On the Edge: The Lure of Coney Island


In A.i.A.’s October issue, Jonathan Weinberg wrote about the traveling exhibition “Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008,” noting that “people still come to Coney Island to escape the heat, but also in search of what Charles Denson, the executive director of the Coney Island History Project, calls an ‘anti-Disney World,’ an experience that in its very low-budget grittiness feels anything but pre-packaged or corporate.” Weinberg saw the show at its originating institution, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn.; it’s now at the Brooklyn Museum through March 13. Photographer Lisa Kereszi, whose images are included in the exhibition, shares her personal perspective on the island’s allure. —Eds.


A trip to Coney Island on the Fourth of July in 1996 was the first of many I made there when I moved to Brooklyn after college. I still have a photograph I took that day of a very aggressive-looking, tattooed guy coming down one of the ramps in Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park. I remember seeing him and thinking, “There’s danger here.” I was drawn to Coney Island for the same reasons that any other artist might be: There’s a sense of it being the end. It’s where New York City meets the ocean. It’s as far as you can get from the center. And there’s also a sense of faded glory. Some of my other pictures, from 1997 and ’98, show the neon signs and other magnificent junk strewn around. I wish I’d gone there with a pickup truck and taken it all. But at least I have photographs.

I’m from Philadelphia, and I grew up going to the Jersey Shore. Coney Island reminded me a lot of a town called Wildwood, N.J., another dangerous and exhilarating place by the sea with a boardwalk and carnival rides. Most of my work is about escapism: the things that scare us and thrill us and remove us from our daily lives. I’ve shot other series at sex clubs, movie theaters, night clubs and on Governors Island, other places born of attempts to create temporary environments to escape the everyday. They have the same kind of beautiful decay, the patina of use and abuse.

I have a series about Florida, which I think of as a place you go when all other trails are dead ends. You go to Florida to spend your last years after you’ve retired. You go to Florida when you’re on the lam. Florida is home to old bikers and criminals and elderly people. Coney Island, like Florida, has always been a place where artists and outsiders and the tattooed and the freaks go when they’re pushed out of the center. People get pushed out of Manhattan to Brooklyn, then get pushed all the way through Brooklyn out to Coney Island. It’s an edge, and it shows where the fantasy of escape fails, leaving you with rusted metal and broken glass, a not-very-optimistic view of our need to escape reality.

But now Coney Island is going through a process of rebirth. A few years ago Thor Equities, the development company, bought up a bunch of properties on Coney Island and they were planning to knock down parts of the entertainment district. But the non-profit organization Coney Island USA led protests against private development. The area is zoned for amusements. The high-rises and fancy apartments that Thor planned are the antithesis of Coney Island. When Astroland, which used to be Coney Island’s main amusement park, went out of business, it was taken over by Luna Park, which is connected to an Italian company, and they put in these fancy new European rides. So it’s not like in the past, when you got on a decrepit rollercoaster with the feeling that at any moment the bolts could come loose and you’d die. These days there’s more money and more people and less fear of the rides. It seems like something is happening. But even as it’s now partially renewed as an environment of escape, it still has plenty of its crust hanging on. It’s still on the edge, with a faint sense of danger.

—As told to Brian Droitcour