One Last Chance to Catch Old Coney Island’s Eccentric Characters

One Last Chance to Catch Old Coney Island’s Eccentric Characters

Our blazing, red-hot summer is finally on the wane, and the clock is ticking on some big summer events, including one last chance to catch the old Coney Island before the lazy, hazy days of summer are over. One by one, the venerable institutions of old Coney Island are vanishing: Ruby’s, the last of the boardwalk-facing bars, has served its final drink; Shoot the Freak, one of the most popular game booths, won’t reopen in the spring. And this week, demolition began on the old Shore Hotel. It’s all part of a development plan to replace the area’s old (and historic) buildings with retail stores and entertainment facilities. In addition to the Shore Hotel, destruction is imminent for a number of other structures, as local preservationists have run out of options in court.

Sitting on the outskirts of New York’s five boroughs, Coney Island’s world famous pleasure beach has been the summer destination for New Yorkers since its early heyday in the 1890s. Towards the end of the 1960s, one year after he first picked up a camera, Bruce Gilden began taking the subway train through Brooklyn to capture the sunbathers, the weekenders, the sideshow booths and the Cyclone roller-coaster. Coney Island’s reputation has steadily slipped since Gilden started to photograph there, and it’s now known as a place where the poor who cannot escape the summer city heat go for thrills. Regardless of this reputation, Gilden’s ability to capture Coney Island’s characters and eccentricities give the beach and its surrounding neighborhood a humorous view of daily life from the sixties through the late 1980s.

You won’t see any of the usual iconic images of Coney Island in Gilden’s collection of photographs: no parachute jumps, Cyclone roller coaster thrills, or mermaids on parade. What you will see is a view of Coney Island that is up close and personal. Very close-in-your-face personal, and mostly confined to the beach. Gilden’s black and white images of Coney Island cover a period of about 16 years. Most of them are of beach people, New York locals who are just out for a day in the sun. Old guys, some flabby middle-aged women, the kind of characters you’d like to photograph if you only had the nerve. There are a number of must-see photographs in this collection that provide a pleasant way to end our scorching-hot summer.

Bruce Gilden: The Eccentric Characters of Old Coney Island

Photo-Gallery: The Eccentric Characters of Old Coney Island

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Coney Island’s Grand Past: A Requiem for an American Icon

Coney Island’s Grand Past: A Requiem for an American Icon

Coney Island is nearing its final days, swirling ever-more deeply into a dismal state of disrepair.  Soon the bulldozers will be back again, pushing over the last weathered links to the past, spelling the demise, once and for all, of the city’s most iconic neighborhood.  Coney Island was always a place where you could drink beer, “shoot a freak,” see a geek, see a burlesque show, see fish, catch fish, eat fish, ride the Cyclone, ride the waves, win a kewpie doll, play Skee-Ball, go to a ballgame, see a band and lie on the sand.  It was the last stand of the morally doubtful, the last place where one could feel the openness and energy of New York City in the 1970s, but stripped of the accompanying dread of crime and decay.

Now the city administration and wealthy developers have set into motion their master plans to rescue everyone from all of that, constructing at least four luxury hotels as high as 30 stories tall and as many as 26 residential towers to house wealthy residents paying top dollar for their condos.  The real tragedy of Coney Island’s destruction is one that carries a much broader social message, it symbolizes the devastation of what had been since the mid-1800s a haven for waves of immigrant peoples, for the poor and for those who have been forced to exist on the outer-margins of society.  And that is the real catastrophe.

Bruce Gilden: Coney Island’s Darkly Humorous Scenes and Characters

The Spectacular Coney Island in 1940: A Documentary

Bob Dylan: Beyond Here Lies Nothin’

Lou Reed: Coney Island Baby

Slide Show: Coney Island’s Grand Past/A Requiem for an American Icon

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