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NOSTALGIC FOR OL’ CONEY

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Year’s end is usually the time to recommend gift books for holiday reading. So why not books about Brooklyn?

Brooklyn is a hot topic for writers and it’s getting even hotter now. Coney Island stands out as it celebrates one centennial in 2003 and another in 2004.

Luna Park, a theme park that opened in 1903 and lasted for 40 years, shocked visitors with its millions of electric lights, its creative rides and attractions, and its elephants. Luna’s lights blew out in 1946.

Dreamland, across Surf Avenue where the New York Aquarium now stands, opened in 1904, duplicating and doubling many of Luna’s attractions but without as much charm or success. It burned to the ground in 1911.

Two excellent, thoroughly researched books have just been published about Coney Island. They present an overall history of Coney and its evolution, a sorely needed topic on bookshelves.

Charles Denson, who lived in Coney Island and has written a historic walking tour brochure of the area, now has a wonderful book on the history of the rides and attractions, many of which were intertwined with his growing up there. "Coney Island: Lost and Found," published by Ten Speed Press (2002) is available in paperback for $29.95.

The graphics and colored postcards are novel and the text is accurate. In spite of the fact that Denson lives in San Francisco, where he works as a graphic designer, he returns here annually and has an extensive photo collection of his Coney days, which he has incorporated into the book. He told GO Brooklyn that he reduced this 300-page book from his original 700 by cutting out the dull parts.

Were there any?

"Coney Island: The People’s Playground" by Michael Immerso (2002, Rutgers University Press, $29.95 in hardcover) uncovers many obscure facts about Coney’s history, such as the origin of the section called "The Gut," an infamous red-light district of "Sodom by the sea." While a few errors sneaked in - the first Iron Pier was only one-story high (not two stories) - Immerso’s writing is fluid and seamless, producing one of the best of the basic primers of Coney Island chronology, one that I wish I had written myself.

Both of the above books are trade (or commercial) books, but Immerso’s book is more thoroughly documented with endnotes.

The inspiration behind Luna Park’s creativity came from Frederic Thompson, an architectural student turned showman. His life is vividly retold in "The Kid of Coney Island: Fred Thompson and the Rise of American Amusements" by Woody Register (2001, Oxford University Press, $35), a challenging and frustrating story of a creative genius who delighted in creating Moorish designs. His penchant for keeping elephant hoofs around his office as stools is only one of his idiosyncrasies. Another was his inspiration for amusement park design: children’s toys.

Brian Cudahy, a chronicler of New York transportation who has written about the subway system and the ferries we rode, has produced the book "How We Got to Coney Island: The Development of Mass Transportation in Brooklyn and Kings County" (2002, Fordham University Press, $45), detailing 150 years of varied transportation that moved the world from northern Brooklyn to the "Playground of the World" from the beginning of the 19th century to today’s subways.

A new photography book titled "Bruce Gilden: Coney Island" (2002, Trebruk Publishing, $50) is due out, but I haven’t seen it yet. The collection of 54 black-and-white Coney Island photographs, by Brooklyn-born photographer Gilden, spans the late 1960s through the late 1980s.

Other Coney books on the market include Kevin Baker’s "Dreamland" (2000, Harper Collins, $26 hardcover; $6.99 paperback), a picaresque fictionalized account of raucous days in Coney Island when colorful gangs and freaks ruled the seas, beaches and the city. Among older imprints is "Good Old Coney Island: A Sentimental Journey Into the Past" (2000, Fordham University Press, $35 hard; $19.95 paper), a classic on the formative days of the amusement center, by Edo McCullough, a member of the Tilyou family. It has been reprinted with a new introduction and commentary.

"Coney Island Kaleidoscope," (1991, Beautiful America Press, $19.95, paperback) is an unusual 1980s contemporary photographic record by Lynn Butler with a text by John Manbeck. (Yes, that’s me. Technically, it is out of print, but a request to jmanbeck@aol.com can get you one for $5 plus postage.)


The rest of Brooklyn

Other neighborhoods of Brooklyn can be found in bookstores and online, too. Marcia Reiss, who has written guides for the Brooklyn Historical Society, has produced "Brooklyn: Then and Now" (2002, Thunder Bay Press, $17.98 hardcover) with comparative photos and short historical texts with each picture.

The society itself still has its own history, titled "Brooklyn! An Illustrated History" (1996, Temple University Press, $34.95 hardcover) by Ellen Snyder-Grenier.

For a history of the City University of New York, try "From the Free Academy to CUNY: Illustrating Public Education in New York City 1847-1997" (2000, Fordham University Press, $18.74) by Anthony Cucchiara, Sandra Roff and Barbara Dunlap, which includes a generous section on Brooklyn College, since Cucchiara is a professor there as well as the college’s archivist.

Of course, the Brian Merlis-Lee Rosenzweig picture books dominate many bookstore shelves, the latest of which, "Brooklyn’s Flatlands; Beyond the Field" (Israelowitz Publishing, $34.95 hardcover), purports to chronicle Flatlands but reaches a bit far by including Flatbush. Merlis still refuses to credit the sources of many of his photographs and often shortchanges the history. Nevertheless, those who like older and unusual photographs for a reasonable price will find many in their paperbound books.

I couldn’t ignore "Neighborhoods of Brooklyn" (1998, Yale University Press, $29.95) edited by yours truly with an introduction by Kenneth Jackson. It’s still selling briskly in the regional section of bookstores and has a good cross section of Brooklyn communities. Its accuracy on schools, libraries, police and fire stations and neighborhood maps still holds up despite Astroland being relocated on the Coney Island map. Historically speaking, it’s interesting to note how Brooklyn College moved from Flatbush to Midwood and how Bensonhurst replaced the original Dutch town of New Utrecht.

 

Reading list

Just for the record, here is a list of previously published Brooklyn books that are fun and still available:

Fiction:

"Suspension: A Novel" by Richard Crabbe (2000, Thomas Dunne Books [St. Martin’s], $14.95) Civil War vets try to get even with Washington Roebling who is busy building a bridge. Wonderful detail in the research and writing.

"Red Hook: A Novel" by Gabriel Cohen (2001, Thomas Dunne Books, $23.95) An urban crime story with a NYC detective working in the bowels of the Brooklyn waterfront. Written with a wonderful sense of history but missing a realistic sense of police work.

"Motherless Brooklyn" by Jonathan Lethem (2000, Knopf, $13 paper; $23.95 hard large print; also as audio-book, $25) A clever detective story set in Boerum Hill told by a character with Tourette’s syndrome. The setting includes several identifiable Smith Street sites.

"The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay: A Novel" by Michael Chabon (2000, Picador, $15) The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Wonder Boys" sets his characters in Brooklyn at the end of the Depression. While they travel into "the city" to draw their comic books, they have the hearts of Brooklynites.

Non-Fiction:

"Of Cabbages and Kings County: Agriculture and the Formation of Modern Brooklyn" by Marc Linder and Lawrence Zacharias (1999, University of Iowa, $34.95 hard; 21.95 paper) Farming prosperity versus industrial and residential development in Brooklyn. Nicely researched and written.

"An Architectural Guidebook to Brooklyn" by Francis Morrone (2001, Gibbs Smith Publisher, $27.95) With maps, descriptions of distinctive areas and bios, Morrone fills a gap in Brooklynalia.

"Grave’s End: A True Ghost Story" by Elaine Mercado (2000, Llewellyn Publications, $12.95) A 13-year nightmare in a haunted Brooklyn house. Really!

"Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century" by John Kasson (1990, Hill & Wang, $13) The one that started interest in Coney Island and is still around and vital 12 years later.

"Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898" by Mike Wallace and Edwin Burrows (1999, Oxford University Press, $24.95 paperback; $65 hardcover) An impressive but heavy interpretation of New York - and Brooklyn - history by Brooklyn-based authors who won the Pulitzer Prize for this effort. All you wanted to know about NYC. A second volume will be out soon.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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