The concept of the Victorian seaside resort which took off in popularity in the latter half of the 19th century reached the United States at the turn of the last century. When one mentiones Coney Island, ideas immediately spring to mind with packed beaches, carousels, fun parks and vast hotels which are now quite a thing of the past. However in its heyday, Coney Island was definitely the place to be for a holiday and the vast millions who flocked their certainly partook of the excitement of a holiday which was perhaps something totally new to them.
Coney Island and its development
One can say that the island developed during around two decades with the advent of the motor car and cheap travel which made it all the more accessible for those who wished to sample the pleasures and delights of seaside life. Vast amusement parks were built, some of them quite unique and extremely attarctive although the great developer Robert Moses described the entertainment as ‘tawdry’ (Caro 1974). Society took to Coney Island like water on a duck’s back yet it was mainly the lower classes who predominated as life was cheap and you get practically anywhere you wanted for a few dollars. The more refined and genteel New York society preferred the exclusive surroundings of somehwere such as Oyster Bay so Coney island was shunned upon and perceived to be something reserved for the lowly and ignorant. This attitude persisted through the mid 20th century when the island began its steep decline into oblivion through the advent of such techmology as air conditioning and faster and more durable vehicles which enabled holidaymakers to go elsewhere for their vacation.
The front cover of John Kasson’s book is a study in itself depicting the bathing beauties all ready to pose for photos on the sandy beach. It is like a snapshot of a vanished age where the camera records a moment in time which vanishes into oblivion. Obviously the book deals extensively with the amusement park phenomenon which took off liek a house on fire in the US, largely imitating whwat was going on in countries like the UK and Germany who also had their own beachside resorts which were extremely popular at the time.
However Kasson argues that the American’s innate aversion to all things British was eventually to spell the decline for Coney Island. American society was changing at a rapid pace, it was becoming more urbanized and much more fast living, especially in the years which split the First from the Second World War (p 55-100).
Industrialization also began developing at an even faster pace in the early part of the 20th century so the fast spraed of motor cars across American society enabled families to go to far flung places for their holidays. In this context, the idea of the genteel Victorian society taking a break and strolling along the beach eventually became a thing of the past as the more enterprising began searching for their holidays all over the place and amusement parks became something of a bore to many (p 70-80). Coney island attempted to do things differently but how much it succeeded remains quite arguable.
One could argue that Coney island was the first ever amusement park of its kind in the United states and that it remained the driving force behind New York society for over half a century. The industrial magnates who decided to build the parks had an eye on profit and initially the project was extremely successful with several millions flocking to the place over the decades. However mass development and a differing sort of public spelled the end of Coney Island as an amusement park after the war as New York began to take a vastly different shape spearheaded by the legendary developer, Robert Moses who dismissed the park’s value and redeveloped the area substantially. Eventually, Coney island was sold to the Trump family in 1964 where the place was to be redeveloped into apartments although several aspects of that development have remained controversial. The island is now linked to the mainland by means of a bridge and the area still suffers from violence and gang culture which erupted after the resort’s decline. Today Coney island is a rather bleak place although it is still sought after as a residential area (p 150-170).
One can coin various comparisons with the amusement parks of today which have become extremely successful over the years. The first that springs to mind is the Disneyland concept which we find in Florida and also in paris where the entertainment is mainly centred and what children can enjoy. However there are quite a few amusment parks spread all over the United States although the emphasis remains on the younger generation who are perhaps more gullible to consumerism as they manage to convince their parents to get them stuff and taking them places by tugging on their heart strings.
The concept of a vast amusement park to attract millions of holidaymakers and make them spend their cash was actually nothing really new at the turn of last century. However the thrill of Coney island as a destination brought about the intrinsic development which flowered and blossomed over the decades. Americans were earning more money, more persons were moving into the middle class and these were inclined to spend more. Rapid industrialization and urbanisation also led to the sprouting up of similar amusement parks and although the Great depression interfered somewhat, Coney Island was still going strong till after the Second World War.
Kasson also reflects on considerable changes in Coney Island over the years and this is definitely one of the main reasons why this resort remained attractive and intriguing to all. The book deals with several interesting issues on all fronts and continues to emphasise the importance of Coney Island as the mecca for American resorts over the decades.
Kasson’s book is an eye opener on some details which perhaps had been stored away for decades never to return. He spends a good part of the book reminscing on the social scene which sprouted on Coney Island, he is also rather nostalgic on those who worked there and who were constantly showing off their wares and making people participate in proceedings. He is very descriptive of the atmosphere on Coney island which must have been quite claustrophovic at points with all those hundreds of thousands packed into such a relatively small area, However, the book is truly an essential read for all those who are interested in the development of American social life over the last few decades and how American society changes according to the times. Coney island certainly played a huge part in all that.