"I am waiting for the war to be fought which will make the world safe for anarchy"
In fiction, Coney Island has always represented the underworld that is required for capitalism to thrive.
In the historical non-fiction text The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, the story of an entire underground economy—secondary to, but required by the so-called “legitimate” economy- of workers trading in, literally, human shit. This is a story so foundational to any complete understanding of modernity in London, and of Europe more broadly, that the sewer, and perhaps the larger truth it tells about wealth disparity as metaphor for the underworld in fiction such as in Les Miserables, that it, of course, rears its head as a trope in American fiction, with the added horrors of western imperialist-infused capitalism that skewed fascistic at the end of the 20th century.
In the American cultural imagination, for whatever reason, but despite multiple waves of revival, Coney Island (and the popular imagery of the boardwalk) persists from the 50’s through the modern era as a metaphor for ex-urban decay, and in the context of New York City, the last little bit of civilization before hitting the seas for the Old World. One such revitalization was attempted by Robert Moses, the “master builder” of New York, who is quoted in Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, “You can draw any kind of picture you want on a clean slate and indulge your every whim in the wilderness in laying out a New Delhi, Canberra, or Brasilia, but when you operate in an overbuilt metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat ax.” and it is as good a metaphor for how Coney Island is portrayed in fiction in the latter half of the century and into the new millennium.
In the TV series Mr. Robot, an abandonded arcade is the backdrop for the HQ of a group of hacker hellbent on forcing the hand of the corporatist nation-state of E Corp to relieve the global economy of illegitimate, but deeply oppressive debt; they work from the literal ruins of the American Dream, itself the subject of another business venture capitalizing and trading on the sale of foreclosed properties in the series. It’s become short-hand for the sort of base of operations for an underclass economy of anarchism of a sort; the state functions only when their power is threatened, not when there are people in need, and this is common in almost every depiction. Even consider in comedy, a childhood avatar of Woody Allen growing up in a hovel beneath the rollercoaster, this is a mental image easy to understand.
A more expansive example of this is the 1978 Hubert Selby novel, and the film of the same name from 1999, which not only demonstrates this circumstance transcends any one moment in time from our not-so-distant past, but that the solutions are not forthcoming from a society that never seems to remember, at least metaphorically, that these places exist, and so do its residents. In the novel, Harry and Tyrone (amongst the other characters and addiction-related plotlines), decide to try to leave their community —which is depicted as rough, decrepit, but ultimately one where people are engaging in mutual aid to some extent or another, apart from the rest of the city- by selling a large quantity of heroin. In the film, this message is amplified; the presence of a cop, in a fantasy sequence, depicts Harry and Tyrone taunting a police officer whose gun they steal—law enforcement is seen for the sham it is in much of the United States where you can count on an armed police officer, but no healthcare or other social services. At one point, they travel to Miami to acquire more drugs, and are caught; throughout this entire narrative the only time the State presents itself is to punish Harry and Tyrone, rather than materially prevent the circumatances that lead to Tyrone’s eventual torture and withdrawal at the hands of a Southern prison system.
The director of the film, Darren Aronofsky, posed the question “What is a drug?”— the notion of the film being that substance abuse and the comorbidities that accompany addiction are a symptom of state failure for its citizens. How these plotlines differ speaks to how the state prefers to pathologize rather than engage in any kind of material analysis of how it can do better, which is how this manner of human suffering manifests in the first place. This is notable because, unlike Haussmann in Paris, where the city planners intervened to attempt to solve various manner of social problems through the physical manifestation of the city, men like Robert Moses used the intervention of the city government to make the city hostile to living. Architecturally, the institutionalization of racism in this craft manifested in the form of neglect of the MTA in favor of highways and automotive traffic, highways that were too low of clearance for buses (and thus the economic strata most likely to be riding one) to access certain parts of Long Island, for example, etc. The Eisenhower ethos behind an interstate highway system became the impetus for urban renewal efforts accross the country that all took similar bents toward extra-legislatively enacting physical division between rich and poor, black and white, etc. Caro wrote of Moses, “He loves the public, but not as people. The public is just The Public. It's a great amorphous mass to him; it needs to be bathed, it needs to be aired, it needs recreation, but not for personal reasons -- just to make it a better public.” before noting that this expression of disdain for the public as people took the form of rebuking Roosevelt-era socialization and architecting a society free of the blight of the working poor of any race, but notably anti-black in how this would ultimately manifest in New York, shunting these groups away from desirable areas to Moses like Jones Beach.
“It became the American dream that you gotta have a car,” says Kevin Draper (a historian for New York Historical Tours), “And Moses was all for it.” The New York this would produce in the latter half of the century became prominent in film, but there’s no more iconic a depiction of this effect on the broader city, as much as that of Coney Island, than 1979 film The Warriors, and the underclass these policies and city development marginalized.
The film is as much a condemnation of the state of the city in 1979 as it is a call to action (for real people, not the fictional gangs, but speaks to the societal necessity from which gangs spring up)— the leader of the city’s largest gang, The Riffs, Cyrus calls for the gang members (who outnumber the police by many multiples) to occupy the city one borough at a time, to replace, both, the ineffectual and careless city government, and its agents, the police. “The future is ours…if you can count”, says Cyrus.
Much of the film follows the journey of the Warriors, who were framed for the murder of Cyrus during this speech (to prevent the gangs from organizing), being chased by rival gangs all the way back to Coney Island. There’s a certain poetry to how the events of the film unfold; they have difficulty locating and remaining on a train long enough to reach safety, and whenever they reemerge from under ground, be it other gangs, or the most thuggish of the gangs, the NYPD, willing to kill them, it’s to a city that has long forgotten about caring for its citizen. There’s a point in the film where the dichotomy where this division of urban life becomes clear: the Warriors de-facto leader, Swan, and a woman who joins them at some point on this journey, are finally on a train back to Coney Island, when a bunch of teenagers post-prom, laughing, unaware of the ordeal of the Warriors over the evening, are intimidated, scared by their mere presence, their existence, and exit the train to get rid of them. Swan gives the girl a corsage dropped by one of the teenagers— “I hate seeing anything go to waste” he tells her, the state of insecurity the city’s master builders leaves it vulnerable in permeates the emotional space, creating distance between humans there as well as the physical world.
The film’s climax takes place in Coney Island itself, at the boardwalk, abandoned in the early morning sun, and once back above ground, Swan says “This is what we fought all night to get back to?”—Cyrus’ message provided a stronger, more loving city, and the status quo ensured they’d return home to nothing but squalor and marginalization, and the imminent threat of their pursuers seeking the Riffs’ bounty on the Warriors.
In A Coney Island of the Mind, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti says, “I once started out to walk around the world but ended up in Brooklyn.”— they’re inhabiting what is supposed to be the pinnacle of human urban development, they live at the very edge of civilization as they know it, and the borders of the city may as well be the borders of the city as an abstraction as well. “Nothing he has ever done has been tainted by legality”, said Robert Moses paraphrasing a comment about himself; if these fictions, and the truths they speak to about the city, and its extents are civilization, Moses is the kind of man tasked with, and ultimately exploiting of this responsibility, building a robust civilization; he did, Haussmann did, but for whom was it built? To hear Robert Caro tell it, that answer is shockingly clear: “Bob Moses had learned what was needed to make dreams become realities. He had learned the lesson of power. And now he grabbed for power with both hands. To free his hands for the grab, he shook impatiently from them the last crumbs of the principles with which he had entered public service and for which, during his years of idealism, he had fought so hard.” Perhaps the emotional state this disparity in intention and the perception of this appendage—walled off, exiled- fed to the public can, again, be best summed up by Ferlinghetti: “[It] is where I first/ fell in love/ with unreality".
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