A Coney Island of the Mind
Counterculture poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “A Coney Island of the Mind” wistfully looks back at a September day spent amidst jellybeans and licorice sticks, a time of youthful innocence now lost, retrievable only by memory. Since the publication of this poem in 1958, Coney Island has also moved past its prime, its original splendor existing only in the minds of those who had the privilege of witnessing the park firsthand. Senior writing and linguistics major Maggie Delisle (writing and linguistics ’17), however, plans to transpose Coney Island’s golden years from memory to the page, bringing them to life once again through her Honors Capstone Project.
Delisle’s creative work will consist of a seventy-page novella focusing on Luna Park, one of the original iconic parks built on the famous boardwalk, seen through the lens of a Jewish girl growing up on the island in the 1940s. One of the fiction writer’s main concerns is authenticity, so Delisle spent a few days both in Brooklyn and on Coney Island participating in primary research for her novella. This research involved indulging in authentic Nathan’s hot dogs, riding the Wonder Wheel, and doing everything just short of travelling back in time to see Luna Park as it must have existed for Lawrence Ferlinghetti so many years ago.
Delisle’s interest in Coney Island dates back to when she was a kid wandering through the Tybee Island Light Station and Museum, which features an exhibit on a defunct Tybee Island carnival.
“I was obsessed with it when I was younger,” said Delisle. “And although the Tybee carnival was very old, Coney Island was the very first amusement park in United States, so I started to do research on it, and I’ve been really interested in it ever since.”
Luna Park in particular stood out to Delisle. Built in 1903, its 260,000 lights illuminated the coast line until the park tragically burned down in 1944 and was eventually replaced with a five building apartment complex. Unable to witness the beauty of Luna Park firsthand, Delisle turned to archival material, a search for information that took her to the Brooklyn Public Library, The Coney Island Public Library, the Coney Island Museum, and the large New York Public Library.
Delisle said, “One artifact I found was a microfilm on the burning of Luna Park. There was even a photo. I actually had tears in my eyes. Seeing this piece of history was more than I would have ever imagined. It just made the project that much more real to me.”
Other sources she utilized included pamphlets and postcards from the early 1900s, census records for Jewish neighborhoods, and a document outlining a plan to revitalize Coney Island in the 1970s. Although these sources proved immensely helpful for Delisle, her most valuable research extended outside the archives and onto the streets of Coney Island. Not only did she get to experience the setting of her novella firsthand—she was able to live in it for a few days by staying in a historical Jewish neighborhood.
“Just being in the area helped me figure things out, because Jewish populations in New York are very different from what you’d expect,” Delisle said. “It’s very much traditional. People dress conservatively. I stayed on Ocean Parkway, which is a very important road in Coney Island’s history. It helped connect Brooklyn to Coney Island, and it really helped me get a feel for my novella’s setting.”
In addition to snapping photographs and experiencing the locale for her novella, she had the chance to interview several locals.
“I mainly talked to shop owners who’d been in the area for a long time, including a woman who was in a documentary about Coney Island,” said Delisle. “The people that I met kept asking me, ‘you’re going to let me read this when you’re done, right?’ Which was very intimidating. I hope I’ll be able to produce something that will make them proud.”
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