Coney Island occupies a unique place in American popular culture. The peninsula, on the southern tip of Brooklyn, was early 20th century New York's premier seaside resort, spotted with theme parks and independent rides. After the Second World War, however, it began a precipitous decline. Luna Park, the central fairground, was fire-damaged and torn down. The advent of mass access to automobiles rendered Long Island's more bucolic state parks more attractive to the average New Yorker.
Although successive bogeymen – from the controversial city planner Robert Moses to Fred Trump, the property developer father of the current Republican presidential candidate – tried to destroy the remaining amusements, the island still retains many surviving features of the resorts. Three rides – the Wonder Wheel, the Cyclone roller coaster and the inactive Parachute Jump – have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It has now become a popular day out once again, partially because of the thrills offered by the juxtaposition of fairgrounds and street art, bustling activity and decline.
Janette Beckman, Jocks&Nerds New York editor, first visited Coney Island in 1983, with the fashion designer Pam Hogg and some old friends. Driving in a rented caddy, the group found a derelict landscape, distinguished by rotting old fairground rides, a seedy flea market and Nathan's, the resort's famed hot dog shack. She has photographed the area many times since – in 1986, at the Crack is Wack hip hop concert, in the early 90s for a street photography project, and more recently for an advertising campaign. She usually visits twice each year, and almost always on the 4th of July.
For Beckman, Coney Island has been the site of some surreal experiences. One day, while walking near the Museum and Side Show, Beckman saw a formally-dressed old gentleman stick a screwdriver up his nose. The Side Show itself offers the sort of freakish entertainment generally consigned to the past, with a headless woman sharing space with a two-headed cow.
Another one of Beckman's memories is rather more alarming. "I was on the beach," she recalls, "after the Mermaid Day parade, leaning on the rail and checking out the beach. About 60 cops rushed right by me, guns drawn, down onto the beach. I never did find out exactly what happened."
More recently, Beckman photographed the BarStarzz, featured in this gallery, who performed "amazing gymnastics on the beach." She caught the old Italian men of Ruby's bar, and the huge crowds by the bay. "If you want to see what true New Yorkers look like," Beckman says, "that is the spot."
The Coney Island of today is not quite the same as the one that Beckman found in 1983, and the Coney Island of the future might be very different as well. "These days," explains Beckman, "developers have their eye on the coastal real-estate, and I think luxury condos are on the future. But it still attracts all sorts of people. On a holiday like the 4th of July or Labor Day, it is packed with New Yorkers from all the boroughs: "Russians from Brighton Beach, Puerto Rican families from the Bronx, Hassidics, Home Boys, East Village hipsters, older guys fishing off the pier. It really is a huge cross section."