Meander through Coney Island’s bleak, ramshackle fairgrounds and it is virtually impossible to conjure the fairyland of decades past. Today’s empty lots and automobile parks after sparkled with thousands upon thousands of bulbs, all blinking with the promise of pleasure. The Brooklyn Museum’s Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008, filters the spirit of the electric Eden through the eyes of those who treasured it. This cornucopia of a show jumbles carved carousel horses, postcards, salvaged ghouls, film clips, souvenirs and paintings to glorious and melancholy effect. The show ignores developers’ futuristic daydreams for the Coney Island of tomorrow and alternatively drifts off on a plume of nostalgia. The halcyon days are not coming back.
A spit of land linked to the rest of Brooklyn by a private-toll causeway in the 1820s, Coney Island began developing as a resort right after the Civil War. An 1868 guidebook listed the wide, sandy shore as the greatest beach on the Atlantic coast, and higher-finish hotels materialised for overnight guests from Brooklyn and beyond. By 1873, weekenders numbered in the tens of thousands.
A foyer at the exhibition’s entrance contains painted glimpses of those early holidaymakers. Samuel S. Carr’s “Beach Scene” (1879), for instance, bundles a variety of amusements into a single picture. A transportable puppet theatre holds one group rapt, although nearby, a loved ones poses stiffly for an itinerant tintype photographer. In the background, a beruffled toddler, shaded by his nanny’s umbrella, perches on a donkey. An additional of Carr’s paintings depicts a father-son acrobatic team surrounded by smartly dressed bystanders.
Inside a few years, railway connections opened access to day-trippers, and a bouquet of fantastical parks sprang up to delight them. The nation’s 1st rollercoaster opened there in 1884, and Steeplechase Park quickly followed. Leo McKay’s panorama (1903-6) portrays an otherworldly location exactly where thrill-seekers could take to the track on mechanical horseback, cruise on naphtha-powered gondolas along Venetian canals, plumb Dante’s infernal regions, or take a cyclorama trip to a green-cheese Moon. They could also ride genuine elephants.
The elephant recurs like a undesirable dream in this exhibition, an emblem of mindless exoticism and exploitation. In 1885, James Lafferty constructed the “Elephant Hotel”, a 122-foot tall animal with tin skin and glass eyes that straddled the beach like a Colossus of Brooklyn. The hind legs hid the staircase to the torso’s 31 rooms and ocean views.
The landmark rising from a bed of lights was the first glimpse that immigrants got of the United States, even just before they entered New York Harbor or set eyes on the Statue of Liberty. It stares out of posters for Barnum and Bailey’s travelling “Coney Island Water Carnival”, which was staged at indoor arenas all through Europe and featured a water tank 376ft extended and 40ft wide. The beast itself became an icon of American hedonism as the hotel devolved into a brothel and the phrase “Seeing the Elephant” became code for louche adventures. The structure burnt down in 1896, its notoriety soon eclipsed by a real pachyderm’s demise.
In 1903, Topsy, an Asian female with a properly-cultivated reputation for nastiness, was poisoned, electrocuted and strangled ahead of a small gathering of reporters and guests — as well as a film crew from the Edison Manufacturing movie company. The gruesome footage, originally meant to be viewed on coin-operated kinescopes, can be seen at the museum. It can’t, however, be forgotten. This nightmare of sadistic sensationalism was dreamt up by the exact same hucksters who built the ethereal amusement mecca, Luna Park.
Coney Island toggled between “America’s Playground” and “Sodom on the Sea”, and the artist who greatest understood its fusion of joy and darkness, of the beautiful and the grotesque, was Reginald Marsh. In the course of the Depression, even though his peers waded into politics, Marsh turned his gaze upon tawdry emporiums of distraction and escape. In paintings like “Wonderland Circus” and “Pip and Flip”, the amusement park appears as a sulphurous dream, where half-clad beauties mingle with seedy sailors, barkers and freaks. Marsh’s populism bears a lurid sheen: the canvases explode with exposed flesh and wallow salaciously in “entertainments” enjoyed by individuals of every race and class.
The second world war saw the apex of this democratic idyll. Gasoline rationing produced subway excursions the only available kind, and soldiers on their way overseas lingered and mingled with temporarily liberated girls. A 1943 painting by Yasuo Kuniyoshi — labelled an enemy alien right after Pearl Harbor — depicts a blond sailor on the boardwalk seeking out to the Atlantic whilst the Asian woman he will leave behind clings to him, her face a mask of despair.
The show largely averts its gaze from the neighbourhood’s postwar decline. The fade-out was gradual and incomplete. Low-cost gasoline permitted middle-class New Yorkers to flee the scorching city for Lengthy Island’s pristine beaches. A poorer clientele kept the faith but couldn’t support the fancier establishments. Street gangs expanded their turf, and city government sealed the area’s reputation as a dumping ground for the poor by ringing it with higher-rise public housing projects. In 1964, Fred Trump (father of The Donald) gleefully razed the legendary Steeplechase Park, but never ever managed to replace it with something.
Ruination can be great for art, and even an exhibition that would prefer not to know contains a few moving documents of that decay. Robert Frank’s 1962 series “Fourth of July” has a racial subtext. 1 black man contorts in his sleep, the sand about him flecked with garbage. An additional, lying in the shadow of the iconic Parachute Jump, appears like a corpse in a body bag.
Diane Arbus basked in the gloom. Her “House of Horrors” lights up the empty Spook-A-Rama with a raw flash. She lays bare the artificial machinery of fear, opening a dimension of absence and death. She’s even more explicit in her photo of a man garrotting a woman in the “Wax Museum Strangler”.
This inanimate scene of shuddering violence, and Arbus’s description of it, reads like a requiem for Coney Island, a neighbourhood brutalised, emptied and left for dead: “Still and always, in the murky half light behind the chicken wire, murderers and their victims grapple silently and ambiguously for the final lasting time in the scuffed footwear and crumpled stockings and faded wallpaper of their hell where practically nothing ever happens or stops taking place.”
To March 13, brooklynmuseum.org
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