Introduction

Coney Island boasts a peculiar history of smouldering elephants. In early January of 1903, a performing pachyderm named Topsy was electrocuted in an off-season publicity stunt staged by Frederick Thompson and Skip Dundy, the masterminds behind Coney Island's magnificent Luna Park. Topsy became the unfortunate victim of poor management and a power struggle between Thomas Edison and his archrival, George Westinghouse, after developing a penchant for killing irksome humans (the last of whom, legend has it, met his violent end after feeding Topsy a lit cigarette) in her waning years. Seeking to rid themselves of the seditious beast while simultaneously garnering a little press, Thompson and Dundy, crafty showmen through and through, sought Edison's assistance after the ASPCA objected to a public elephant-hanging as excessively cruel. Edison, engaged at the time in a fierce battle to discredit the alternating current electrical system pioneered by Westinghouse, promptly sent a team of electricians to Coney Island to demonstrate its deadly effects on Topsy. He even made a film of the execution, preserving for posterity the visually compelling (yet ultimately futile) evidence of the menace of AC power as it coursed through the electrodes attached to the great beast's feet.

Topsy was not the first elephant to go up in smoke on Coney Island. Less than a decade before her gruesome demise, Coney's Elephant Hotel—magnificent local landmark and spectacular financial failure—burned to the ground on a September evening in 1896 after a brief and rocky history of loans, liens and ultimate abandonment. Built in 1884, the enormous and remarkably life-like Elephant Hotel had been built by James V.Lafferty as novelty lodging, but never saw a profit and was all but deserted by the time it was claimed by conflagration (Brooklyn Daily Eagle 1896:14). Despite its failure as a pecuniary venture, the elephant colossus quickly burned its way into the public imagination as a rightful and indispensable part of the Coney landscape, immortalized in the phrase "visiting the elephant", a popular local euphemism for having an illicit affair (Carlin 1989:2).

Penned some seven years apart, the following elephant obituaries by the New York Times and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle are eerily similar, evoking the sense of melodramatic spectacle that has long characterized "nature" on Coney Island, even in death:

The pride of Coney Island, its big elephant, is gone. At 10:30 o'clock last night it took fire, and in twenty minutes the huge beast of wood and tin collapsed, first falling to its knees with what sounded almost like a groan of agony, and then rolling over into a shapeless mass, where it smoldered and burned until it was finally drowned into submission by the fire department.

(Brooklyn Daily Eagle 1896:14) At 2:45 the signal was given, and Sharkey [employee of the Edison Company] turned on the current. There was a bit of smoke for an instant. Topsy raised her trunk as if to protest, then shook, bent to her knees, fell, and rolled over on her right side motionless...In two minutes from the time of turning on the current [veterinarian] Dr. Brotheridge pronounced Topsy dead.

(NewYork Times 1903:1)

Although these events ring with an air of carnivalesque absurdity through the haze of time, in fact neither the electrocution of a live elephant nor the combustion of an elephant-shaped hotel were particularly remarkable events in the heyday of Coney Island, whose claim to fame was its extraordinary capacity to turn a profit from spectacular nature—in particular, the bizarre, the extreme, the grotesque, the sensual, and the dangerous. Nature is rather like the elephant in the living room when it comes to the Coney Island literature: everyone knows it's there, but nobody really talks about it—or rather, no one gives it a label, a handle for grasping the loose but ubiquitous nature tropes that are often overshadowed by the characterization of Coney Island as the archetypical "artificial" space and which, through their eclipsed and silent presence, help to reify the sense of "unreality" that is Coney's hallmark.

This chapter looks at the old material with new eyes—examining the familiar icons of the Nickel Empire through the window of nature, or, more precisely, the production of nature in both a material and a discursive sense. In this chapter, I examine Coney Island in a highly circumscribed manner in terms of time, space, and meaning, concentrating on the amusement industry in the first half of the twentieth century—particularly its four original amusements parks, Sea Lion, Steeplechase, Luna and Dreamland—and treating the island primarily as a place to play, setting aside for the moment its characteristics as a place to live and a place to work. Far from an attempt at a comprehensive political ecology, this chapter looks specifically at the paradox of consciousness which made the tropes of what Neil Smith calls "external" nature (Smith 1996; 1984) such an integral part of urban amusement at the most classic of American playgrounds, drawing on both Michel Foucault's categorization of carnivals as "temporal heterotopias" (Foucault 1967) and Richard White's analysis of American nature as a space that is increasingly associated with human play and decoupled from human labour (White 1996).

Why Coney Island? Why not Disneyland, Sea World, Mardi Gras, the Chicago Columbian Exhibition, Barnum and Bailey Circus, the county fair, or any one of dozens of iterations of the common carnival? There are several reasons. In the first place, while Coney Island did not, by a long shot, give birth to the amusement industry, its significance in the subsequent development of such spaces cannot be overestimated, particularly in the context of American history. Coney Island, "where America learned how to play", as Coney historian Edo McCullough so aptly put it (McCullough 1957:4), was a crucible for the pioneering of many of the tactics, technologies, and spatial forms that were quickly emulated by the purveyors of carnivalesque entertainment across the country—among them, the enclosed amusement park and the one-price cover charge (Adams 1991:43-44), as well as the roller coaster (Denson 2002:286). In the second, Coney Island was (and is) a quintessentially urban space whose growth and development has been inextricably bound up with the growth and development of the burgeoning metropolis which looms over its shoulder. It was this proximity which not only made Coney Island more heavily patronized (in proportion to population) in 1909 than Disneyworld was in 1989 (Nasaw 1993:3), but made it qualitatively different from its more rural cousins, such as the rodeo, the livestock show, the county fair—forms which not only emerged from a separate historical trajectory, but related differently to nature precisely because of their uniquely agrarian pedigree. Finally, the ability of Coney Island's savvy showmen to make a profit by turning the artifact of wild, weird and dangerous nature into the penultimate urban spectacle has been emulated but never matched. Although Coney Island served as the prototype for amusement parks across the United States, the singular sense of boisterous, bawdy, sordid absurdity that was The People's Playground has never been replicated—least of all by Disney, whose hyper-sanitized spaces pale pitifully in comparison. As Carlin notes:

It is enlightening to compare how Disneyland, the great American amusement park of the late twentieth century, replaced Coney Island's earthy symbolism with sterile, technological perfection and presexual infantile obsessions. Disneyland is a monument to sublimation and control. Coney Island was a monument to bodies and the potential for abandonment into pure libidinous pleasure.

(Carlin 1989:4-5)

Coney Island regularly garnered the ire of those tiresome defenders of American "decency" who continue to plague the nation with their moral indignation—including, of course, Robert Moses, whose dislike for the sensual vulgarity of the Coney Island amusement industry has been described by at least one historian as "pathological" (Denson 2002:66) and whose mid-century campaign to "clean up" the beachfront, boardwalk and concessions are strikingly redolent of Rudolph Giuliani's ham-handed attempt to sanitize urban space some fifty years later. Coney was similarly reviled by many purveyors of amusement across the nation who sought to emulate its formula for success but not its reputation for iniquity (Adams 1991:65; Snow 1984:12). They have paid accordingly for their pandering self-righteousness, in artistic integrity if not profit: Bambi is no trade-off for the magnificent and marauding Topsy.

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