Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Multiple Choice Culture

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A seagull drops an orange rind into the saltwater and dives to retrieve it from a briny froth that includes plastic bottles, a variety of wrappers and several dozen fishing lines in anticipation of unusually mercury-heavy catches. In the distance a container ship breaks up the horizon on its way to a traffic jam currently stalled under the Verrazano Bridge. This is a suitably debased pleasure ground for a suitably populist clientele. Welcome to Coney Island.

At the terminus of half of Brooklyn’s elevated subways (and other self-contradictory titles), Coney Island has always been a true People’s Park, a fact that local purveyors do not hesitate to exploit in their not-quite-but-approaching-twee populist kitsch: There is hardly a venue that is not plastered with former Steeplechase Park owner George Tilyou’s rather creepy clown face or a sepia-toned landscape of turn-of-the-last-century working-class crowds.

Okay, maybe a little twee

Yesterday’s working-class crowds have, with a few hiccups, thankfully turned into today’s working-class crowds; a welcome respite when many parts of Brooklyn have followed Manhattan’s lead and turned into theme park versions of themselves. Funny enough, the actual theme park, or rather the amalgam of three former theme parks that were very almost turned into a shopping mall, remains true to itself, renewed but not mere tinsel-laden bourgeois fakery.

Perhaps Coney Island is still below the dividing line: On the far side of the South/North Brooklyn barrier of gentrification, still too far for yuppies to commute. Perhaps it’s the public housing projects that surround it, and which have been bolstered by one thousand new affordable units as part of the city’s “revitalization” effort that keep such urban pioneers at bay. Either way, this one part of New York remains a place in which to people-watch the character of the new masses yearning to be free.

It does not disappoint. Harlem kids with matching t-shirts advertising the summer camp whose purpose it is to get them out of Harlem by any means possible enjoy the three-year-old Steeplechase, a rollercoaster that takes the name of a former ride in its former eponymous park, and the brand-new Thunderbolt, a rollercoaster that also takes the name of a former ride. In doing so they take part in rides whose death-defying thrills come from their design, as contrasted to the Cyclone or the Wonder Wheel, whose death-defying thrills have seemingly come from the fear that they may fall apart directly under their riders. Those rides harken back to an era that brings to mind scenes from The Warriors more than the intensely-curated experiences of Disneyland.

Coney Island has successfully de-hoodified, it can be argued; eliminating drug dealers from its image much as the newly-rechristened Action Park in New Jersey hopes to do with lawsuit-friendly personal injury. It’s in this venue that these Harlem teenagers share the grounds, the boardwalk and the beach with a particularly Asiatic milieu – unsurprising considering our latest immigration patterns – of South Asians clad in colorful saris, Near Asians cloaked in hijabs and, if they’re to get wet, outfits that can only be described as burqinis – which are something like underwater wetsuits with skirts – East Asians who seem to eschew swimsuits altogether in favor of getting their street clothes wet, and semi-Asian Russians, who are, on the whole, gleefully anti-fashionable: Their dayglow wifebeaters and flouncy camouflage pants defy, or more accurately, transcend convention.

A woman calls out to her two sons, Ivan and Raul, not to get too far out from the shore. A Puerto Rican woman in bikini top and unzipped Daisy Dukes (her flag – because why not – leaving the mystery of her provenance not up to question) saunters by a middle-eastern family, her general lack of attire rendering their religious mores rather superfluous. They ignore her. She ignores them. Everybody ignores everybody. The Ukrainian man so sunburned as to be near purple, rubbing his prodigious beer belly while downing seemingly endless Coronas, is oblivious to the Latino man across from him, also with prodigious beer belly, holding a 90’s-vintage boombox as if it were the source of his tan, and he is in turn oblivious to the trio of Japanese women who find him to be an attraction much in the same way that the defunct Parachute Drop ride is an attraction.

It is a brilliant melange of racial harmony in the New York style. It is not a salad bowl. It’s practically atomized: Wild rice. Soon it will be tossed and turned even further into a curry: Stretching the definition of actual separation through ever-finer granules. This is also a welcome, if odd, counterpoint to the ossified stews that much of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods have settled into. In Bay Ridge, the Italians are still king: Pro-cop, anti-immigrant and the source of a great deal of anti-Muslim grief that’s currently winding its way through the city’s metaphorical back alleys. In Coney Island, they sit behind the counter and serve Muslim immigrants overpriced pub food as they do everybody else.

It’s a superfluous melting pot. Interaction is little though physical proximity is high. It is, however, an authentic one: Everybody shares the same goals and assumed socioeconomic class, separate from the usual grievances. It’s not the prettiest of beaches – flanked by housing projects, under the eaves of the subway, and as trash-strewn as the rest of the city – but in it can be seen the future of New York, and it is not so dissimilar to the past of New York, all told.

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