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The [n-y-c] files: DtraintoStillwellAvenue

By Michael Sitzman

Section: Arts

December 1, 2006

Come find out what you cant know;

see whats not there. Its no more, but it used to be in humanitys hometown;

you know where. These are the [n-y-c] files. *

—–

I. Down By The Sea

Most historians believe Dutch settlers first named it Conyne Eylandt (Rabbit Island) for the wild rabbits living there. Others attribute the name to the local Konoh tribe. Some claim the English named it for its cone-shaped hills. Whatever you think you know about Coney Island, its very beginnings illustrate how our view depends on the lens we choose to see it through.

My dad had fond memories of that Brooklyn neighborhood. For him and generations of New Yorkers, Coney Islands legendary boardwalk and amusement parks had meant carnival thrills and fun by the seashore. He spoke of riding the train out to where Nathans famous hotdog stand sold the worlds best franks and where the fries were thick and greasy;

and of the sheer joy of riding the world-renowned Cyclone, once among the largest roller-coasters in the world. Such a wondrous place if you were a kid

But I was born too late, and would never know it as it had been during its heyday. Still, I wanted so much to see whatever remained of Coney Island, and to take my very own pictures with the old Nikon hed given me if only someone would take me there.

II. The Laughs And The Screams

When the Coney Island & Brooklyn Railroad was extended to the shore in the 1860s, the neighborhood, a natural haven from summers heat in an age without air-conditioning, found its destiny as a resort. Balmers Pavilion, housing a carousel and bathhouse, opened on Surf Avenue in 1876, and Nathans entered the scene in 1916. But it was three great amusement parks that put Coney Island on the map.

Steeplechase Park, opening in 1897, was named for its signature ride, a mechanized horserace. The Pavilion of Fun, with a huge, grinning face for an emblem, was the parks best-known landmark. Also famous was the Parachute Jump, a freefall ride bought from the 1939 Worlds Fair. Declared a historic landmark, the 262-foot tower still stands.

Luna Park, in some ways a prototype of Disneyland, opened in 1903, emphasizing fantasy over thrills. Its rides included Trip to the Moon, and a flume called Shoot-the-Chutes. The park also featured a roving elephant herd. In one macabre incident that year, one was electrocuted as a public spectacle by Thomas Edison. I guess not all memories are warm and fuzzy.

Dreamland, opened in 1904, was also a Disney precursor with its mock-European architecture and landscapes. The other parks also endured catastrophic fires, but Dreamland was never rebuilt after burning in 1911 and causing the release of a lion into the streets. Still, the parks of Coney Island remained popular through the 1950s, when jet travel, the opening of Disneyland, and increasing local crime drove tourists away. All these eventually resulted in the closing of the parks, and of an era in Brooklyn history.

III. Through A Nikon Lens

In this crucible of late-Twentieth Century social change, a New York story and my own life crossed paths.

So I was around ten, and I had my own Nikon camera. But Coney Island had become a slum, and nobody wanted to take me there to visit. My uncle Matt thought it over. He said maybe.

Its a lesson we all learn in one way or another: That notion that there are certain places you just shouldnt go because its not safe. How is a child taught to fear certain places? I dont quite know;

it was only a vague concept for me at the time, one that just made no sense. But knowing it was a rough neighborhood, I asked him whether I should risk bringing the camera with its expensive lens.

Ill forever remember the answer: You cant live without taking risks, hiding behind locked doors for fear of what might happen. Yes, I think you should bring it.

In the end, we never went to Coney Island, but Ive since spent my life unafraid to go where most people would never dare, be it alone or at night. Ive never left my camera home;

and not once have I ever been robbed or hassled.

And so, despite my having never known Coney Island at its finest hour, such was the lasting effect that the echoes of that wondrous place had on my childhood and my life, through the humble lens of my uncles wisdom.

Herewith submitted to collective memory, where only the music of Coney Islands bygone era still lingers somewhere in the recesses of the [n-y-c] files.

Oh Mister Gallagher, Oh Mister Gallagher,
When you sail home, youll get a great surprise;

When your ship is drawing near, it will make you shed a tear
To see the lights of New York shining in the sky.

Oh Mister Shean, Oh Mister Shean,
Ive made that trip, so I know just what you mean.
But theres one light that shines so bright;

its the brightest light in sight!
Statue of Liberty, Mister Gallagher?
Coney Island, Mister Shean!

–E. Gallagher & A. Shean (1922)

* Second in a series:
[ When a nickel was magic ]
[ The man who drove the bums out ]

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