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A Coney Island diary

Joshua Cohen
February 26, 2009

People read about Coney Island to avoid visiting Coney Island. People visit Coney Island to avoid living in Coney Island. And what of the people—like this author—who live in Coney Island? They live in Coney Island to avoid writing about Coney Island. Which does not explain what I’m doing now.

This winter, however, this winter of wind and recession, of job loss and housing loss—this winter when Coney Island has been almost entirely dismantled—I was depressed, I was angry and so, ventured into the forbidden: I was going to keep a winter diary, recording what it was like to live and read and write in New York’s favorite summery playplace when even that fantasy was vulgarly dying. I was going to record every razed lot and shuttered business, noting the neighborhood’s daily despoiling, as Thor Equities, LLC, which had already bought most of Coney’s most prominent properties, effectively evicted, through exorbitantly raising rents, their longtime tenants, leaving the neighborhood barren until the city approved Thor’s plans for redevelopment, though redevelopment funds were becoming, in the phrase of one local newspaper, “increasingly scarce.”

My Coney diary was begun just after Labor Day, off-season’s official beginning: September 7. That was the bright breezy Sunday that Astroland, Coney’s largest amusement park, a late heir to the defunct Dreamland, Luna, and Steeplechase Parks, closed its gates forever. Astroland’s owner, Carol Albert, had sold her property to Thor in 2006 for $30 million; in 2007, she was denied the renewal of her park’s lease for the two years she’d requested, so Astroland had to shut down. The Alberts are, or were, a venerable neighborhood presence: West 10th Street at the boardwalk is named for Dewey Albert, who founded Astroland in 1962; ever since Thor began buying up Coney almost five winters ago, daughter-in-law Carol has served as an unofficial spokesperson for local businesses.

Thor is headed by Joseph Sitt, a local boy made good (he’s from Gravesend, the neighborhood just north), and a developer who’s always talked big plans: over the past two years, he’s been inundating the mayor’s office and media with plans for Coney retail, a megamall with restaurants, high-rise condos and hotels and, of course, “an improved amusement district.” But such optimism is as old as the Atlantic. Even before the market collapsed and banks began faltering, naysayers held their naysayings at city council meetings, in rallies and open letters, and over the Internet. Skeptics maintain that Sitt has always intended to sit on his Coney properties, waiting for them to appreciate before flipping them for profit. And he appeared to do just that with the Gallery mall at Fulton Street: in 2001 he bought that Brooklyn property for $24 million, launched a PR campaign touting redevelopment, persuaded the city to rezone the area to permit the necessary construction, then sold the plot in 2007 for $125 million without realizing a single plan.

But now that our economy has gone runaway rollercoaster, what might have been a nefarious plot—sitting/flipping—is turning into incontrovertible reality: call it Sitt’s sit without the flip.

Thor has lately hung banners on its properties—on the facade of Ruby’s Bar on the boardwalk, along the chainlinked fences that once perimetered the demolished batting cages and go-cart track—advertising them available, and urging prospective lessees to call “Sam Sabin,” (212) 529-7413. I have called this number three times, two while drunk, and left appropriate messages: “Hello, Uncle Sam, this is Coney calling. Can I rent a room in your conscience?”

Besides the scripts of prank calls, my diary records: the prices of the Astroland amusements Albert was hoping to liquidate (the Astrotower, that shaky white space needle, was listed at $99K; the carousel came with a tag of $95K, while the Tilt-A-Whirl seemed a steal at only $29K); the early January removal of the iconic Astroland rocket from the top of Gregory & Paul’s boardwalk concession; the later January announcement of a city plan to “demap” Coney’s streets, essentially retaking a number of the neighborhood’s unsafe properties through condemnation.

As I conceived it, this Coney diary of mine would be aggressively particularistic. Nothing would matter except the local. There would be no Manhattan. No Iraq, no Israel either. There would be no Obama. New condo construction in neighboring Brighton Beach stopped the week of the election; the partly finished buildings stand emptily windowless, while local homeless have moved in. On Inauguration Day, I counted 10 used condoms on the beach at Ocean Parkway, prophylactics in every cheap color and design (not the “Coney Island Whitefish” of yore so much as ribbed jellyfish, tickler jellyfish, and that most beautiful species of condom that, with love, glows in the dark, which brings to mind a favorite term from high-school biology, “bioluminescence”). Somewhere between election and inauguration—symbolically, during the transition—my across-the-hall-neighbor died; she left me a plastic bag of silver dollars.

My diary was going to be that and more—journalistic, but literary, a way to survive a cool apartment in a neighborhood just entering its blight—but it wasn’t to be. Its discipline faded when rent needed to be paid, and the dark days felt too short for sadness. Failure, taking the form of a low cloudbank, hangs over this island (to wit: Coney’s not even an island; it used to be, but then Manhattan landfill was poured into the creek and paved over, making Brighton Beach Avenue). My diary’s first paragraph was, in fact, an inversion of this essay’s: “People write about Coney Island to avoid living in Coney Island. People live in Coney Island to avoid visiting Coney Island. And what of the people who visit Coney Island? They visit Coney Island to avoid reading about Coney Island.” Indeed, doesn’t it seem, nowadays, that reading is the most dangerous, ill-advised thing one can do?

Fearlessly, then, wrapped in blankets in bed, I read everything I could of and about Coney, particularly its literature, its fiction, because anything—even the false, even the fake, the sentimental, the nostalgically kitsch—was better than outside.

Here’s my hawk: no other New York neighborhood boasts Coney’s literary history. America’s best writers coupled its locus to raucous themes, spanning genres from Beat poetry to beat reportage, in languages from English to German, Russian, Spanish, and Yiddish. As Coney was once a vacation spot—back in the original-recipe Depression, in the days before kids’ television and Disney parks, before widespread car ownership and inexpensive air travel—its literature has always been one of writers on-leave, basking in the childhood fantastic by noon, and the libidinous by dusk. Coney’s appearance in the chapters of novels and in the stanzas of poems especially represents an intrusion of magic into worldweary realism—just as the actual neighborhood once indulged not only the practical urban escapist, but also the malevolently playful surreal, or irreal. When a writer machinates his or her characters to Coney, it’s no mere journey by subway, or quaint streetcar: it’s a regressus, as the page becomes an unlimited admission ticket to subconscious Guignol.

I read: Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift and Joseph Heller’s memoir Now and Then; the journalism of Stephen Crane and Walt Whitman (Crane’s Coney Island’s Failing Days tells us that New Yorkers thought Coney was going to hell as early as 1892); Djuna Barnes; Edward Dahlberg; Henry Miller; Kenneth Fearing; Lawrence Ferlinghetti (whose poetry collection A Coney Island of the Mind approaches the place not physically, but as glittering metaphor); Richard Fox’s “Coney Island Frolics”, a report about Coney bathing, appearing in the Police Gazette in 1883; accounts of Sigmund Freud’s Coney tour in 1909; an illuminative treatment of Coney as capitalist grotesque, in Boredom, an essay by Maxim Gorky from 1907; Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York, an architectural manifesto positing Coney as imaginative testing ground for Manhattan’s later skyline reality; Wallace Markfield, who wrote about Brighton’s argumentative Jews; José Martí’s Spanish crónica, Coney Island; O. Henry’s Brickdust Row; Upton Sinclar and Theodore Dreiser; Grace Paley (Enormous Changes at the Last Minute) and Delmore Schwartz (In Dreams Begin Responsibilities), Hubert Selby, Jr. and Gilbert Sorrentino; Harvey Swados and Sol Yurick; and Yiddish’s Isaac Bashevis Singer, onetime resident of Coney’s furthest neighborhood, Seagate.

I wrote this list down in the diary notebook, which soon became just another notebook—ocean-gray, seagullishly shabby—as I began copying excerpts from these selections into it, too. It is revealing that Coney’s literature shares a similar technique: Much of it is made of lists, of breathless listings as long as the boardwalk. It is as if writers about Coney were agape with wonder at how much of the world could be found in one neighborhood, and, overwhelmed, could only try to note down, telegraphically, or in shorthand, the variety of what attracted their senses. In this, and in the notion that a democratic multitude used to come together all in one place, time-encapsulated in its prime—the essential meaning of “A Coney Island of the Mind”—Coney’s literature can also seem diaristic; though its diary is a daybook of a collective ideal, and, too, of an idealistic summertime, to be read by the light of the sun that, these days, feels so distant.

Here, then, is a refresher of this neighborhood’s never-was perfection, from that most perfect of Coney stories, Bashevis Singer’s “A Day in Coney Island”(1970):

I had been in America for eighteen months, but Coney Island still surprised me. The sun poured down like fire. From the beach came a roar even louder than the ocean. On the boardwalk, an Italian watermelon vendor pounded on a sheet of tin with his knife and called for the customers in a wild voice. Everyone bellowed in his own way: sellers of popcorn and hot dogs, ice cream and peanuts, cotton candy and corn on the cob. I passed a sideshow displaying a creature that was half woman, half fish; a wax museum with figures of Marie Antoinette, Buffalo Bill, and John Wilkes Booth; a store where a turbaned astrologer sat in the dark surrounded by maps and globes of the heavenly constellations, casting horoscopes. Pygmies danced in front of a little circus, their black faces painted white, all of them bound loosely with a long rope. A mechanical ape puffed its belly like a bellows and laughed with raucous laughter. Negro boys aimed guns at metal ducklings. A half-naked man with a black beard and hair to his shoulders hawked potions that strengthened the muscles, beautified the skin, and brought back lost potency. He tore heavy chains with his hands and bent coins between his fingers. A little farther along, a medium advertised that she was calling back spirits from the dead, prophesying the future, and giving advice on love and marriage.

We should no longer read this passage wistfully. Not dwelling amid yesteryear’s warmth, we should instead be jolted by the cold Coney of today. We might repeat, each in our own disappointed voice, the sentence that ends Singer’s paragraph: “I wasted my days with dreams, worries, empty fantasies, and locked myself in affairs that had no future.”

Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Book of Numbers), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, London Review of Books, The Forward, n+1, and others. He is the recipient of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, for The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family. He lives in New York City.