Coney Island was a place I wanted to go since I was a child after countless memories of it being told to me and it being featured in the media. Coney Island is a different experience for anyone that goes there and has been through many changes over the past century. Two different pieces which highlight the lighter and darker sides of Coney Island is a piece by Joseph Mitchell in My Ears Are Bent and the graphic novel Luna Park by Kevin Baker. In Mitchell’s short piece about Coney Island we are given a glimpse at the atmosphere during the summer months when throngs of people from the city would go to have a good time. Mitchell depicts Coney Island as a place to go that is unchanging and a constant in the lives of the people that frequent its shops, rides, and beach. Luna Park is a more visually gripping experience. In the graphic novel we alternate between Russia in the past and Coney Island in the present (2009). The colors in the graphic novel are muted consisting of cold blues, muted greys, and muddy browns. In the graphic novel we experience Coney Island through the main character (Alik) who sees Coney Island as changing and longs for Coney Island of the past (26, 51). In this Coney Island, crime is a constant in the background and the park and beach are often shown with the main character alone wandering in his own thoughts. After reading these two contrasting depictions of Coney Island I was inspired to look into the history of Coney Island and experience what it is like for myself.
Some Coney Island and Luna Park Background
Situated in the southern edge of Brooklyn, Coney Island has been a place of amusement for families and individuals for over a century. If you look at the history of Coney Island you will notice that there was a lot of change in the different amusement parks there. Luna Park opened after two other parks (Sea Lion and Steeplechase)had already opened. And now Luna Park is the only one left standing, although it is in its second reincarnation after the original burnt down in 1944. With most of its parks burning or closing down Coney Island was not the place of amusement it once was. However, after plans to rebuild Luna Park and bring people back to Coney Island there was still hope. The Coney Island History Project, which began in 2004, aims to bring awareness about Coney Island through “exhibits, events, and a website” which showcase its history. On their website is an “Oral History Archive,” which has interviews of people talking about Coney Island. When I was in highschool I had heard Coney Island was going to be torn down and I feared I would never be able to visit a place steeped in the history of its past. Lucky for me Luna Park was rebuilt and Coney Island was still there waiting for me to explore it.
My Trip to Coney Island
I visited Coney Island and Luna Park the last weekend it was open, before closing for the rest of the year The cold was already settling in and the beach was deserted. Luna Park itself was pretty packed though, with a line forming on the sidewalk outside of the entrance. Keeping the themes and places in both Mitchell’s piece and Baker’s graphic novel in mind I took pictures around Coney Island, absorbing the sights and sounds around me. I placed a few of the most significant ones on a Google Map, relating them to Mitchell’s and Baker’s depictions of Coney Island in the descriptions.
Mitchell’s Coney Island of the past
Mitchell focuses on the people that go to Coney Island to have fun and get away from their daily worries and hardships. Through his writing we can visualize summertime in the Coney Island of the early 1900s. Mitchell says “There are over 1,000,000 hot, happy humans on the three miles of clay-colored strand… carpeted with brown, red, pink, and white flesh.” He frequently mentions that the people visiting Coney Island are average people with little money to spend. He also mentions that if you had visited Coney Island ten years prior to his visit, it wouldn’t seem any different than the Coney Island he was writing about. (185-186) From Mitchell’s description I picture Coney Islands streets and beaches as crowded and full of people having a good time, allowing themselves to enjoy the day. It also seems unchanging and monotonous in the variety offered. He describes the “freak places” as common as a boy wanting ice cream on a hot day. It’s as though his description of Coney Island could be used as a description of it for any day of the summer for at least a decade into the past. This is the opposite of the Coney Island we experience in Kevin Baker’s Luna Park,
The more recent Coney Island depicted in Luna Park
The Coney Island we see in Luna Park is not as happy go lucky as Mitchell’s Coney Island adventure, but beyond the bleak outlook of the main character’s (Alik) fate in Luna Park we are given an intriguing look at Luna Park during the off season. As I mentioned before Luna Park doesn’t have a very diverse color palette, but the muted colors suits the overall tone and season the graphic novel takes place. It also allows the moments of bright colors and whites, during rare moments of happiness, to really stand out against the usual faded colors. Seeing Luna Park at night and this late into the season I can picture how Baker’s Luna Park is plausible. The beaches were empty, as they often are in the book (5-6). Unlike Mitchell’s depiction of Coney Island as a gathering of many people, Luna Park gives off a vibe of loneliness and desperate need for something more. As often as the theme of timelessness and how unchanging Coney Island is in Mitchell’s piece, there is a theme of wanting the past; a time when Coney Island was better. In this case Alik is wishing for the Coney Island that Mitchell described. When I was in Coney Island I saw the places that were shown in the graphic novel, only the atmosphere was not as hostile as it was in Luna Park. More people inhabited the streets Alik walked alone, and was not quite as desolate or apocalyptic as Baker made it seem. For a look at some comparisons between the Coney Island I saw and the mirror images in the book I added my picture with page numbers where they can be compared.
Interview with a native new yorker about Coney Island
After I explored Coney Island I interviewed Jimmy Chu, who had visited Coney Island multiple times over the course of his life. His insights and answers to the questions I had resonate with both the view of Mitchell’s piece and Bakers graphic novel; as well as some contrasting ones.
In the interview Jimmy talked about a lot of experiences he had and opinions about Coney Island that are reflected in Luna Park and Mitchell’s piece. His memories reflect happy times with family and friends, but he also acknowledges that the neighborhood was not that desirable. He reminisces about how Coney Island was, and that he did see it change over the years. This interview shows both the positive as well as the less desirable features of Coney Island.
Coney Island was a little different than I had expected, but I’m sure its also not the same as it is during the summer. Although Mitchell and Baker showcase different views of Coney Island I believe that Coney Island is a mixture of both. In its history it has been marked by some unfortunate circumstances which for a time made Coney Island not a desirable place to be. On the other hand it is working to be a place where people can go to enjoy themselves. Alik’s fear of Coney Island being demolished was an actual concern at some point, but it seems that it is starting to recapture what Mitchell showed Coney Island could be. But unlike Mitchell’s Coney Island there is a lot more history behind Coney Island now, which adds a new dimension to what Coney Island can offer and learn from the past. For my first trip to Coney Island I was not disappointed, and am hoping to see what the future might bring.
Two videos of Luna Park that I took of the entrance and the some of the rides:
NY Times Article: Half of Luna Park Destroyed by Fire