Thursday, March 22, 2012

Dreamland Social Club by Tara Altebrando

 True story: my senior year of high school, I did a presentation about the history of Coney Island. This presentation began with my friend and I singing a commercial jingle for the now demolished Astroland amusement park at Coney Island:

Remember Coney Island, and how it used to be
now it’s everything it ever was AND MORE!
we’re gonna rock, ROCK
we’re gonna roll, ROLL
we’re gonna bop, BOP
and lose control

(That was where we stopped because we couldn't remember the rest.)

I had a vague sense that what we were doing could possibly be construed as embarrassing, but we didn’t care. It was the spirit of the place. Coney was about silly fun entertainments and shameless money grabs. It was the place where you could go swimming in your underpants and not be ashamed because there were ten other people doing the same thing. Where you could buy beer on the boardwalk and sip it while strolling past the vacant lot where you could shoot paintballs at a guy wearing a catcher’s mask and pads and a neon-splattered jumpsuit. It was also the place where there had once been a hotel shaped like an elephant, a display of premature babies, and a million electric lights that shone down on the millions of visitors who rolled off the subway every summer weekend.

The thing about Coney is that it is a living palimpsest. Dig deep enough and you can find evidence of all the attractions, all the businesses, all the visitors who have come over the years. But Coney has also always been an idea as well as a place, and we all have a version of Coney that exists only in our minds (as you can see from the pictures accompanying this post, my version is vintage and takes place at night with magically hazy light). All these Coneys are layered on top of one another just under the skin of the real Coney, competing for dominance. In one, the great parks never burned to the ground. In another, Thor Equities succeeded in building a mall by the sea.   

In Tara Altebrando’s version, Dream land Social Club, a high school girl named Jane falls in love with Coney, and through her explorations, Coney helps her to discover herself.

From Amazon:

Jane has traveled the world with her father and brother, but it's not until her fractured family-still silently suffering from the loss of Jane's mother many years before-inherits a house and a history in Coney Island that she finally begins to find a home. With the help of a new community of friends, a mermaid's secrets, and a tattooed love interest with traffic-stopping good looks, the once plain Jane begins to blossom and gains the courage to explore the secrets of her mother's past.

In some ways, Coney is like a Rorschach blot. What we see when we look at it tells us about ourselves. Do we see the sparkling past and not the sometimes grimy present? Do we see the circus and not Seagate, which walled itself off from the rest of Coney as soon as the projects were built? Do we see the horizon and not the garbage floating in the water? As an outsider, Jane can sometimes see parts of Coney that her longtime residents either cannot or have become willfully blind to.

Although Altebrando presents Coney as a magical place, she admits that it is a sort of optical illusion, which leads you to see the bright lights and ignore the decay. Given its carnival history, this is entirely appropriate. Altebrando also presents real estate development in a complex light, neither uniformly condemning the desire of companies to build up neighborhoods nor supporting it, just addressing some of the complications it poses.

All in all, Altebrando does a remarkable job of making her readers fall in love with her own personal version of Coney Island. Read Dreamland Social Club, and then go for a visit this summer and see how your version compares with hers. After all, Coney Island is everything it ever was. And more.

Photo Credits: (1) Luna Park Tower vintage postcard from Art School Damage; (2)  Jack and Jill and Whip by Night vintage postcard from finsbry's Flickriver ; and (3) Parachute Jump vintage postcard from stevesobczuk's Flickriver

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