Last week we finished the installation of the small photography show Goodbye Coney Island? in the Luce Alcove on the fifth floor of the Museum. When I was told over the summer that this space would become available, I immediately thought of the discussions on the future of Coney Island and that this could be a great opportunity to revisit the history of the neighborhood and look at the evolution of Coney Island as an entertainment haven over the past 125 years.
Apart from about thirty photographs – in both color and black-and-white – looking at Coney Island from many different perspectives, the exhibition also includes almost thirty prints from the Brooklyn Museum’s great collection of glass plate negatives. Together they cover almost every decade from the 1870s until the present. Glass plate negatives are fragile and to produce high quality digital scans from which a new picture can be printed is a fantastic way to make these images available. They show scenes from the late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century and are a wonderful contribution to the exhibition.
Big changes are anticipated in the near future, with proposals for redevelopment presented by the city as well as by private developers. Coney Island was always a contested playground with disputes over land use occurring at every stage of its evolution. Seventeenth-century power grabs by Dutch and English colonialists, late nineteenth-century corruption scandals, firm management by New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses in the mid-twentieth century, and present-day real estate speculations over valuable beachfront property are all part of the history here. In the past few years, structured attempts to rejuvenate the area have increased, signaling an interest in preserving Coney Island’s character and its accessibility for a socially and ethnically diverse audience. At the same time, developers have presented elaborate commercial and residential schemes that many fear would dramatically alter the nature of Coney. I included a question mark after the title, Goodbye Coney Island?, in order to address both the fear that Coney Island will disappear and the uncertainty of what will come out of the renewal efforts. I believe Coney Island will remain, but yet again change guise as a new incarnation takes shape in the next decade.