at the time of writing the support of 24 percent of registered Republican voters and is at least 10 points ahead of his nearest (and frequently changing) rival. No-one I’ve met or read seriously believes he will secure the Republican nomination, much less the presidency. Although in some quarters uncertainty is creeping in.
Donald’s improvised vision for ‘making America great again’ by building a wall across the Mexican border to keep people out, penalizing and then deporting ‘illegal’ immigrants, returning jobs to America from elsewhere, and ‘getting tough on China’, seems as uncoupled from 21st century reality as the fantasy world of the Steeplechase theme park finally laid to waste by his father.
But reality is not the issue here. There are tens of thousands of Americans who adore Donald and his preparedness to ‘tell it like it really is’. They stand outside of overflowing venues watching giant TV screens just to catch a glimpse of the billionaire straight talker who in some mysterious way persuades that he is just like them. And he’s so compelling, irresistible to all media, that Trump’s exposure completely eclipses his rivals for the nomination.
Here’s Jon Stewart: “Donald Trump is the candidate version of the hot dog-crust pizza… You don’t want it, you never ordered it. You can’t believe someone came up with it. But now it’s all you want to eat.” For some commentators, including Donald himself, he’s a contemporary P.T. Barnum, the great 19th century American huckster who manufactured fantasy worlds in which people would happily pay to participate.
The conditions for working class Americans (other than some recent rises in the minimum wage) have shown little or no sign of improvement for many years. And yet white working-class voters without a college degree support Trump far more than any other candidate. He is independent of fundraisers and corporate donors and seems able to do and say exactly what he wants, however goofy, and get away with it. “I’m really rich,” he says, like a six-year old informing the other kids at the birthday party that his Dad is a policeman.
A recent New York Times ‘psychoanalysis’ of The Donald claims he is mortified at the thought of being seen as a sucker, of being laughed at and, according to one commentator, his constituency feels the same way. They are “People who are afraid that they are being made suckers too. Mr. Trump’s angry certainty that immigrants and other losers are destroying the country while the cultural elites that look down on him stand by and do nothing resonates strongly with the less-educated, lower-income whites who appear to be his base.” The world he paints for his audiences is a place where you can avoid the threatening demand for thought and nuance in actual government. As Trump says about policy, “I know the press wants it…. I don’t think the people care. I think they trust me. I think they know I’m going to make good deals for them.”
You can no longer make out on a blanket with your baby under the Coney Island boardwalk – that once big and semi-private space has now been filled with sand. But there is still the individual cabins of the Wonder Wheel for a bit of privacy, the giant Ferris wheel’s gears and cogs creaking through two slow revolutions for $7, giving a bird’s eye view of the entire fun fair. The Cyclone, a wooden rollercoaster that will rearrange your spinal column in a few minutes, and the Wonder Wheel are now protected by heritage orders and will both soon be 100 years old.
Hurricane Sandy took out Coney Island and the Rockaways in spectacular fashion. The New York aquarium, destroyed by the storm, is almost rebuilt and will soon have, as an initial draw-card, a functioning shark tank. On Friday nights all through summer, there are spectacular free fireworks on the beach and thousands of people come to ride the rides, lick ice cream from Coney’s Cones, and crowd the boardwalk to watch starbursts of colored lights explode over the bay.
New York, despite its chaotic, ‘city-that-never-sleeps’ image, is a highly regulated and heavily policed environment. But at Coney Island that need to control seems to fall from view, submerged in the heaving throng of parents and children, groups of teenagers and other adults. It is an escape route for poor people to a place where entertainment is cheap and for an evening, however low on the social hierarchy, you can act as though you have a complete right to be there.
Coney Island today is a shabby but glorious and much loved remnant of what it was 100 years ago. It is hard to imagine this lowbrow fantasy-land out on the edge of the city disappearing altogether. If ‘The Donald’ represents America’s id let loose in politics, then Coney Island is the other side – the place where no-one is going to laugh at you for being a sucker. It’s okay to pony up a few dollars to play ‘wack-a-mole’ and know you’ll likely lose on the deal, and then scare yourself silly in the Spook-a-Rama or on the Cyclone, safe in the knowledge you’ll be heading back to reality on the subway later that night.
Coney Island and Trump share something more than just his Dad’s program to kill off the amusement park. The vision offered by Trump is, after all, a political Coney Island-of-the-mind – a giant wall right across the country; a lurid Spook-a-Rama of Mexicans as drug-dealers, murderers, and rapists – a cartoon world of ‘those people’ with fish tails and outlandishly big noses, and hastily drawn bad state-actors like China, who are out to make sure we don’t win any more.
There is more than just a nodding acquaintance here between Trump and his fellow Republican competitors, and the Coney Island micro circus – where the guy drives a six inch nail into his forehead while his friend lifts an anchor attached by chains to hooks in his eye sockets, and the sword swallower and Serpentina with her Golden Python wait in the wings for their turn to be next on stage.