Island

As Edo McCullough wrote in his immensely entertaining 1957 history Good Old Coney Island, "Nature has been uncommonly kind to Coney Island...It was as if an intelligence had decreed that just here, convenient to what would become the world's largest city, there should be a splendid place for bathing" (McCullough 1957:7). He speaks here of

Coney's magnificent five-mile beach, where Walt Whitman famously swam naked in the waves and ambled on the sand (Adams 1991:42; McCullough 1957:23) in the quiet interlude between the colonization of the island by a group of excommunicated English Anabaptists in the mid-seventeenth century and its transformation by developers, speculators, politicians and showmen into the boisterous prototype for the American amusement park at the end of the nineteenth. It was the Coney Island beaches which first drew commercial investment to the desolate shore in the early 1800s, beginning with the Coney Island House in 1829 and burgeoning quickly into the array of seaside hotels, bathhouses and concessions that crowded the dunes like weeds by the turn of the century, and it was the Coney Island beaches which would continue to draw tourists a hundred years later, when the last of the original great amusements parks had crumbled into ruin (Zukin etal. 1998:637; Weinstein 1992:272).

Historically, the irresistible appeal of Coney Island has derived from the convenient propinquity of two apparently antipodal attractions, one the epitome of "natural" recreation (the beach), the other the quintessence of "artificial" diversion (the amusement park). The Whitney Museum of American Art has captured this inimitable sense of duality in what it called the "two Coney Islands, the one of flesh and the other of fantasy" (Carlin 1989:1). But it would be a mistake to see nothing but organic on the sea-side of the boardwalk and nothing but synthetic on the other: the beach, of course, has been materially "improved" by humans several times over in its history, but more compellingly, there has long been a good deal of "nature" to be found on the city-side of the divide, and it was placed there every bit as strategically as the truckloads of sand which have widened the shorefront. Indeed, nature (both organic and iconographic) so thoroughly and fluently pervaded the Coney Island amusement industry that it often seemed to impudently mock the vast expanse of grey Atlantic that hemmed it in—as if the nature Coney Island created sought to surpass the nature Coney Island inherited. It is no accident that Luna Park, arguably the most magnificent of the four, has been compared to an "enchanted garden", hailed as an "electric Eden" (Snow 1984:14). Coney was an artificial arcadia, but with an air of the demonic, the corrupt, the fallen: "Perhaps Coney Island is the most human thing that God ever made, or permitted the devil to make" quipped Richard Le Gallienne in 1905 (quoted in Snow 1984:9).

At first glance, Coney Island's amusement parks would appear to be the last place one would search for anything akin to what we colloquially call "nature". Indeed historians have remarked that the success of Coney Island at the turn of the century fairly hinged upon the development of that penultimate apotheosis of artificiality, the machine:

The essence of Coney Island was its juxtaposition of mechanical amusement devices with an atmosphere of illusion and chaos. The precision and predictability of gears, wheels, and electricity created a fantasyland of disorder, the unexpected, emotional excess, and sensory overload...Coney...allowed members of the growing urban working class...to assimilate and participate in a culture ever more dominated by the machine.

(Adams 1991:41)

While Coney Island began as a seaside resort which drew throngs of tourists to its beaches, the delights afforded by nature in its so-called "natural" state came quickly to be overshadowed by a growing preoccupation with the entertaining propensities of technology, that increasingly complex congealment of labour which served to alienate human beings from both the product of their labours and their environment under the auspices of capitalistic industrialization.1

Machines made the fun here. That, in itself, may have had a potent appeal. People who were struggling to cope with growing technological complexities in their jobs could spend an afternoon with the tables turned: at Coney, the machinery worked to divert them.In a decade, these elaborate mechanical diversions completely changed the nature of a day at Coney Island. Now people came to one of the finest beaches on the Atlantic coast and never even thought of going swimming; they might catch only a quick blue flash of ocean over the park wall before the roller coaster plunged.

(Snow 1984:18)

Indeed both Judith Adams and Richard Snow note that this increasing mechanization of Coney Island, along with its eventual proletarianization with the demographic shift in patronage that resulted in the emergence of the "Nickel Empire", produced a paradoxical space where machinery became a source of revelry, abandon and enjoyment for the very class it otherwise enslaved on the factory floor.

And yet, despite this domination of the Coney landscape by the automated, the simulated, and the imitated, "external" nature—what many people in the (post) industrial world have come to understand as that part of the universe which stands apart from and external to humanity and its works (Smith 1996; 1984)—was everywhere to be found on Coney Island, not only in the continuing presence of the beach, but in the naturalistic emblems, objects, and imagery that pervaded Coney's four largest beachfront amusement parks: Sea Lion (1895-1902), Steeplechase (1897-1964), Luna (1903-1946) and Dreamland (1904-1911).

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