Intro by Roy Edroso
There is a neighborhood called Coney Island just up from the beach in south Brooklyn. Because the gentrification waves that have transformed much of the City have not reached it, the world mostly hears of its crimes, and sometimes about politicians visiting to show concern and promise improvements. Down by the water is the Coney Island the world knows better: the boardwalk, the Cyclone, the hot dog eating contests at Nathan’s, the carnival games, the sea and the surf — what the New York Economic Development Corporation (a not-for-profit facilitator of government and private sector cooperation) calls on its website a “historic entertainment destination.”
The world may also know, if it reads the New York papers, about the real estate squabbles that in recent years caused sections of Coney Island’s amusement parks, as entertainment destinations were once called, to be torn down. A developer named Joe Sitt bought up land at Coney Island and negotiated long and hard with the City over its use, sometimes demolishing batting cages or go-kart tracks, seemingly for emphasis. Sitt talked about his own lavish plans for the properties — “Vegas-style” was a frequently employed adjective — while the Bloomberg Administration tried to talk down the price.
The City eventually got control of enough of the land to build new amusements on it, or rather contract with other companies to build them; Sitt’s company continues to hold parcels, some of which remain deconstructed (though he recently leased to a shop that sells merchandise relating to the Brooklyn Nets, who play at Barclays Center, another product of real estate speculation further north in Brooklyn).
Other developers hold land in Coney Island too, and you may see at their websites great plans for its use, including residential and business towers, anticipating larger changes; some of these plans are years old, but the developers have plenty of time to see them through.
This alarms some activists and nostalgic New Yorkers and expatriates. But it is reasonable to note that Coney Island has been convulsed by speculation many times since the first amusements were planted there more than a century ago. As long as rides and clam bars and games of skill are in operation, you might say, Coney is what it was.
You might also say that about the rest of New York, though that too has been affected by speculation. In fact it has gotten so intense that a new term for it has been generated: hyper-gentrification. This may be briefly described as what happens when gentrification cuts out the middleman. The middleman, in this case, would be those advance parties of urban pioneers who once made beachheads in poor neighborhoods. That’s how it had been done for decades: artists and adventurers would come to the East Village, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and such places to get the cheap rents and make a scene, and after a while big money would chasing after. But now big money is bigger than ever, and has discovered that doesn’t need an advance guard. It finds cheap land, buys it up, and creates new markets all by itself. The outsiders will come not as pioneers now, but as customers.
Thus city life grows ever more expensive. But the City knows its own interests, and gives some elbow room to its poorest residents via low-income housing and other forms of public assistance; also, the big money provides opportunities for them to fill their income gaps with the hard jobs, on or off the books, that the wealthier residents need someone to do for them: cleaning their apartments, hauling their furniture, driving them home in the middle of the night.
Like everyone else these folks need to relax, to blow off steam, to get a change of scene, but they can’t spend a lot on that. The need is more pressing in the summertime, when apartments are close and hot; on the worst days the city makes overnight “cooling stations” of community centers, but those are not places to cut loose in. So they hang out in parks, on street corners, in playgrounds. There are limits on what you can do there, too, so sometimes it’s worth a trip to Coney. There you can take advantage of the official attractions, which are more expensive than they once were — the Luna Park complex, for example, now offers “wristband deals” starting at $32 — but even when money is tight you can drink outside at Coney, and dance to boomboxes on the boardwalk, and play on the beach and swim in the water.
When night falls the atmosphere changes a little. On big nights, like the Fourth of July, thousands of people are out, and their voices gather and rise above the music. Some have been drinking a good long while; others haven’t been drinking but have been laughing with friends, running in the sand, riding bumper cars and screaming on the Cyclone, walking the length of the boardwalk and back, eating clams and hot dogs, breathing the sea air, and getting the good kind of tired that makes you forget how tough the days are, then realize you’re not tired at all, just relaxed. You have plenty of jam left. You may have been toasted by the sun, but the sun is down now and the air is cooler. The abundant lights of Coney now shape the space, make a glow that you’re inside, and you may be aware that you are literally at the edge of the City; no skyscrapers tower over you; beyond the beach is only the black ocean.
But you are in the City still. Occasionally you’ll see, in the middle of the throng, a few cops standing close to a young man, and as you pass you check to see if his hands have been cuffed. In front of the Polar Express a cop car moves slowly through the crowd, and patrolmen call and motion for them to disperse. This is nothing unusual; just crowd control; you’ve seen it here before. And if one night you see cops on horseback, riding in to take command of the street, it may seem strange but it’s something you’ve seen before, too; not here, but at anti-war demonstrations, or at Occupy Wall Street, or at the Tompkins Square Riot. That’s what they’re sent to do if there’s a threat. You don’t see a threat here, but somebody does. Obviously. They must. You can’t imagine they were sent just to get people out of the way, to make them feel — innocent as they are, as long as they’ve been coming — that they aren’t welcome.
The deeper into the night it gets, the more active the police become. Yards away are the trains that will take you back, and you may decide it would be a good idea to beat the crowds. You’ve had a good time, and you don’t dwell on the police activity. There is after all a good bit of crime further up from the beach — a cab driver was just slashed there, you saw it on the news — and you don’t want it coming down to the entertainment destination. Neither does anyone else. Changes are coming that will make that less likely, maybe in time unthinkable. People have plans for Coney, as they always have. They’re just bigger than they used to be.
On July 4, 2013, I took my 14-year-old son to the Coney Island amusement park in Brooklyn, New York. We were present as police closed off a section of the park that was popular with lower income, mostly darker skinned New Yorkers, many from projects around the city. The cops forced all the businesses to close along that stretch and used a line of mounted police to drive thousands of people off the street. We saw police beat a young woman who protested. They beat her down to the concrete with their fists and then kicked her while she was down.
There were no acts of violence or vandalism or any other kind of civil disobedience that precipitated the police action. People were behaving peacefully and generally appeared to be having a good time.
The following morning I returned to the scene and asked one of the business owners why the police had cleared the street.
“Too many black people in one place,” he said.
I am an American Photographer currently living in the United States.