Coney Island and Hurricane Sandy: One year later

Coney Island: Playground of the World, 1948
Coney Island: Playground of the World, 1948

If I were able to get to the Museum of the City of New York, I would take in the show “Rising Waters”, a juried exhibition of photographs taken during the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. On this one year anniversary, New Yorkers are looking at the report card for the year of disaster assistance and weighing not only the successes and failures, but also the preparedness plans for the future.

Once again, 2012, © Amy Medina now on view at the Museum of the  City of New York
Once again, 2012, © Amy Medina now on view at the Museum of the City of New York

In addition to the tales of woe on this anniversary, there are also stories about the power of human connection and the ways that people from all walks of life band together to face crises. The New York Times shared the story of 3000 people forming a human chain in Rockaway Beach Queens after 56 year old Lily Corcoran advertised the commemorative gathering on Facebook. After maintaining a moment of silence, the crowd cheered and some cried.

3000 on Rockaway Beach Queens,  photo from Facebook page
3000 on Rockaway Beach Queens, photo from Facebook page

The call put out on Facebook declared:

We have come together as one family from Far Rockaway to Breezy Point!!! We are here for each other to help rise from Hurricane Sandy’s Devastation. We are planning a celebration of the One year Anniversary! Not a sad one but a thankful happy event!!!

Ellis Island, the iconic symbol of American immigration, also re-opened yesterday after suffering severe flood damage from Sandy and being shut down for a year. My Russian father and Austrian mother each immigrated through Ellis Island in the early 1900’s as teenagers. They later met, married and settled in Coney Island. Serendipitously, yesterday was also the 127th birthday of the Statue of Liberty. The symbolism here is weighty – Hurricane Sandy, Ellis Island and Statue of Liberty — and I’ll leave it to others to comment on that in their own way. For me the association leads to Coney Island — as most things do!

In 1995 when ABC Nightline featured me on their TV special about Coney Island, I began my reflections on the place by saying:

“When people come to this country and visit the Statue of Liberty, I think there ought to be a sign that says ‘Come with me to Coney Island first!’ Because, whatever New York is to the United States, Coney Island is to New York. It’s a multitude of all colors and every language under the sun.”

Crowded Beach at Coney Island, 1960
Crowded Beach at Coney Island, 1960

While people no longer enter this country through Ellis Island, those who do immigrate to New York City, particularly if they are working class, will eventually find their way to Coney Island, and it’s precisely this convergence of people from all over the city – and the world — that contributes to it’s place in the American imagination.

Eyewitness to Sandy on Coney Island,  Charles Denson, 2012
Eyewitness to Sandy on Coney Island, Charles Denson, 2012

Coney Island was devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Nearly one quarter of the area’s 48,000 residents lost their homes. Businesses and attractions along the boardwalk were flooded out. I shared my own reaction to this in a blog a year ago entitled Coney Island and Hurricane Sandy: Down but never out! I included this photo from Charles Denson of the Coney Island History Project, who is now unveiling his 20 minute documentary simply entitled The Storm.

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As in other disasters, the response to Hurricane Sandy revealed the fissures in society as well as the cohesion. The residents of Coney Island, as represented in this picture from the Facebook page of The People’s Coalition of Coney Island, remind us that the amusement area, which saw 14 million visitors this year, is not the only face of Coney Island. As someone born in Coney Island hospital (also devastated by Sandy) and who lived on 31st Street, I sympathize with all the residents who are still awaiting the kind of visibility given to the amusement area. After Sandy I offered a sale of my work to benefit two charitable organizations, North Star Fund and Coney Recovers. Both have been engaged in relief and community organizing work, and they’ve both done great things to help Coney Island residents. While my own contribution was miniscule in comparison to the need, I was happy to help out in a way that I could and was heartened to see the great work done by both of these groups.

Storefront Christ and Children was taken in 1950.  This Church,  now the Beulah Church of Christ,  is at Mermaid Avenues in Coney Island, not far from my own home.
Storefront Christ and Children was taken in 1950. This Church, now the Beulah Church of Christ, is at Mermaid Avenues in Coney Island, not far from my own home.
So too, as a photographer, the amusement park of Coney Island has always been an inspiration to me precisely because it has provided a place for working class people — from all the city’s neighborhoods and from around the world — to come together for the universal pursuit of relaxation, pleasure and fun.

Here’s my photographic tribute to the resilient diversity of the people’s playground through the years. People from every walk of life, young and old, parents and children, African American, Latino, Asian, European, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, gay and straight, crazy and conventional all converge here year in and year out. Where else do you find this? To me, it’s representative of the spirit of community and strength that are woven into the post-Sandy narrative.

I don't know where these two guys were coming from,  but I know where they were headed on a sunny summer day.  All trains lead to Coney Island (1970).
I don’t know where these two guys were coming from, but I know where they were headed on a sunny summer day. All trains lead to Coney Island (1970).

Puerto Rican Flag, 1978
Puerto Rican Flag, 1978
Sunny on the boardwalk, 1951
Sunny on the boardwalk, 1951

Four Girlfriends, 1990
Four Girlfriends, 1990
World Watcher Quartette,  1977
World Watcher Quartette, 1977
Nuns in habits on boardwalk, 1949
Nuns on boardwalk, 1949

Hand in hand on the boardwalk, 1955
Hand in hand on the boardwalk, 1955
Arm and arm on the beach, 1950
Arm and arm on the beach, 1950

Beach musicians, 1950
Beach musicians, 1950
Haitian man and child, 1954
Haitian man and child, 1954
Asleep on boardwalk bench, 1947
Asleep on boardwalk bench, 1947

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Allan MacGregor
Allan MacGregor

Thanks, once again Harold, for the heartfelt words and inspirational photos that you generously share in each blog. I was feeling a bit low today and they picked me right up! We’re back in Mexico and already miss you and Judith!
Allan (& Barbara)

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