Wednesday, June 29, 2011

urban drawbridge and stone cherubs

I didn't have anything to do today, so I did this. It's a drawbridge over the lovely Gowanus Canal.

Yesterday, I drew this after a dentist appointment.

I've had a helluva schedule the past month, and haven't been to life drawing since I don't know when. Really gotta get back into the swing of things.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Coney Island Baby

"In Coney Island, the things that are NOT there are more THERE than the things that ARE there."
-Carol Lipnik, The Singing Mermaid

Today is the annual Mermaid Parade, one of the funnest NYC events of the year, but I'm missing it again. My last comic was about the first time I went to one. It's a story that involves deadbeat friends, a drunk Russian nympho, and a jealous Mexican.

Coney Island is one of my favorite places in the world. I spent much of my childhood by the beach, so the oceanside atmosphere really feels like home to me. Beach communities always seem so casual and relaxed, and Coney Island is one of the most casual and relaxed places I've ever been. I'm hard-pressed to think of a less self-conscious place. And talk about a mix of people! Hipsters, yuppies, homies, mamis and papis, beach bums, and old Jewish Russian immigrants all elbow-to-elbow along the boardwalk.

Much of its charm comes from its dilapidated grandeur, scattered remnants and ruins that hint at its past glory: faded terra cotta bas-reliefs of Neptune and sea serpents, an abandoned shipwreck of a roller coaster (the Thunderbolt, torn down by Rudy Giuliani in 2000, leaving an empty lot), the worn and weathered Space Age decor of Astroland,  the ramshackle clam shacks and bars that line the boardwalk, open-faced sheds that are barely standing with hand-painted signs above their entrances, including Ruby's Bar and Grill, my favorite bar in the world.

(Site of the old Thunderbolt roller coaster)

For years, there have been plans to redevelop it, and now it's finally underway. Many people bemoan these plans, as they usually do. I'm of two minds. On the one hand, I'll miss the casual, no-frills, not-for-tourists, 'people's playground' vibe when places like Ruby's, Cha-Cha's, and Paul's Daughter inevitably succumb. And, in general, I distrust New York real estate developers. Most of them have shown stunningly poor judgment in the urban planning of their massive projects. (Exhibit A: Bruce Ratner)

At the same time, I think there is way too much romanticization of urban decay. In my neighborhood, there are now a lot of nice restaurants, coffee shops, and boutiques, and of course it's increasingly expensive. Long-time residents bitch about the changes, but when I arrived about 12 years ago, there were mostly empty storefronts and a lot of crime. I hate the sanitized, Disney-fied Times Square, but I don't miss the hookers and crackheads that used to clog the sidewalks. I always hear people talk about the lost 'character' of the city, but I don't remember them showing much love for the squeegee men and the homeless camped out in every ATM vestibule back in the day, or for the swarms of drug dealers circling Washington Square Park, whispering "smoke smoke smoke smoke" to every passerby.

Singer Carol Lipnik said, "In Coney Island, the things that are NOT there are more THERE than the things that ARE there." One of the things that fascinated me on my first visit to Coney Island was the walls of Ruby's Bar, every inch or which are covered with photos of Coney Island from the first half of the 20th century. There were three enormous amusement parks, and the beach was literally filled with people. It was the premiere amusement center of the world. I'll walk past the ramshackle food stands of the Boardwalk, the aging kiddie rides of Astroland, the seedy game booths on the midway, and picture the towering spires of Luna Park, the undulating slopes of the Steeplechase ride, the grand archway of Dreamland. Very little of that world remains, the inert Parachute Drop being the most prominent artifact.

Something great will be lost when Coney Island is completely redeveloped, but something great was lost over the decades it was allowed to decay. I'm sort of optimistic about the changes being made. The current developer of Coney Island - an Italian company called Zamperla - is better than the last one, Joe Sitt's Thor Equities. Zamperla is actually in the amusement park business. Joe Sitt just wanted to build condos and casinos on the old amusement park. The new park seems fun, a bit reminiscent of the great parks of yesteryear - Luna Park, Steeplechase, Dreamland. It's not too different than the old Astroland, but it's bright and clean and radiates new energy. I love Coney Island as I've known it, but 'new energy' is not the phrase that comes to mind when I think of it. While I love its tawdry seediness, whole swaths of the Boardwalk have been rather sad and moribund for a long time. I hope Ruby's Bar and Grill manages to stay, though this is likely their last summer. I'll miss it terribly. But I won't miss the big open lots, filled with trash and weeds, or the gaping holes in the Boardwalk, and as hopeful as I am that the feel of Coney can be maintained, I'm excited for its future.