The World’s Playground

Weegee’s Coney Island in 1938.

Often this trip is about making connections between my experiences. In that way, I feel like I’m writing about literature, analyzing the confluences of what I see. Last week, we visited the International Center of Photography, a small peaceful space that was hosting a show by Weegee. I don’t think I’d ever heard of Weegee before, but I was instantly taken by his journalistic detective-style photos of New York City crime in the 1930s and 1940s. Murder was his business, and in his black-and-white images of violently brutalized people, massive fires, and crime’s innocent by-standers, he beautifully portrayed the sometimes-isolated feeling in the city.

But Weegee had another favorite subject for his photography: Coney Island. In his Coney Island photographs—as the exhibit argued—Weegee captured a different side of New York: the playful spontaneous side of New Yorkers crowding on a beach for a day away from murder and crime. I was struck by the juxtaposition of these images: the crowds witnessing a murder and the crowds thronged together in play.

So when I visited Coney Island for the Mermaid Parade on Saturday, Weegee was foremost in my mind. Even though the beach community is more commercialized and consumerized today, if Weegee were around, he’d still capture a similar spirit in the people.  Although the crowd was thick (I mean thick), somehow I didn’t feel crowded like I sometimes do in New York City. There was an air of revelry as mermaids and mermen made their way up the central street aside the undersea floats. On the beach, families lounged together while their children played in the water and built various sand statues. There were absolutely no pretenses there: it was carnivalesque without the dark side. I listened to the mermaid bands parading up the street; I shrieked atop the Wonder Wheel (swinging car!); I watched one of our students brave the cold ocean waters; I sat on a dirty curb and devoured a Nathan’s hotdog.

On the way home on the subway, our train was suddenly stopped and we were told to evacuate. As we pushed past the platform and up the stairs, six to eight police cars swarmed the station and rushed down to the train. Although we were quickly returned to a new train (without ever learning what exactly had caused the sudden evacuation), I thought of Weegee’s two photographic subjects. My day of revelry at Coney Island ended with a return to the city crimescape—perhaps a metaphor for the differences in attitude between the World’s Playground and the City that Never Sleeps, which Weegee captured so well.

My Coney Island 2012.

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Filed under History, Neighborhood Fun, Photography, Popular Culture, Visual Arts

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