When Carol Albert sold Astroland, the largest amusement park on Coney Island, to developer Thor Equities in 2006 it sounded the death knell for a singular aesthetic style.
The Coney Island aesthetic is both organic and completely artificial. It hovers between eras, arching backwards towards the dawn of electric light when Luna Park’s thousands of bulbs were an attraction unto itself, and into the 1970’s when New York City helped give birth to a new urban art called graffiti.
This riot of styles, colors, sights and sounds retains a cohesiveness that marks it as a unique aesthetic, different from other amusement parks in America. Coney Island isn’t a well-planned and minutely detailed corporate entity such as Disneyland or Six Flags. It has come about in fits and starts and has taken over a century to become what it is today.
It also differs greatly from the midways of state and county fairs. I recently spent time at both the Dutchess and Columbia County Fairs where temporary midways are put up each year. Besides a sense of impermanence that you won’t find at Coney Island, the art that decorates the facades of the various rides is strikingly different from that found at Astroland and the other parks.
The airbrushed images of the thrill rides at the fairs I visited had a cleaner, more comic-book graphics edge to them. On closer inspection I found that many of the artists were from California.
At Coney Island the designs seem slightly denser with more detail and imagery condensed into the available space.
The Coney Island aesthetic extends to the characters that inhabit it. The summer before I moved to New York, in 2001, I spent a long lazy afternoon drinking at Ruby’s Bar on the boardwalk. I spoke with the barkers and carnies discussing everything from Cajun music to the history of the Island. Many had lived the lives of itinerant workers, moving from the oil fields of the South to various other jobs around the country before finding a semi-permanent home at Coney Island.
I drank with a man named “Shorty” that day, who I still occasionally see when I go to Coney Island. He is originally from Nova Scotia and came from Acadian stock, the same people who settled the part of Louisiana where I’m from. He was a good representative of the carnie breed. He had a restless energy that seemed to have found its match in the bright lights and endless motion of the carnival. After a life of movement he had found a place that matched his temperament. With the demise of Astroland the old time carnies will probably have to move on, like the artists, cranks, thinkers and blue-collar workers have had to do from successive NYC neighborhoods.
Coney Island may have been the last real place left in New York. Times Square was stripped of any local color and history with its "revitalization" in the 1990's. The Bowery, a working class entertainment haven lined with theaters and bars in the 19th century, later gave rise to the youth oriented Punk scene in the 1970’s. Now it is home to trendy boutiques and a Whole Foods Market.
The question now remains: what will the future hold? Equities’ firm has proposed a multi-billion dollar entertainment complex with hotels, an in-door water park and lots of shopping opportunities. Based on their other projects, I believe the new park will be clean, well integrated and bland—the perfect post-modern American structure.