Victorian Seaside Kitcsh Revival

As Bloomberg sets out to make Coney Island a year-round attraction through capital investments (www.economist.com), many worry that the original character will be lost. Known for its historic cultural kitsch, or what Coney Island non-profit calls the “democratic cultural golden age” (www.coneyisland.com), I would argue that it was Coney Island’s combination of carnival seediness  and Victorian seaside architecture that made it the  People’s Playground of the late 19th and early 20th century.

Although traditional Victorian architecture reflected Victorian values, the seaside architecture of the time was an interesting juxtaposition to the strict morals of Victorian society.

Until the 19th century, the seaside was where the upper-classes sought restorative health treatments that included relaxation and light amusement. Better rail systems however, gave more social classes access to the coastline, democratizing the space and increasing the demand for resorts and amusements that catered to all socio-economic levels.

In an era of that promoted restraint and dignity, the Victorian seaside represented a site of acceptable sexual openness.  Telescopes were placed on the boardwalks, charging men a small fee to get close ups of women in bathing suits. Social differences went unnoticed as people of all classes flocked to Punch and Judy shows, ice cream carts, and minstrel shows.

Victorian seaside architecture was ornate, creating its own form of exoticism and promiscuity  and contributing to the perception of the 19th century seaside as physical manifestation of the carnivalesque. Mikhail Bakhtin describes the carnivalesque as a semiotic cultural code that allows  boundaries between power and repression to cross. The carnivalesque uses humor and social force to enter into a sociopolitical discourse that may or may not provoke a cultural transformation.

Bloomberg’s push for the rezoning and redevelopment of Coney Island becomes not just the  potential loss of the Island’s celebrated historic kitsch, but the sterilization of the carnivalesque, and thus the loss of a semiotic cultural code. On the other hand, Coney Island as a dreamland was lost long ago and has the potential to become nothing more than a parody of itself. So what should be done with the 27 acres of land? Is it best left as a historical remnant that still brings in millions of visitors every year? Or should it be developed to help accommodate the expected million of new New Yorkers in the next 21 years? For the time being it remains a contested social space, at the mercy of the dominate political ideology.

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