From Gregory Crewsdon’s Dream House (Philip Seymour Hoffman pictured)
  • From Gregory Crewsdon’s Dream House (Philip Seymour Hoffman pictured)
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San Diego Museum of Art

1450 El Prado, Balboa Park

When I made my first trip to Coney Island in August, my mission was to ride the Cyclone, but my Brooklyn friend Belinda hates roller coasters. She wanted to ride the Wonder Wheel instead. I rode a Ferris wheel once in the 1960s in South Jersey when my high school girlfriend promised make-out time, but when our chair paused at the top I was so petrified I couldn’t speak, let alone enjoy amore. So no Wonder Wheel for me. No Cyclone, either, because it’s no fun to go alone. None of that really mattered anyway, because it was a Saturday night, so B. and I went instead to lie on a crowded beach right next to the 10 p.m. fireworks. The thumps punched my heart. Folks hooted and shouted while kids sailed liquid-y streamers and drones through the dark air. Later, in a crush of other bodies, we danced to a boardwalk band covering the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” and Gary U.S. Bonds’s “Quarter to Three,” songs I’d danced to with the Jersey girlfriend. I didn’t need that coincidence to feel overcome. Coney Island was designed to overcome. It stirs up a passionate energy just this side of anarchy.

Before the park was developed, the beach was isolated and quiet. Walt Whitman lived in Brooklyn from 1836 to 1850 and said that while walking the beach, reciting Homer to the gulls, he “had the long, bare unfrequented shore” to himself. By the 1870s there were direct trains from New York City, and Coney Island’s water sport, fantastical amusement parks, rides, food, and more felonious pastimes like gambling and prostitution, attracted great mixed crowds — the well-heeled and the working class, Caucasians and African-American — and became an image of leisure-time glee and capitalist exaltation. There were minarets and steeples draped with cascading electric lights, sideshow wonders, freak shows, and scary contraptions like the Loop-the-Loop. Coney Island was beautifully vulgar and crassly bountiful. It still is. It’s also a dense ongoing story of representations of America to itself, its imagery a lexicon of American self-projections. To sample them, visit Coney Island: Visions of the American Dreamland, 1861–2008, a game, splashy exhibition at the San Diego Museum of Art.

We probe the imagery of our great street photographers as an index to a shared state of mind, our American soul. Weegee, born Arthur Fellig in 1899 and our most opportunistic photo-hound of streetside misrule, took a picture of the Coney beach crowd that’s a massive group portrait of America’s contested oneness, circa 1940. The photo looks down from Steeplechase Pier on thousands of rubbernecking, shoulder-to-shoulder bathers, shading their eyes from the sun as if to shield them from the camera’s exposure while also happily displaying themselves. The white horde includes a few Asians and Puerto Ricans. Some 20 years later, Bruce Davidson made a different kind of populist group portrait during a fireworks display: in the foreground are black couples loving the show. Behind and to the right is a guy with a Puerto Rican family giving the black folks a look. For all the pleasure registered on the crowd’s faces, the image exposes racial stress fractures that still haven’t mended. Anyway, the night I was there, I was aware, as I seldom am in my normal life, of my whiteness. And it was, as it has always been at Coney Island, a roughly beautiful, immigrant-heavy crowd, this time of Chicanos, Dominicans, Haitians, Jamaicans, Ethiopians...

One of the early immigrants who depicted Coney Island was Joseph Stella, a painter’s painter, who as a young man came to New York City in 1896 to study medicine but instead became an artist who turned his modernist energies — derived from Futurism and its love of speed and visual noise — to colossal expressions of the new technology like the Brooklyn Bridge and Coney’s Luna Park with its 250,000 incandescent light bulbs. His 1913 Battle of Lights: Coney Island is a storm of mostly abstract figures playing out the riotous kinetics of a Mardi Gras night: it’s a burst of shapes delirium might take — whorls, chutes, spindles, and spotlights, all contending upon a black and green confetti sea.

Coney Island buzzed with sex. The boardwalk masses and entertainments cranked up arousing pressures of all kinds, and the dense beach crowds and under-the-boardwalk hideaways offered titillation, opportunity, and indulgence. The most sexually concentrated detail in the exhibition appears in a Walker Evans 1928 photo of a couple standing side by side in the breezy air. We see them from behind: he’s taken off his suit jacket and rolled up his sleeves; she wears a wispy floral dress with a low-scooped open back. Their knees just barely touch, but the wind has wrapped the bottom of her skirt around his leg — that’s Aphrodite making her claim.

George C. Tilyou’s Steeplechase Park by Reginald Marsh

The rule was that if you weren’t on the beach you had to be dressed, but the side shows hedged the rule. In Abraham Walkowitz’s picture of a bally (an outdoor teaser for the show waiting inside), shapely black and white women in two-piece bathing suits stand like guilty pleasures before a crowd of curious adults and children. The most excitable recorder of Coney sex was Reginald Marsh, whose George C. Tilyou’s Steeplechase Park marks out sex zones. Above, on a Chair-o-Plane, women’s dresses flap and billow while they flirt with men who risk their necks to flirt back. Below is a dense press of spectators gathered around a Human Roulette Wheel: the force of the rotation flung participants away from the central platform and plastered them against the wall. In the 1930s, when he made the picture, only women were allowed on: it was a display of women who literally couldn’t control themselves. It was coed by the time I rode a Human Roulette Wheel many years ago in Willow Grove’s Amusement Park in Pennsylvania: boys and girls tumbled into and grabbed at one another. We couldn’t help ourselves.

The merry-go-round horses and riders in Marsh’s Wooden Horses, executed in his racy, swept-away style, look sexually primed. Marsh put himself in the picture, smoking a cigar (as if pretending nonchalance amid all that hopped-up gaiety) and sharing a saddle with a ripe beauty in a hiked-up sailor dress and flying-saucer hat. As the ride went round at 25 miles per hour, the horses also shuttled back and forth on cables. Imagine the sensation. Coney Island contains a few of those exquisitely hand-carved horses, as well as rowdy signage and big sideshow banners (SHACKLES THE GREAT, KING OF ESCAPES; QUITO HUMAN OCTOPUS), plus documentary anonymous photos of sideshow attractions like Major Mite and Tom Ton alongside sensuous images by Bruce Davidson (whose pictures of a 1950s Brooklyn gang called the Jokers take us into danger zones of all kinds) and Lisette Modell, whose crouched, Falstaff-sized female bather looks like a happy umpire-empress of good times.

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