The rise and fall of Coney Island – in photos

The rise and fall of Coney Island – in photos
America’s Playground — Photographer Larry Racioppo reflects on capturing the bustling boardwalk empire as it fell into decline, and its subsequent slow reemergence.

With its beach, boardwalk, and amusement park, Coney Island has long been the perfect escape from the stress of everyday life. South Brooklyn native Larry Racioppo and his extended family revelled in the pleasures of ‘America’s Playground’ during his youth.

In the late 1960s, Racioppo enrolled in VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) and traveled to rural California, where he served two and a half years. He returned home in November 1970, with the dream of becoming a photographer. 

In early 1971, Racioppo and a friend drove out to Coney Island to revisit his childhood stomping grounds — only to discover ‘Electric Eden’ – as it was often known – was on the brink of collapse. The once bustling boardwalk empire had become a ghost town. Abandoned buildings, burned out lots, neglect, disrepair, and white supremacist graffiti had brought seaside paradise to a standstill. 

Two-headed Man with Long Arms and friends, 2000

“Seeing the physical decline in my neighbourhood and the city in general saddened me,” says Racioppo. “When I went to Coney Island I was struck by its emptiness. I saw that some attractions like the Tilyou Theater were closed not for the winter but for good.”

Racioppo began making photographs of the devastated terrain, not realising at the time that this would be the start of a 50-year long photography project. These photos are now collected in the new book Coney Island Baby (South Brooklyn Boy Publishing).

“It took a while for me to realise how incredibly interesting and beautiful, even in decline, Coney Island was,” he says. “I loved walking along Bowery Street, the old amusement area with its ring toss and dart throwing booths and ‘dark rides; like the Dragon’s Cave.”

Side Show Freak Museum, 1995

Stauch’s Baths with WARRIORS graffiti, 1979

One day in 1978, Racioppo turned down West 16th Street and headed to the boardwalk, only to discover the Tornado rollercoaster was being torn down. “I rushed there, and ignoring the welders working overhead, set up my camera and tripod to photograph,” he remembers. “I began to think of creating a portfolio: ‘The end of Coney Island’.

But Coney Island would not go quietly into the night. “If Rome is the ‘Eternal City’, Coney Island is the ‘Eternal Neighborhood’,” says Racioppo, who bore witness to its slow reemergence firsthand.

“Coney Island’s comeback began with the influx of artists in the 1980s, who founded two interrelated not-for profits: the Coney Island Hysterical Society and Coney Island USA,” he says. “In 1983, Coney Island USA’s founder Dick Zigun organised the first Mermaid Parade, which has grown to become an international festival and major tourist attraction.”

Astroland Park Rocket and concessions, 1995

In Coney Island Baby, Racioppo documents the fall and rise of a neighbourhood that parallels the fortunes of New York City itself. “I feel very lucky that I’ve been able to meet people who are open to being photographed by a stranger,” he says.

“This summer I photographed extensively along Bowery Street and Surf Avenue, concentrating on the owners and operators of the concessions and rides. When Louis, the manager of El Dorado Bumper Cars, started the cars – music blasting, lights flashing – just to give me a private ride, my summer was complete.”

Go-Karts Entrance and Young Boy, 1979

Demolition of the Tornado rollercoaster, 1978

Child’s Restaurant, 1978

Young Boy in the Arcade, 1979

Fun House worker, 1979

Larry near the Tornado Rollercoaster, West 16th Street, 1971 (photo credit: Ron Hellgren)

Coney Island Baby is out now on South Brooklyn Boy Publishing.

Follow Miss Rosen on Twitter. 

Enjoyed this article? Like Huck on Facebook or follow us on Twitter

Latest on Huck

Activists claim victory after major UK festivals drop Barclays as a sponsor
Activism

Activists claim victory after major UK festivals drop Barclays as a sponsor

Groups and artists have been campaigning for Live Nation to drop the bank as a sponsor for Download, Latitude and Isle of Wight over alleged ties to the arms trade.

Written by: Ben Smoke

Exploring the football fanatic culture of the Middle East
Outdoors

Exploring the football fanatic culture of the Middle East

New photo book ‘Football كرة القدم’ draws together pictures from over a dozen photographers to explore the region’s vibrant football culture.

Written by: Isaac Muk

Drag artists unite to get out the vote, babes
Election 2024

Drag artists unite to get out the vote, babes

East London legend Crystal talks to Huck about her new campaign, Vote, Babes! which brings together over 20 drag artists to encourage young people to use their vote.

Written by: Ben Smoke

I interrupted Keir Starmer’s manifesto launch – here’s why
Election 2024

I interrupted Keir Starmer’s manifesto launch – here’s why

One of Starmer’s constituents, Alice tried every way to talk to her then MP about the crisis facing her generation, but he did not listen she writes exclusively for Huck.

Written by: Alice, Green New Deal Rising

Bashy: “My dad kept me alive”
Culture

Bashy: “My dad kept me alive”

In our latest Daddy Issues column, award winning actor and MC Ashley “Bashy” Thomas talks traditional masculinity, learning survival skills from his Dad and ‘making it’.

Written by: Robert Kazandjian

How communities of colour fought back
Election 2024

How communities of colour fought back

Micha Frazer-Carroll examines the challenges that the UK’s minoritised communities have faced over the last five years, and reports on the ways that they have come together to organise, support and uplift one another.

Written by: Micha Frazer-Carroll

Sign up to our newsletter

Issue 80: The Ziwe issue

Buy it now