Coney Island: The Ups and Downs of America’s First Amusement Park

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http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/coney/

Reviewed: November, 2003
Mounted: January 12, 2004
By Donna M. DeBlasio

Basic Criteria:

Site Overview: For many of us, just the name, “Coney Island” conjures up memories of hours happily spent at a local amusement park. The thrills and chills of the roller coaster, the beauty of the carrousel, the whirling dizziness of the tilt-a-whirl were a part of the amusement park scene no matter where in America one came to maturity. Coney Island is the parent of the hundreds of old fashioned amusement parks that once dotted the American landscape. WGBH, Boston’s PBS affiliate, designed the web site, Coney Island: The Ups and Downs of America’s First Amusement Park as a companion to the Ric Burns film, Coney Island, which aired on PBS. The site is a combination of text, still images, and video clips not only to present the history of the amusement resort but also to put it into historical context—not merely provide a nostalgia trip down memory lane.

Scope and Content: PBS’ Coney Island web site is designed for the general audience as well as for educators wishing to use Coney Island as a way to look at popular culture and leisure in the early twentieth century. Given the topic, it is very easy to focus on the “fun” history of Coney Island. This web site, however, does try to contextualize the role of leisure and technology in the development of the amusement park industry, as well as look at the shift “from the Victorian era to the modern age.” One of the more interesting pages on the site is the exploration of technology and its relationship to Coney Island. The authors make the point that Coney Island (as well as the whole amusement park industry) could not exist without the new technology of the industrial age, but it also could not compete with the new technologies of the late 20th century—especially in their respective abilities to create illusions and an escape from reality. There is also a page called “People and Events” which looks at the personalities connected with Coney’s history such as Steeplechase Park’s founder George C. Tilyou and Fred Thompson and Elmer “Skip” Dundee of Luna Park. The events examined include “Coney Island Gets Its Name,” “Steeplechase Park Opens,” and “Luna Park Closes.” On the other hand, one area that could be explored in more depth is the connection between class and the rise of mass amusements; several authors, including Roy Rosenzweig (Eight Hours For What We Will: Workers and Leisure in an Industrial City, 1870-1920, Cambridge University Press, 1983) and Kathy Peiss (Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the Century New York, Temple University Press, 1986) explore these issues in their seminal works on leisure in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The only reference to class issues was in the essay “The Riegelmann Boardwalk is Built,” where the authors note that the boardwalk made Coney “truly democratic.” While an intriguing (and perhaps accurate) statement, there is no real proof offered to this effect within the essay. Peiss, Rosenzweig, and other historians also explore the relationship between public amusements and both immigration and gender. It is unfortunate that these areas receive only short shrift on the Coney Island web site. Not only that, the issue of race is basically ignored. Many amusement parks limited the participation of African-Americans (i.e. Idora Park in Youngstown, Ohio)—or barred them altogether (Cincinnati’s Coney Island). The question does arise—what was the role of the African-American community at the fabled Coney Island parks? Could they ride the rides? Dance in the dance halls? Swim in the ocean? Or were they limited to racist stereotypes as figures in carnival games? The answers will not be found on this web site. The site does benefit from having the script of Burns’ film available on line, giving it more depth than might normally be possible. The site is generally well-written and contains only a few typographical errors. Points: 8 of 15.

Authority/Bias: The Public Broadcasting System and its affiliate, WGBH of Boston, sponsor the Coney Island web site. The Burns video was originally part of the American Experience series, and the film’s corporate sponsors include the Alfred E. Sloan Foundation, Scotts Company, and Liberty Mutual Insurance (links to these three sites are conveniently provided on the film’s page of the web site). While there is an emphasis on the technology of the parks, especially the use of electricity, there is also an attempt to give a glimpse into the human experience of participating in a mass leisure activity. Who actually authored the original material is not indicated anywhere on the site; the copyright for new material is PBS and WGBH. Points: 12 of 15.

Timeliness/Permanence: While the original Burns film is copyrighted 1991, the site itself is copyrighted 1999-2000. There is no indication on the site of any more recent updates. There are only three links given for other Coney Island web sites and only two of them work. The Coney Island Web Site by Larry Aurbach did not work. Given the appeal of the topic, this web site will most likely be up in a year. Points: 9 of 15.

Funny Face Value Added Features: The index and site map capabilities of the site are very well done. The home page features a montage of images from Coney Island (including the grotesque “funny face” logo from Steeplechase Park). On the left side is the content list, which is repeated at the bottom of each page. When you pass the mouse over each heading, an image pops up as well as a few words describing the contents of that section. The site contains a number of really useful and entertaining features including period film clips of Coney Island and electronic vintage postcard reproductions that the site visitor can email. I really liked the postcard feature, especially since postcards were such a popular method of correspondence in the early twentieth century, coinciding with the rise of amusement parks. This feature does work quite well. There are links to only three Coney Island web sites, as mentioned above, but they are not annotated. The two working links, Coney Island USA and Coney Island History Web Site by Jeffrey Stanton, do provide an extensive list of links to web sites dealing not only with Coney Island, but amusement parks in general as well as specific parks, rides, and even World’s Fairs. The site visitor should be aware, however, that clicking on one of the links does not open onto a new page, but goes directly to the site. This is a problem for the web site designers who may lose their visitors to another site. The other caveat to the visitor, however, is with the search engine. There is a search engine on the site, but it is not specific to the Coney Island pages. Rather, the user ends up searching the entire American Experience site, which could prove frustrating. Points: 10 out of 15.

Gallery Page Technical Aspects: I found this to be a user-friendly site that is easy to navigate. There are a number of ways to work through the site, both backward and forward. For example, on the photo gallery page, which has twelve historic Coney Island images, the user can click on each one to enlarge for a better look. At the bottom of the page, there are the numbers assigned to each image; the visitor can click on the number or on the arrows at the top of the image they are viewing to go forward or backward. Each one of the image links does work; however, there is no explanation as to what, exactly, the visitor is looking. Granted, some are self-explanatory; however, some, such as image number three, which shows riders on the Steeplechase ride, could use an explanation for those who are not familiar with Coney Island’s history. I was able to print a page off the site, but since I only have a black and white printer, the dark colored headers on each page were very hard to read in print. It may work better with a color printer. Points: 14 out of 15.

PostCards Aesthetics/Visual Clarity & Appeal: Coney Island is an attractive web site that is well organized, visually cohesive, and easy to read and examine. The header and content section appear on every page of the site, which not only allows for easy navigation but also makes for a harmonious look. The pages are well arranged, without much clutter on each page. There is also a good blend of text and images. For example on the Timeline, there are relevant images scattered throughout the timeline, as well as use of a color background alternating with the white background to separate each year. The images are sharp; some, like the postcards are in color, and the rest are in black and white. The only drawback is the text itself; it looks a little fuzzy, but when it is on the white background, it is easy to read. Points: 14 out of 15.

Overall Impression of the Site: In general, I liked this site. I found it visually appealing, informative, and interesting to read. Although there is nothing new here, for the general public this is an excellent introduction to the history of Coney Island and amusement parks in general. Points: 8 out of 10.

Public History Specific Criteria:

History of Roller Coasters Interpretation of Materials: There are several essays on the Coney Island site, but none are attributed to any one person. There is also the script for the Burns film, which does list the consultants, including John Kasson, who wrote an important study of Coney Island (Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century, Hill and Wang, 1978) and urban historian Sam Bass Warner. Not only are the essays not attributed to any author or authors, but only one has citations. This is a problem, to say the least. Given the issues regarding plagiarism surrounding the work of historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and the late Stephen F. Ambrose, to see essays without citations is disturbing. The only essay that has citations is the “History of Roller Coasters,” and even this is awkward. Some paragraphs have one or more attributed sources, while others have none. The authors used parenthetical citations, which are not normally the style for historical works. In order to see the full citation, the visitor has to go to the section of the web site devoted to the film and click on “further reading” to see the list of works cited. I found this quite unwieldy and suspect most site visitors would agree. Almost all of the citations are secondary sources, some of which are questionable. For example, one of the works cited, Sodom by the Sea by Oliver Pilat and Jo Ranson (Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1941), is an old source and really more of a nostalgia trip than a scholarly study. On the other hand, more recent publications on leisure, the consumer culture and amusement parks are missing, such as the aforementioned works by Rosenzweig and Peiss as well as David Nawsaw’s Going Out: the Rise and Fall of Public Amusements (Basic Books, 1993) and a recent biography of Coney Island entrepreneur, Frederick Thompson, The Kid of Coney Island: Fred Thompson and the Rise of Public Amusements by Woody Register (Oxford, 2001). The bibliography should be updated and expanded to include these secondary sources, which would help site visitors understand the current scholarship in the history of American leisure and draw their own conclusions on the subject. The site is well written and accessible to the non-academic public, as well as being visually appealing and easy to read. The images are used judiciously and well and do not clutter up the site. The few pop-ups are also used effectively and are not disruptive to view the site. Points: 20 out of 40.

Primary Source Documents: The weakness of the primary source documents is, to me, the most disappointing part of the web site. There are few primary sources on the site, and there is no database of searchable materials. The only way to get to these materials is through the links to the other Coney Island sites, especially the Coney Island History Web Site by Jeffrey Stanton. The primary sources on the site are the photographs, post card reproductions, and film clips. The site creators do not indicate where these images are located nor how they were selected for the site. One can probably assume that the sources listed under the film credits are the locations for the primary source materials. Besides the graphics on the site, the only other primary sources are the excerpts that are contained within the transcript from the Burns film, which are quotes from people like Frederick Thompson and George C. Tilyou. There is no way to judge whether or not the site has taken copyright issues into consideration. Points: 10 out of 20.

Education: The web site contains a section for teachers to utilize Coney Island to teach various aspects of American history. The suggested activities are tied to viewing the Burns film, as well as using historic images and films to interpret the era. There are no interactive learning materials, no links or examples of other student work on this topic, or any special features. All the site has are suggestions for introducing the program, ways to critically view the film, and follow-up activities. The only suggestion for further reading is the Kasson book on Coney Island. While some of the questions are good (for example: “Coney Island began as a rural retreat for wealthy city-dwellers. How did Coney Island expand to meet the needs of more visitors from diverse economic levels?”), there is not much else on this part of the site that might be useful for the teachers and students alike. Points: 10 out of 20.

Promotion of Community Interest: While there is great potential for the Coney Island web site in this criterion, the site falls short. There are no interactive features that would allow the community to contribute to this site. There is no evidence of active involvement in issues of importance to the community nor are there any listservs, bulletin boards, conferences or other forms of outreach evident on the site. One area where this site could make a contribution is in the area of historic preservation. The Coney Island celebrated in the Burns film is long gone; not only that, most of the structures associated with the three parks located here are also merely memories. What is left, including the great Cyclone roller coaster, almost fell victim to the wrecking ball. The Cyclone is a National Historic Landmark; this could be tied to looking at why it is important to preserve sites and structures like this—not only because they are “fun,” but they are living ties to a bygone era. In the process, students and the general public alike can gain an appreciation of why it is important to preserve and interpret the historic built environment. In this criteria—promotion of community interest—the Coney Island site sadly misses the proverbial boat. Points: 5 out of 20.

Point Assessment for Coney Island: The Ups and Downs of America’s First Amusement Park
(more information on PHRC's rating system is available)

Basic Criteria
Scope/Content8/15
Authority/Bias12/15
Permanence and Timeliness9/15
Value Added Features10/15
Technical Aspects14/15
Aesthetics/Clarity14/15
Overall Impression8/10

Public History Specific Criteria
Interpretation of Materials20/40
Primary Source Documents10/20
Education10/20
Promotion of a Community of Interest5/20

Total: 120 points -- 3 Earths

Donna M. DeBlasio (dmdeblasio@ysu.edu) is Assistant Professor of History and Director of the Center for Historic Preservation at Youngstown State University. She received her BA and MA in history from Youngstown State and Ph.D. from Kent State University. For nearly fifteen years, she worked as a museum site manager and historian for the Ohio Historical Society and the Ohio Historic Preservation Office. Dr. DeBlasio came to YSU in 1999, after leaving her position as Senior Historian for the Cincinnati Museum Center. She also directs the Oral History Program at YSU and is a faculty member of the Center for Working-Class Studies. Her most recent publications are “The Immigrant and the Trolley Park in Youngstown, Ohio, 1899-1945,” in Rethinking History, Spring 2001 and Youngstown: Postcards From the Steel City for Arcadia Publishing in 2003. Dr. DeBlasio co-authored a Multiple Property Documentation of Historic and Architectural Properties of the Underground Railroad in Ohio for the Ohio Historic Preservation Office. Her successful National Register nominations include the boundary extension of the Wick Park Historic District in Youngstown (2001) and a National Historic Landmark for the Wilson Bruce Evans House in Oberlin, Ohio (1997). She is currently working on a manuscript for the University Press of Kentucky on working class leisure in early twentieth century Youngstown. Dr. DeBlasio received a YSU Distinguished Professor Award for Public Service in 2001.

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Last updated on  January 12, 2004
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