Wednesday, March 25, 2009


I'm still working my way through Kevin Baker's Dreamland. My life has been marked by intense distraction lately, and I have another book in the queue that I'm anxious to start reading. At the same time Spring has sprung early this year, and it's hard to keep my concentration on reading. There are numerous projects that I want to pursue, and there is simply not enough time in the day to get everything done. I know there are things around the house that need to be attended to as well. Yet periodically I am able to sustain some attention, and I make it through a few pages of Baker's historical fiction. I end up captivated- not because his story is written particularly well but because the past realities he describes beggar the imagination.

If you've been reading this blog for any significant length of time (or if you know me personally) you might be aware that I actually visited what's left of Coney Island a few years ago. My Dad booked a room in Sheepshead Bay and we went over to take photos. Obviously it was in a state of disrepair. I blogged about my reactions (just type "Coney Island" into the search box at the top left hand corner of the page and scroll down the results*) after the visit. A particular highlight was seeing the last extant non-traveling sideshow. Of course it was sans performers-by-birthright, but that's simply the nature of the the beast, given the nature of our society. It eats its freaks whole.

I appreciated the Coney Island Circus Sideshow even though I missed the authentic 10-in-1 format because we were there on a weekday. Those folks certainly have a genuine love and appreciation for the history of the medium. Still I knew that I was seeing a remnant of a shadow of the past. By the time the blow-off came around I was ready to step out on walkabout. The local public school district must rent space adjoining the boardwalk to park their vehicles, because there were hundreds of buses, but hardly any kids around. It seems difficult to believe that this is the best use of property bordering this historic destination- but there it is. I have pictures to prove it.

Try to imagine the wonders and glories that people once experienced at places like Luna Park and Dreamland. Baker would have it that this was the place that immigrants learned to be truly American. But if that's the case, then that nation is dead. Once people rode the Steeplechase, which was a mechanized amusement featuring carousel horses that raced each other along a track... and included dips. When you (and hopefully your honey) got off (ok... I know) you walked along a platform with a maniacal dwarf who would chase you around in front of a gallery of past riders, and try to spank you or poke you in the butt with a cattle prod. There were also air jets that would blow ladies' dresses up around their wastes. Can't do that sort of thing (in public) nowadays without risking a trip to the pokey.

And there were a host of other amazing attractions as well, the likes of which haven't existed in some time. Check out this article from the New York Times, May 15th, 1904. It aims to describe a list of delights that you might have had should you have been lucky enough to access that time and place. It's difficult to believe even though it's from a paper that was once quite reputable. There's so much in there that it's virtually overwhelming. But the thing that strikes me right in my third eye is the verification that there did indeed once exist an entire town built to house "little people". They lived and worked there in Brooklyn in their planned community, in front of the prying eyes of the "normals". This was truly a "Dreamland".

*Make a short digression to the post titled "The Strange Crime of Hazel McNally." I did, and was a bit taken aback, as I completely forgot ever having written about the case.

Labels: , , , , , ,


Anonymous Marc V. said...

there was an interesting article last month in the Times Sunday magazine regarding Coney Island:

it was interesting to note the parallel views by those who've been running the small theme park and the grand, well-intentioned, and perhaps more idealistic than practical ideas from the preservationists.... Then there are the developers...

Can this society (with mostly all things stared at by screen, while sitting) imagine a return to the former glory that was Coney Island? I'd like to think so, and support those grandiose visions of the preservationists, but I don't know if this era could or would sustain it....

12:20 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home