Exploring ‘A Coney Island of the Mind’

(Image courtesy of The Brooklyn Museum)

(Image courtesy of The Brooklyn Museum)

Coney Island may be not be drawing crowds these days, the summer season having long passed. But Coney Island’s spirit and history are on display in many locations across the city, notes Ezra Glinter, deputy culture editor at The Jewish Daily Forward, in an essay about the iconic destination.

From the Brooklyn Museum’s Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland 1861-2008 to smaller shows at the Brooklyn Public Library and the Coney Island Museum, there’s a broad and varied take on the area. There’s even a new movie out on Vimeo, “Last Days of Coney Island,” by animator Ralph Bakshi.

It all adds up, says Glinter, “to quote Lawrence Ferlinghetti quoting Henry Miller,” to a “Coney Island of the mind.”

For generations of New Yorkers, from immigrant Jews and Italians living in Brownsville to current-day Park Slope parents, Coney Island is a beach you can get to by subway, with roller coasters and carnival games to boot. Even if we’re not living three families to a tenement, swimming and sunbathing have a self-evident appeal.

But if there’s a common assumption underlying all of these exhibits, it’s that Coney Island does mean something — that it’s not just a place or the sum of its oddball parts, but an idea, a fantasy, a vision. It’s the site of hedonistic summertime pursuits as well as a hallucination, a mirage. Coney Island constantly struggles to break the hold of reality and launch itself into dream.

The boardwalk, the Mermaid Parade in June, the old Luna and Steeplechase parks, the drugs and crime of the ’70s, the boardwalk artists who “saved” Coney Island in the ’80s, all that and more are reflected in the various exhibits, and discussed by Glinter. Today a revived Coney Island is “looking spiffier than ever,” notes Glinter.

Still, he worries that “Coney Island may yet become a victim of its own success.” Go to The Forward to find out why.

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