Coney Island: 1970-1980 - An Exhibition

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Garibaldi-Meucci Museum

420 Tompkins Avenue

Staten Island, NY 10305

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Michael Cala, 646-732-8466

August 2, 2017

Coney Island: 1970-1980

“An oasis in a decade of decay”

An Exhibition of Photographs by Michael Cala

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. – Photographs of Coney Island from the 1970s by Michael Cala will be exhibited at the Garibaldi-Meucci Art Museum on Staten Island starting September 9, 2017 and will run through November 30.

The photographs, taken during a calamitous 10-year period when New York City was crumbling socially, financially, and physically, offer a contrasting and offbeat look at the Island and its denizens that reflect the era in which they were taken.

As New York City devolved in the 1970s, Coney Island remained a nearly timeless enclave that continued to entertain visitors in a tradition of merriment that began at the turn of the 20th century. It was also a safe haven for the homeless and for those who lived in high-rises and walk-ups and who called Coney their home.

When these photographs were taken, much of the fabulously Byzantine and Gothic architecture still stood. Examine the photo of the ornate architecture of the public beach restroom, or the sparkling nickel spigot of the concrete water fountain, the skyline-piercing Parachute Jump, or public baths like Raven Hall and the Abe Stark Center where older residents swam in indoor pools and socialized.

During this decade, the arcades and alleyways chock full of oddities, both human and mechanical, were beginning to fade, but many were still functioning and some were in surprisingly fine shape. The Brooklyn-born photographer recalls the side-street “freak show,” for example, a huge hall where performers coddled snakes, swallowed swords, danced the hoochie-coochie, displayed odd human anatomy, and performed odd acts for curious customers.

All of this was decidedly otherworldly, considering the daily city strife beyond Coney’s borders; but in the 1970s, merriment and friendship were reality to many Coney Island residents.

There’s no doubt that the beach at Coney will always remain a popular and timeless destination. However, it’s these 26 black-and-white photographs, shot from a darkly introspective point of view, often using infrared film, that nevertheless convey a feeling of time lost forever.

The people in these photographs – some homeless, some longtime residents of area housing projects or 1920s walk-ups – were all clearly independent and very much at home in the community. Most of the photographer’s subjects were as offbeat as they were friendly.

Many of these denizens remain unforgettable.

Subjects like the Stern cousins -- two older gentlemen who appear in several photographs and lived in one of the nearby high-rise buildings -- enjoyed living in Coney for all it offered. These were simple pleasures, such as the salt air, long walks on the boardwalk, kibitzing with the regulars, walking to Shatzkins for its world-class knishes or to Nathan’s Famous for a foot-long hot dog.

Then there was Sheila/Sharon (she never offered her right name) who was once a tall, red-headed clothing model, but who had become homeless at 52 by the time she was photographed.

According to the photographer, “She became a friend, but equivocally, as she had no firm address, and so the only way I could find her was to patrol the boardwalk or ask the other homeless denizens of her whereabouts. I would buy her coffee or a sweet roll and we would talk about her childhood experiences of Coney Island. Unfortunately, she was an alcoholic by the time I met her and seemed to have an aversion to solid food every time I offered her a meal.”

Then there was Frank, the muscular, taciturn 73-year-old weightlifter, who stood daily under the boardwalk at the outer edge of Coney Island, toward Brighton Beach, lifting truck axels instead of weights. It took a few visits to finally engage him in conversation, and when finally asked why he was lifting axles, he replied with some asperity, ’cause the bastards stole my weights!’”

And who can forget Leon, the trumpet player whose idol was Miles Davis, and who swore that some day he would join the Davis band. He was poor and homeless, but owned a high-end trumpet through which came amazing sounds – long scat tunes that would blow apart any jazz audience today. To earn money, he asked one or two of the bar owners along the boardwalk to allow him to play outside their establishments for tips. Some, he said, would let him play inside during hot or inclement weather. Business folk were frequently kind in Coney.

The exhibition is made possible in part by a DCA Premier Grant from Staten Island Arts, with public funding from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

To view the event announcement, follow this Facebook link:

Samples of the photographs may be viewed online at:

The Garibaldi-Meucci Art Museum is located at 420 Tompkins Avenue, Staten Island, New York, 10305. Telephone: 718-442-1608.

There will be an opening exhibition reception at the Museum on September 9 starting at 1 p.m. and ending at 5 p.m.

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Garibaldi-Meucci Museum

420 Tompkins Avenue

Staten Island, NY 10305

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