Filmmaker JL Aronson on Last Summer at Coney Island

August 15, 2012
JL Aronson. Photo courtesy of Bailey Photo (2008).

Inside Thirteen recently spoke with filmmaker JL Aronson, whose documentary Last Summer at Coney Island explores the transformation of one of New York’s favorite playgrounds and the controversial proposals to redevelop the area in recent years. Here, Aronson explains what led him to make the film and how Coney Island has become a quintessential part of New York City history.

Last Summer at Coney Island airs August 19 at 10 p.m., August 22 at 4 a.m., August 24 at 2 a.m., and August 25 at 3 p.m. on WLIW21.

Mr. Aronson answered our questions via email.

Inside Thirteen: What inspired you to make Last Summer at Coney Island?

JL Aronson: I’d been going out to Coney Island and shooting there for a long time. I always loved piecing together the history with the reality of the present day. When I heard that a developer had bought out most of the amusement zone and that there would be massive changes coming, I felt it was important to document the way things had been. What I didn’t realize at first was how much push back the city and the developer would get. I don’t think they realized that either. Many people saw a complete makeover as a mortal threat to this place that meant so much to them.

IT: With a history very much tied to New York City, what do you think makes Coney Island so unique and distinct from other amusement parks and beach side attractions in the country?

JA: Well, first of all, most seaside amusement areas are wholly owned or subsidized by municipalities. But aside from the construction and occasional maintenance of the actual boardwalk, Coney Island was never that way. In fact, it seems like Coney Island survived all these years in spite of the city’s attitude towards it. Coney Island has sometimes been known as “the people’s playground” and that sense of egalitarianism is also reflected in the independent businesses that have comprised the amusement area. But more generally, Coney Island has its own feel that is distinctly New York City even though it doesn’t look, feel, smell or taste like any other part of New York City.

IT: How do you think Coney Island’s role in the city has changed over the years? Has it become less relevant to New Yorkers?

JA: If you compare the Coney Island of today with what it was during the first half of the 20th century, then it is less relevant. Before everyone had access to air conditioning, cable TV, cheap car rentals and cheap airfare, most New Yorkers had a lot fewer options for summertime recreation. Fortunately, what they did have was known to be the greatest collection of rides and attractions on the planet, not to mention a very nice beach. Now Coney Island doesn’t have the biggest collection of anything. And the beach has gotten a lot better, but according to a widely circulated report on American beaches, that too is lagging behind. However, Coney Island is still vital to the millions of New Yorkers who either can’t afford to go elsewhere or who simply prefer the convenience of going to a seaside park in their backyard (only a subway ride away!), and that describes a majority of New Yorkers. Also, I think New York is a place that few of its inhabitants take for granted. People know that there is an important history and legacy here, connected to the city’s larger history. And they also see the potential to make it a world class destination, once again.

IT: What do you see as the biggest challenge to the redevelopment of the area? Do you see any way of making the existing model more sustainable?

JA: A lot of people think that Coney Island was forever doomed by the placement of large housing projects in the vicinity of the amusements. I think that’s one challenge but it’s by far not the only one. Right now, the City of New York owns a majority stake in the amusement area, having bought much of the land from a speculative developer. Since 2010, the city has really focused on sprucing up the area in order to attract more investment: specifically national retailers and market rate housing developers for the adjacent land. They also need to improve the infrastructure of the whole island before any major development projects can get under way. But in the meantime, the Bloomberg administration has brought in new ride operators and set a high bar for being a vendor on the boardwalk and in other locations where the city is now the landlord. The cosmetic aspects are a step in the right direction although there’s been a lot of trial and error and a number of long time business owners were forced out. I personally feel that change should happen gradually and that the kind of oversized ambitions in evidence with many of the development plans going forward are probably not sustainable. But, at least for now, things have been improving.

IT: In the film it is said that “a single owner is a dangerous concept,” with regard to a private developer taking over Coney Island. Do you agree?

JL Aronson filming Astroland's closing. Photo courtesy of Bailey Photo.

JA: For sure. One of the things that has made Coney Island distinct all these years is the variety of styles and themes amongst the various businesses, and there’s a healthy competition there, too. However, the ideal situation is one in which the city owns or at least subsidizes the amusement park as an investment, with an ongoing commitment that can withstand the vacillating attentions of various administrations.

A thriving Coney Island makes New York a more livable space and also brings in money from tourists. We’re at a pretty good stage now, but there are plans to develop market rate high-rise housing in the area to subsidize the investment in amusements. Many of those people who pushed back against development asserted that there should be more amusements on that property and that a greater capacity for amusements and recreational uses would pay for itself. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong, but I think that if there’s anything Coney Island does not need more of, it’s high-rises.

IT: Both Last Summer at Coney Island and your 2008 film Up on the Roof (about the last remaining pigeon keepers in Williamsburg) explore how time and gentrification have changed neighborhoods and pastimes in Brooklyn. Do you think these films are representative of what is happening in the city as a whole? What attracted you to this topic?

JA: I won’t be the first to assert that New York has been undergoing a process of homogenization and corporatization for some time. Those things are a result of all the money that gets generated here and having a very pro-business and pro-development mayor. An independently organized amusement area doesn’t fit in with that kind of climate, nor does an old-time hobby like pigeon raising. I made Up on the Roof for similar reasons as Last Summer at Coney Island, which was to document and celebrate something that thrived when New York was a more adventurous place. Pigeon keeping hasn’t died out because of any specific policy changes or campaigns, but because people sort of fall in line with the general track that society is running on. As you see in the film, landlords and building tenants who used to accept pigeon flyers as a part of city life, adapt to a new reality. Suddenly you turn around and what used to appear to you as your neighborhood now looks like an investment. Everything appears sanitized and digital. People don’t want reminders of the old country or the pastimes that were brought over. They want to keep up with the ever-evolving American dream.

So, these films are about a collective experience of living in New York that used to be more the norm. The changes are symptomatic, I think, of our closing ourselves off from everyone else, aside from our small circles. The city is arguably more diverse than it ever has been (overall) but we’re losing the naturalness of interaction and the attendant sense of community that has long distinguished NYC from other metropolises. Still, we’ll always have the subway.