In the 19th century, Coney Island became popular among the masses of Manhattan as an escape from the city. Coney Island always existed in binary opposition to Manhattan, after being artificially severed from the mainland. First it was a natural oasis away from the rapidly growing urbanism of Manhattan. As Manhattan grew and more people flocked to island, it could no longer exist as a natural island, and mutated to the opposite binary, one of extreme artificiality and urban intensification. In this position, Coney Island functioned as a laboratory for Manhattan, experimenting with a new urbanism of the Technology of the Fantastic. Technology, artificiality, synthetic reality and the abnormal and absurd were exploited as consumable binaries to be ritualized by the masses and unleashed on Manhattan. Coney Island as a laboratory created a new urbanism and a new mass consumer culture to inhabit it.
On summer days in the mid 19th century, people would flock to Coney Island to enjoy the beaches and virgin nature. At the beginning, very few artificial connections reach the island, and at least two transportation connections were required. The eastern end became populated with resort hotels to accommodate those who loved the isolation of the island. The western end of the island became populated by criminals and misfits, valuing the isolation of the island and absence of the law. Rem Koolhaas, in Delirious New York, considered both groups to be different kinds of fugitives from the urban prison. The island then existed not only in binary opposition to Manhattan, but the two ends of the island were social binaries to one another. In 1865 the train tracks were completed, reconnecting Coney Island with the main land. With the new connection, “The trains put the ocean front finally within the reach of the new metropolitan masses; the beach becomes the finish line for a weekly exodus that has the urgency of the jailbreak.”49(32) The middle zone of the island, between the competing binaries, became a focal point of developing pleasure. While the eastern end offered pleasure of purity and nature, and the western end the pleasure of crime, the middle ground pursued Pleasure for the masses through the same technological means the rest of the world was using to pursue progress.50 Technology was something to be consumed.
The next development for Coney Island was the 300-foot Centennial Tower erected in the middle-zone. From the top, telescopes offered viewers the whole island as well Manhattan in the distance. It was an architectural device that provoked self-consciousness and offered “an additional direction of escape: mass ascension.”51 The tower was originally erected in Philadelphia for its centennial celebration, and its transplantation started a trend of objects of other exhibitions and world fairs ending up on Coney Island. Exotic tribes, midgets and freaks all become flotsam taking up permanence on the island. 52
In 1883 the Brooklyn Bridge was completed, making Coney Island fully accessible to the masses. Once completed, “on summer Sunday’s Coney Island’s beach [became] the most densely occupied place in the world.”53 The new overwhelming onslaught of people escaping the metropolis meant that Coney Island could no longer exist as it did, as “the provision of Nature to the citizens of the Artificial.” To carry on, the island had to change to the opposite binary extreme of artificiality, to an intensification of the urban pressure of Manhattan. The following decade saw the development of Coney Island through amusement parks fueled by the “Technology of the Fantastic.” During this time, Coney Island also filled the role of a laboratory for Manhattan, experimenting with a new urbanism before it was ritualized and transplanted to the metropolis.
The new urbanism of Coney Island was developed through amusement parks, turning technology into pleasure. The amusement parks made use of devices or mechanisms to gratify the swarming masses. Electricity was widely exploited on the beaches and in the amusement parks. With so many people flocking to the island each day, it became impossible for everyone to find a place on the beach. Bright lights were placed at regular intervals on the beach to provide a second daytime, the “artificiality [became] an attraction: ‘Electric Bathing.’” 54 (35) In Dreamland, a city of towers was dressed in 1,300,000 electric lights that afforded a second city of the night. Further, two distinct cities had been created, each with its own character and quality. The electric city was in fact a more powerful device of technology and pleasure “with the advent of night a fantastic city all of fire suddenly rises from the ocean into the sky….”55(41) For all of this to be possible the worlds most modern infrastructure was developed and implemented in three years. Electric Bathing and the city of night were the foundations of the 24-hour metropolis, created in the laboratory of Coney Island. The 24-hour day, the electric lights, and the intensive infrastructure became ritualized by the masses and then demanded in Manhattan.
The parks of Coney Island employed other devices to appeal to a society demanding a binary opposition from Manhattan. One set of devices appealed to the masses desire of socially leaving behind Victorianism, and the other set appealed to a desire for unreal or synthetic reality.
The first set of devices included such inventions and the Barrels of Love and Lilliputia. The Barrels of Love sought to defeat the loneliness and alienation created by the metropolis. Two horizontal cylinders rotated in opposite direction, one side feeding men and the other women. The rotation of the cylinders made it impossible to remain standing, causing men and women to fall on top of one another in a synthetic intimacy between strangers.56(35) Lilliputia was a Midget City with a population of flotsam from fairs all across the continent. The city had its own beach, parliament and fire department, but the real attraction was the social experiment. Conventional morality was ignored in the city and the fact was advertised. Promiscuity, homosexuality and nymphomania were encouraged practices and resulted in failed marriages and a high rate of illegitimate babies within Lilliputia. The spectacle of the city and its inhabitants was “a continuing vicarious experience for a society preparing to shed the remnants of Victorianism.”57(49)
Devices like The Fall of Pompeii and Fighting the Flames appealed to a desire for synthetic reality. The Fall of Pompeii was a series of simulated disasters allowing visitors to experience the San Francisco earthquake, the burning of Rome and Moscow and the eruption of Vesuvius. In Fighting the Flames, a whole city block in Dreamland was devoted to a large building with no roof and a home for four thousand fire fighters. Every day, fires were stages on the block, and the firemen went to rescue the victims and put out the fire to prepare the block for the next performance. The spectacle highlighted the “dark side of the Metropolis as an astronomical increase in the potential for disaster only just exceeded by an astronomical increase in the ability to avert it.”58(58). Technology was used to both create and save a new city and society.
The parks of Coney Island were largely built of cheap cardboard, possessing several qualities that would be relocated to Manhattan. The cardboard and building scale allowed for unprecedented architecture to evolve on the island that included intricate and impossibly narrow spires. The narrow spires translated into unusable building space created by technology, both in Lilliputia and Luna Park, home to 1,221 functionless towers. The use created “the formula: cardboard +technology (or any other flimsy material) = reality.”59 A further developed manifestation of this was the proposal for the globe. Combining ideas of the Centennial tower of ascension and the functions of the existing parks, the globe proposed to combine the functions of the whole island into one globe/tower. Two things were important, one it maximized its functional space while minimizing its contact with the ground. The unrealized globe would have included 5,000,000 square feet standing on only 1,000 square feet of earth. Second, it proposed to stack unrelated programs on top of one another, creating separate realities on each floor.
The creation, use and intensification on Coney Island offered a condition of binary extremes in opposition to Manhattan. The laboratory of the technology of the fantastic was place where technology, pleasure and these binaries could be consumed. The parks not only ritualized the new creations into a new urbanism, but also created a mass consumer society. Extrapolating the example to today, how is our culture in the Information Age similar to culture at the end of the Victorian Age? Our current culture is littered with examples of how we are, just like then, pursuing extremes in opposition to our culture’s established norms, or status quo. We are still fascinated by the Synthetic Reality, as Koolhaas calls it, consuming things like fake newscasts, Second Life, web cam broadcasts, Real House Wives of Atlanta, You Tube and more. As America becomes more culturally homogenous through the mass media landscape, we value the sub-culture and the bizarre more than ever. Just like Coney Island exploited new technology for the fulfillment of desire and pleasure, we are using new technologies of cameras, surveillance, and mass communication to fulfill our own desires. We are also using the new technologies to watch each other, to make sure we all stay within unwritten boundaries that define the difference between the extreme and too extreme. The technologies and the way we use them allow us to fulfill the desire to watch and be watched, and to live and believe in a Synthetic Reality when our own isn’t good enough. Coney Island created a new urbanism and new consumer society to go with it. What binary extremes are we currently consuming, and what new urbanism and society are we currently creating?