Hidden Vacancies

Hillary Miller 

Mister Cartoon, Untitled (2016). Background left, partial view of Lady Pink, Coney Island Roller Coaster Life (2015). Photo by Hillary Miller.

A recent local news headline in Brooklyn, New York, described the amusement area of Coney Island as a ‘Real Estate Freak Show’.1 The article reported on the efforts of city agencies to solicit developers for nearly 150,000 square feet of vacant land in the Coney Island Amusement District. The wry headline combines two distinct layers of Coney Island’s early twenty-first century identity: its resurgence as a site of fascination for artists, and its appeal to real estate developers and land flippers. In both, Coney Island boasts long and knotted histories. Misguided urban development decisions (public and private) inform its contemporary condition as much as its heritage of grassroots popular American entertainment forms like vaudeville and sideshow curiosities. The headline is a mash-up of Coney’s ‘fringe’ performance offerings—the low-budget Coney Island Sideshow, with its burlesque performers and circus acts2—and the rapacious tendencies of real estate interests that have alternately neglected and exploited the seaside ‘People’s Playground’.3

Coney Island’s increasing popularity with city residents can arguably be traced to the 2001 opening of a home stadium for a minor league baseball team affiliated with the New York Mets. The uniqueness of renewed interest in Coney Island, however, lies in strategies of collaboration now deployed by developers. A controversial 2009 rezoning of the amusement area forms a definitive marker in the parallel—and colliding—fortunes of art and real estate in Coney Island. It was also in 2009 that Coney Island gained the public approval of a big-ticket art world figure, Jeffrey Deitch, the founder of the SoHo gallery Deitch Projects and the former director of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles. He described Coney Island as an ‘absolutely essential’ New York art neighborhood, worth celebrating as a ‘generator of a wonderful artistic energy, in a kind of transgressive way’.4

Curator Jeffrey Deitch, in front of Jesse Edwards’ Deitch Masters, 2015, at the Coney Art Walls, 23 May 2015. Photo © Tricia Vita, https://amusingthezillion.com/2016/04/

The latest chapter of Coney Island’s transformation from a fading amusement park ravaged by austerity and bubble-headed municipal decisions has arrived simultaneously as its identity as a space of creative imagining for artists shifts. This is a distinct alteration of its twentieth-century role as an austere muse for poets and hip-hop artists, including the moody urban artistry of Lou Reed and Patti Smith. One recent collaboration typifies this shift. In 2015, Jeffrey Deitch collaborated with a global real estate company, Thor Equities, to curate ‘Coney Island Art Walls’ in one of Thor Equities’ unused lots in Coney Island (Fig. 1). With gallerist Deitch and Thor Equities President and CEO Joseph Sitt billed as ‘co-curators’, the project provides well-known street artists and public muralists with wall space and materials to create an ‘outdoor museum’. For the 2016 summer season, twenty-one new wall projects joined the 2015 projects by artists Aiko, Eine, Lady Pink, Retna, and others. In publicity materials for the Art Walls, CEO Sitt defines the installation within the Coney Island tradition of performative, public spectacles. For Deitch, who returned to New York from Los Angeles in 2013 without an institutional affiliation, the collaboration offered a venue to mount a show in the spirit of his 2011 ‘Art in the Streets’ exhibition at the L.A. MOCA. ‘I’ve always loved the energy that comes out of the New York vernacular’, Deitch explained, ‘and I’ve dreamed of doing a show in Coney Island since I first started going there in the ‘70s’.5

From left to right: Nychos, Untitled (2016); The London Police, Untitled (2016); partial view of Retna, Gracias a la vida (2015). Photo by Hillary Miller.

For the participating artists, respect for Deitch likely outweighed any potential reservations regarding sponsorship and co-curation from a real estate behemoth. During his curatorial career, including his tenure at Deitch Projects in SoHo (1996-2010), Deitch brought international attention to artists emerging from street and graffiti culture. ‘[Deitch is] the kind of guy who calls you—you drop everything’, explained muralist Ron English.6 Outside of the difficulty of turning down this invitation, artists also recognised in the Art Walls an opportunity to exhibit their work in an area that attracts millions of visitors in its summer season and guarantees the kind of eclectic audiences normally reserved for underground subway murals and centralised public art installations. The Coney Island site meant that tourists, as well as the 111,000 residents who call Coney Island and Brighton Beach home (and live without close proximity to major art institutions), would all have the chance to view the work of contemporary artists—and sometimes see themselves represented. Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s 2015 and 2016 murals, for example, incorporated portraits of long-time Coney Island residents. All of the artists painted their Walls in full view of the public, prompting painter Jane Dickson to describe the creation of her Wall as ‘partially a performance’.7

If critics avoided questioning the motivations of these artists who accepted Deitch and Sitt’s invitation, many writers were unsparing in their attacks on Deitch himself. Referencing Thor Equities’ unsettling reputation, Artnet writer Brian Boucher depicted the entire enterprise as a shallow effort to capitalise on the commodification of both an artistic subculture and the neighbourhood. ‘The supposedly irrepressible, antiauthoritarian spirit of graffiti is harnessed to create a Disney-fied version of a bygone era, when Coney Island was dirty but real’.8 Art critic and curator Christian Viveros-Fauné disparaged the Art Walls as one more example of art being used to ‘gussy up’ real estate business plans with no benefit for its host community.9

John Ahearn, Untitled (2016). On the right, a partial view of Eine, Neon Riot (2015). Photo by Hillary Miller.

Skepticism of the Art Walls and of Thor Equities—a company with a worldwide portfolio worth more than $10 billion—is not surprising due to the legacies of neglect in Coney Island and Sitt’s polarising role within the protracted battles over its amusement district. Researching the controversial up-zoning process and outcome, the collaboration between Thor Equities and Jeffrey Deitch looks like a carnival game of razzle designed to correct Sitt’s dismal public relations among media outlets and locals. Yet the Art Walls also challenge these assumptions. For one, the involvement of respected artists and a new (free) public attraction was no small achievement in an amusement area battling atrophy. The Art Walls engage facets of Coney’s identity as an aesthetic inspiration and leisure space for working-class artists and amusement-seekers. With their frequently subversive and often activist visual messaging, the Walls also work to counter harmful stereotypes of Coney Island’s public housing residents. A number of the Walls could be interpreted as critiques of the tendency of outsiders to ignore the local communities that surround the amusement area.

In an effort to discern these multiple dimensions of the Art Walls, and to understand why the collaboration between Deitch and Sitt troubled so many critics and observers, this provocation recasts the Art Walls as performance. For it is true that when defined and analysed as public art, the Art Walls succeed as an expression of community and aesthetic inspiration; drawing from the tradition of street art, the rhetoric of the Walls imagine new social contexts and visualise inclusive, progressive social ideals. Further, their location in Coney Island signals a much-needed decentralisation of art offerings in a city that still struggles with problems of cultural equity and access to the arts. But when understood as theatre, the stakes of this collaboration take on different meanings. Visitors to the Walls are spectators who, when viewing the ornaments of community-oriented, participatory art, do not see the decisively for-profit nature of the Art Walls. What is appreciated as public art in fact facilitates other practices—related to land use and zoning—that are in this instance neither participatory nor community-oriented. Key to this are the other ‘actors’ in this urban development drama, including Joe Sitt himself, who was born in nearby Gravesend and claims deep emotional ties to the area.10 Many community activists and some city officials have characterised Sitt as a purely profit-driven speculator. His role in flooding urban neighborhoods with big box retail, driving up rents in neighborhoods across the city, demolishing cherished city structures, and habitually flipping land for profit, have earned him the ire of many neighborhood stakeholders.11

Thor Equities CEO Joe Sitt in a still image from Zipper: Coney Island’s Last Wild Ride, courtesy of Amy Nicholson. http://www.filmsbyamy.com/zipper/

In this way, the Art Walls function as a work of theatre designed to tell a particular story. This story demonstrates the transformation not of a space, but of a controversial real estate mogul into a benevolent and perceptive curator. The arc of the narrative is therefore as important as the visuals on the static wall spaces. For while its curators frame the Art Walls in the tradition of public street art, this provides little accounting for the fact that Thor Equities has already transformed the space through the mechanisms of city planning—as evidenced by the 2009 rezoning. While the individual Wall artists might affiliate themselves with legacies of graffiti arts, the very notion of subverting property ownership through art that inscribes urban protest on the landscape of the city is anathema to this exhibit, which exists at the behest of the developer. What might have once been a local artist tagging the neglected lots of a faceless, feckless entity is here sanctioned by the developer/curator through collaboration. The narrative of possible community mobilisation for or against a land use proposal is submerged in favor of the entrepreneur who ‘went all the way and invested in the whole infrastructure to make this possible’.12 The Walls, when understood as theatre, stage the interests of a private company, not the public good. For those who would seek to preserve public art as a potential space of performative and grassroots opposition to the private interests of a company like Thor Equities, this case study offers instead a collaboration that does not reveal wished-for ‘tensions’ between art and real estate. Instead, it attests to the ways in which public art can become an actor within the drama of urban development. In this instance, private developer and gallerist collaborate as curators, as well as playwrights and producers of neighborhood identity and change.

The question of ‘community benefits’ (rightly) shadows every initiative within a historic outdoor amusement core that now occupies only twelve acres; before the 2009 rezoning, it was sixty-one acres (compared to 100 acres in its heyday).13 Sitt is directly connected to this 2009 ‘up-zoning’ of the amusement district: under this redevelopment plan, the New York City Economic Development Corporation reduced the amount of land devoted to outdoor amusements in order to allow less restrictive uses, such as high-rise hotels. Thor Equities lobbied the city for these and other rezonings, in order to facilitate the building of retail and hotels on its properties (or, as some critics feared, to later flip the land to other developers for a profit).14 Then-mayor Michael Bloomberg cited the neighbourhood’s lack of basic services as evidence of the need for the rezoning, which came with promises of revitalisation through new jobs and housing.15 The concerns of preservationists and community advocates who protested the up-zoning eventually came to fruition: within a year of the rezoning, nine small businesses on the boardwalk were forced out by their landlords, and many historic buildings without protective landmark status were demolished to make way for a Thor Equities ghost town. Sitt unveiled his Art Walls in the summer of 2015, following intensified criticism of his ‘vacant, trash-filled lots at the heart of the amusement district’.16

From left to right: partial view of Aiko, The Other World (2016); partial view of Retna, Gracias a la vida (2015); Eine, Neon Riot (2015); partial view of Sheryo & The Yok, Banana Split Hot Diggity Dogs (2015). Photo by Hillary Miller.

With these events placed firmly into view, the purpose of the installation can be understood as obscuring the relations between real estate and inequitable resource provision. Instead of extending the long history of ‘honky-tonk’ amusements (dance halls, mechanical rides, vaudeville, side shows), the Art Walls offer the basics—concrete, paint, fencing—to which visitors bring their own tools of digital performance.17 Photo-sharing apps are the central methods by which visitors experience/mediate the ‘shared pleasures’ of the Walls. The participatory performance of the Art Walls occurs via Instagram: with over 11,000 followers and multiple hashtags, visitors engage with the Walls through social media and create art historian David Joselit’s ‘buzz’ of mass image circulation,18 attaching themselves to a work of art, the Coney brand, and, in doing so, the real estate transactions of a curator/developer.

In a letter introducing the Walls, developer Sitt describes his love of ‘shared spectacle’ in the nostalgic tradition of the ‘People’s Playground’, but also carefully foregrounds a ‘Coney Island community’ that looks forward to the artwork of the walls. ‘Coney Island Art Walls is Thor Equities’ way of bringing life to an empty site in the core of Coney Island, while keeping the Coney feeling and stretching it in new directions’.19

D*Face, Untitled (2016). Photo by Hillary Miller.

Icy & Sot, The Last Supper (2016); partial view of Nina Chanel Abney, Untitled (2016). Photo by Hillary Miller.The ‘Coney feeling’ perhaps refers to Coney’s Golden Age: hotdogs, leisure time at the beach, the Cyclone Rollercoaster and the Wonder Wheel. City officials and private developers often reference Coney’s ‘fabled past’ when seeking support for new development proposals. A number of the walls nod to Coney’s iconic imagery (Marie Roberts, a noted Coney sideshow sign painter, has a wall), whereas other artists created formal experiments (KATSU’s Drone-painted mural), or anti-consumerist statements in the guerilla street art tradition (Stephen Powers, Timothy Curtis, Shepard Fairey). Thrive Collective, an organisation that provides arts opportunities to New York public school students, collaborated with artists for two walls; the Yeshiva of Flatbush worked with graffiti artist Claw Money on another.

The Walls therefore fulfill the promise of ‘engagement’, but also inadvertently amplify a criticism from the 2009 rezoning battle: amusement advocates argued that an up-zoned Coney would exploit nostalgic icons of the past while the preservation and activation of historic, abandoned performance spaces would go untended. The City chose not to plan for the designation of a historic district that might have safeguarded significant venues such as the Shore Theatre, the Grashorn Building, and Henderson’s Music Hall. The latter, for example, was built in 1899 to replace a vaudeville house that was destroyed in a fire, and from 1926 to 1984 it housed barker Lillie Santangelo’s World in Wax Musee. ‘Tricks and Treats’, which evolved into the present-day Coney Island Sideshows, began there. Henderson’s was demolished in the fall of 2010 by its owner, Thor Equities. Sitt contrasts the Walls with neglected spaces that have proliferated across Coney Island—some of which he himself created.

An abandoned lot once associated with a controversial real estate plan is rebranded as participatory art, made ‘real’ by the circulation of commercially mobile cultural products: digital images of graffiti murals and food trucks peddling $19 lobster rolls.20 In an area in which demands for preservation have been divisive, and on a property that was once part of the debate over the quality and character of Coney’s public space, the Art Walls assure no claims of heritage value.21 As an ‘outdoor museum’, the Walls pay homage to one aspect of the ‘currency’ speculation of museums, described by Joselit as ‘turning finance capital into cultural capital and putting a democratic face on the accumulation of wealth—all exempt from taxes!’22 The collaboration between Deitch and Thor Equities justifies this accumulation as democratic and relies upon both Deitch’s and Coney Island’s symbolic capital to do so. The ‘democratic face’ of the Art Walls links it to traditions of collective enjoyment, yet as theatre, the experience plays out more like a repetitive loop: virtual community created through shared (once public) space and (temporarily non-profit) art. The Walls are temporary; their creation resists the cries for more permanent institution-building in Coney. The collaborative project rests on the virtual, as befitting a real estate ‘installation’ that will eventually be de-installed and transformed into a private development.

Icy & Sot, The Last Supper (2016); partial view of Nina Chanel Abney, Untitled (2016). Photo by Hillary Miller.

Hillary Miller is an assistant professor of theatre at California State University, Northridge. Her publications include Drop Dead: Performance in Crisis, 1970s New York (Northwestern University Press, 2016), and articles in Theatre Survey, PAJ, Lateral, and Radical History Review.

 

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Notes:

  1. Donny Levit, ‘Real Estate Freak Show: Coney Island May Get More Amusing as City Launches RFP for Future Development’, Brooklyn Pulp, 9 February 2017 <https://brooklynpulp.com/2017/02/09/real-estate-freak-show-coney-island-may-get-more-amusing-as-city-launches-rfp-for-future-development> [accessed 16 April 2017].
  2. Coney Island USA is the non-profit umbrella organization for most of Coney’s remaining performance activities, including Burlesque at the Beach, the Circus Sideshow, the Mermaid Parade, and the Coney Island Museum. Coney Island USA, http://www.coneyisland.com [accessed 16 April 2017].
  3. For an abbreviated summary of this recent history, see Marina Koestler, ‘Goodbye My Coney Island?’, Smithsonian.com, 30 June 2007 <http://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/goodbye-my-coney-island-157966013> [accessed 1 April 2017].
  4. TJ Carlin and Kate Lowenstein, ‘The Essential New York Art Neighborhoods’, Time Out New York, 5-11 Nov 2009 <https://www.timeout.com/newyork/things-to-do/the-essential-new-york-art-neighborhood> [accessed 15 March 2017].
  5. Jeffrey Deitch, quoted in Randy Kennedy, ‘Coney Island Street Art Coming From Deitch’, New York Times, 20 April 2015, p. 3.
  6. Ron English, quoted in Lore Croghan, ‘All Hail Jeffrey Deitch’s Coney Island Art Walls Project’, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 17 June 2015 < http://www.brooklyneagle.com/articles/2015/6/17/all-hail-jeffrey-deitchs-coney-art-walls-project> [accessed 3 May 2017].
  7.  Jane Dickson, quoted in Cristian Salazar, ‘Coney Island Outdoor Exhibit is Bringing Street Art to the Amused Masses’, amNewYork, 15 June 2015 < http://www.amny.com/entertainment/coney-island-outdoor-exhibit-is-bringing-street-art-to-the-amused-masses-1.10544945> [accessed 6 May 2017].
  8. Brian Boucher, ‘Jeffrey Deitch is Curating for Property Developers on Coney Island’, ArtNet News, 29 April 2015 https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/jeffrey-deitch-sunk-low-hee280s-curating-douchebag-property-developers-coney-island-293267> [accessed 6 May 2017].
  9. Christian Viveros-Fauné, ‘Jeffrey Deitch’s “Coney Art Walls” Exploits Artists for Real Estate Ploy’, ArtNet News, 12 June 2015 <https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/jeffrey-deitchs-coney-art-walls-exploits-artists-real-estate-ploy-307680> [accessed 6 April 2017]. See also, Eva Recinos, ‘Coney Island’s Art Walls: Conversation or Spectacle?’, ArtSlant, 26 July 2015 <http://www.artslant.com/9/articles/show/43355> [accessed 16 April 2017].
  10. For more on Sitt’s complicated relationship with Coney Island, see the documentary on economic development in the area, Zipper: Coney Island’s Last Wild Ride, dir. by Amy Nicholson (Myrtle & Olive, 2012) <http://www.filmsbyamy.com/zipper/> [accessed 6 April 2017].
  11. See, for example, Amanda Fung, ‘Coney Island Keeper; Thor Equities’ Joe Sitt Gives City a Ride for its Money’, Crain’s New York Business, 29 June 2009, 1; Greg Sargent, ‘The Incredibly Bold, Audaciously Cheesy, Jaw-Droppingly Vegasified, Billion-Dollar Glam-Rock Makeover of Coney Island’, New York Magazine, 26 September 2005 < http://nymag.com/nymetro/realestate/features/14498> [accessed 6 May 2017].
  12. Jeffrey Deitch, quoted in Keri Blakinger, ‘Coney Art Walls Are Back Again, Bringing a Splash of Color to Coney Island’, New York Daily News, 8 June 2016 <http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/brooklyn/coney-island-art-walls-back-article-1.2665876> [accessed 5 May 2017].
  13. Alessandro Busà, ‘Rezoning Coney Island: A History of Decline and Revival, of Heroes and Villains at the ‘People’s Playground,’ in The World in Brooklyn: Gentrification, Immigration, and Ethnic Politics in a Global City, ed. by Judith N. DeSena and Timothy Shortell (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2012), pp. 147-85 (p. 156).
  14. For a recent update on Sitt’s zoning demands, see Tricia Vita, ‘Thor’s Coney Island: Joe Sitt Wants Zoning Changes to 2009 Rezoning to Build “Great Big Hotel”’, Amusing the Zillion, 24 May 2016 <https://amusingthezillion.com/2016/05/24/thors-coney-island-joe-sitt-wants-zoning-changes-to-2009-rezoning-to-build-great-big-hotel> and Charles Denson, ‘Coney Island High-Rising: Politics in the Flood Zone’, Coney Island History Project, 13 March 2017 <http://www.coneyislandhistory.org/blog/development/coney-island-high-rising-politics-flood-zone> [accessed 6 May 2017].
  15. During his three-term mayoralty (2002 to 2013) the Bloomberg administration pushed more than 100 rezoning measures (18% of the city) through the City Council. See Max B. Podemski, ‘The New-New York: Upzoning Neighborhoods in the Era of Bloomberg’ (unpublished masters thesis, Columbia University, 2013). See also, Charles V. Bagli, ‘Seeking Revival, City to Buy Land in Coney Island’, New York Times, 11 November 2009.
  16. Local press outlets were extremely critical of ‘land baron’ Sitt in their reporting. See Will Bredderman, ‘Empty Lots Create Huge, Debris-Strewn Crater in Amusement District’, Courier Life’s Brooklyn Daily, 7 May 2014 <http://www.brooklyndaily.com/stories/2014/19/bn-sitting-vacant-2014-05-09-bk_2014_19.html> [accessed 17 April 2017], and Chris Pomorski, ‘Carnival Games: Was Coney Island’s Rebirth Doomed From the Start?’, The Observer, 1 August 2014, < http://observer.com/2014/08/what-happens-in-coney-stays-in-coney-can-coney-islands-revival-fix-years-neglect/> [accessed 1 May 2017].
  17. Melissa E. Baldock, ‘Preserving the Honky-Tonk: Coney Island’s Future in Its Amusement Past’, Future Anterior: Journal of Historic Preservation, History, Theory, and Criticism 1.1 (2004), 17-24.
  18. David Joselit, After Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), p. 16.
  19. Joseph Sitt, ‘Welcome Letter from Joseph J. Sitt’ <http://coneyartwalls.com/about> [accessed 17 April 2017]
  20. The food truck is one of twelve vendors in shipping container-based structures located in the space of the Art Walls. See ‘Shipping Container Venture Marks Newest Wave of Development at Coney Island’, Real Estate Weekly, 27 May 2015, pp. B7,17.
  21. See Juan Rivero, ‘“Saving” Coney Island: The Construction of Heritage Value’, Environment and Planning A, 49 (2017), 29-46.
  22. Joselit, p. 71.

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