Growing up, Coney Island occupied a shining, glimmering, almost Mecca-like place in my imagination. Located, somehow, within the confines of my hometown (albeit a bridge and a car ride away,) was an honest-to-goodness, genuine amusement park replete with stomach dropping rides and saccharine pink floss. It was almost too good to be true — and, of course, it was. Though my parents willingly took me to the neighboring aquarium, we never went to the park. With a firm shake of the head and a definitively unsatisfying “because I said so,” my mother would disregard my increasingly desperate pleas (years later, when I asked why she’d been so strongly opposed to taking me, she’d still respond with a visible shudder. “Why would I want to go there? It’s disgusting.”) I could hear the shrieks of fear and pleasure, could practically feel the goose bumps on my neck in anticipation of the simulated free falls… and the specter made Coney Island even more of a dream. It was unattainable. Unattainable, for a time.
I did eventually get to Coney Island. But still, the park remained a novelty — I’d go for Siren Fest, or with out-of-towners, but the trips always felt truncated. Although I’d discovered it to be just another place, it still held its ethereal charm. At the end of my longest days I’d still dream of hopping on the Q and taking it to the end of line, to settle into the sand, watch the stars and wait for the sun to rise above the water. Recently, on a not atypical summer’s day, I was again drawn to that still magnetic spot, and decided to try to figure out what it was that kept me (and countless others) always coming back.
Although an island in name only, Coney Island, like the others that pepper the East and Hudson Rivers, maintains a legacy of harboring society’s misfits. Ellis Island, of course, welcomed the huddled masses yearning to breathe free; the tired, the poor, the wretched refuse of another’s teeming shore. Liberty Island bears the plaque that welcomes these castoffs. Roosevelt Island, now a (slowly) gentrifying piece of all-but forgotten real estate, housed both the insane and the quarantined, and still hosts the skeletal framework of a defunct institution to prove it. Even Governor’s Island, a comely alternative for Williamsburg-fatigued youngsters, was once home to Confederate POWs.
Coney Island has also seen some changes since it started drawing crowds in the early 19th century. The former island, which was transformed into a peninsula by landfill, was at first populated by luxury resorts — and then also by Tammany Hall charlatans and other less politically-minded criminals. This unholy relationship between the wholesome familial class and the dangerous underclass colored the economic development of the amusement complex. Under the tutelage of John McKane (who succumbed to a stroke 18 months after his release from Sing Sing, where he had served time for political fraud, among other offenses) the boardwalk began to offer indiscriminate indulgences — from saltwater bathing to prostitution.
Culturally, Coney Island has been well-utilized for this history. The 1928 silent film The Crowd shows young Mannhattanites (who make up a faceless “crowd”) working in the city, playing in Coney Island, living beyond their means and ultimately paying for their gluttony. Requiem for a Dream uses Brighton Beach as a backdrop for its dizzying portrayal of addiction, with the pier as a theme representing loss of innocence. In The Great Gatsby, Coney Island is mentioned as a destination for Gatsby and Jordan Baker, a willowy face of New Money apathy.
While the other land masses have, over time, shed their dissonant reputations — by commercializing or celebrating or simply disregarding their past travails — Coney Island remains the gritty, notorious, figuratively (and literally) filthy institution it’s always been.
On this blistery day, with none of the hedonistic events to distract me — the annual Mermaid Parade and hot dog eating contest at Nathan’s, as well as more-frequent Girlie Freakshows, movie screenings and magic shows — I am free to take in the mundanities of the park. Though most of the rides are fairly typical carnival fare like roller coasters, bumper cars and the Ferris wheel, some are blatantly tongue-in-cheek: the tickler’s logo is a leering, mustachioed face. Some, like the mohawked dummy who repeatedly projectile vomits into a toilet outside of the haunted house, are downright vulgar.
I’d last been to Coney Island nearly a year before, with a British friend who’d agreed, perhaps grudgingly, to check it out. On that visit, as on this one, I was surprisingly giddy upon seeing the rides — all these years later, I still just wanted to hop on the Cyclone. And hop I did after much anticipation. The first time was surprisingly enjoyable and I discovered that the coaster was nothing like the teetering pile of tinder I’d imagined. But this time (perhaps because it was the first thing I did when I arrived) I was slightly disappointed. The rocking of the ride was not a good complement to the shaking subway I’d just detrained, and I could start to understand why my mother had never wanted to go.
Despite the contradictions inherent in Coney Island’s DNA, the amusement park is, in many ways, untainted. It is unapologetically what it has always been. Whether by design or inertia, any attempt to alter its state has failed.
Maybe that’s because these polarities are part of a fundamental struggle, a timeless tussle between good and evil and their various iterations. Sitting on the boardwalk and feeling not so different from how I always thought I would, I start to think that maybe it’s something simpler than that. Maybe, in a city overrun by beings and things, where buildings grow higher, streets become more dense and blocks and avenues blend together, where childhood awe and dreams and longing quickly slow and fade, we all want to return to something basic. Because when you block out the lights and the noise and the crowd, there is sand and there is water. And that won’t change.