I have a recurring dream, which I will embellish only a little: It is of an old, but not entirely abandoned, amusement park that once rivaled Coney Island—but apparently never existed. An alternate Coney Island on the other side of the borough, North Brooklyn, near the Navy Yard. They have their own trademark mascot, a competitive cousin of the Steeplechase Imp. They have their own famous hot dog joint, an alternate Nathan’s. An abandoned subway El runs alongside their own famous roller coaster, both casting rusted-iron shadows. The cityscape is sepia-toned. Nothing is gentrified here whatsoever. When I awake, I feel certain this place exists.
Is this amusement park the foiled plan of some visionary—not George Tilyou or Walt Disney—but some would-be conjuror of mass entertainment whose dreams never got off the ground? Are these the ruins of what never was—as if it once had been?
I walk along the rusted perimeter of this archeological ruin. I sense that a few sparsely attended attractions still operate somewhere inside. The roller coasters, shoot-the-ducks midway games and sideshows are closed. The park had an affiliation with the image of comedian Joe E. Brown—the “Generalissimo of Joy,” who was once chairman of National Smile Week. He, too, had a grotesquely overblown smile, like the Steeplechase demon. Brown’s trademark cavernous mouth is on the twin pillars of the park’s main entrance.
I can barely make out faded depictions of Little Lulu, Popeye, Olive Oyle, Betty Boop and Wimpy on fun houses. Faded ads testify there was once a spin-off here of Auster’s Egg Creams, from the Lower East Side, called Egg Cream Land. And for longshoreman or wayward dads at night, there was The Ritz Bros.’ Shayna Tuchas Burlesk.
The park peaked in the 1930s, when Coney was long past its technological prime. It was slightly more modern than Coney, 1930’s state-of-the-art, yet not so futuristic as the 1939 World’s Fair. One concession’s faded logo claimed to have first introduced cotton candy, the first spinning sugar machine. There is a pre-WWII airplane ride for children. Little planes that once rose and fell have lost their original colors; the metal parts have rusted through. Yet, I wonder whether this ride still operates. There’s an abandoned electric-track spook house, with dancing Mr. Bones skeletons on the facade. One advertises a choice of three doors to enter, like the spook house in a Little Rascals short. Its entry doors that burst open are, of course, embossed with the giant mouth of Joe E. Brown.
A creaky hot dog joint around the corner still operates. I head for it. The front entrance swings open like a spring screen door. This joint once competed head-to-head with Nathan’s from the other side of Brooklyn, like the underdog Dodgers against the Yankees. They still serve seltzer bottles and egg creams. I’m one of the only customers present. There are old-timers who swear by it, over Nathan’s. But how do they maintain a license to operate, much less a Board of Health rating?
There appears to have been some kind of bathing pavilion—not Brooklyn by the Sea, like Coney Island, but Brooklyn by the River. The East River. The presence of the Manhattan Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge looms nearby. Tires once swung over barnacled dry docks where kids could leap off and swim. Floats are now obscured in seaweed. Popeye the Sailor’s tattooed anchor forearm is on the Admiral’s Row pavilion. Some kind of longshoreman ethic once ruled. The skeleton of a carnival tent rusts by the pier, where you could once get an illegal tattoo.
Closer to Manhattan, right over the bridge, these were the stomping grounds of incredible hipster Al Dubin, lyricist of “42nd Street,” “Lullaby of Broadway” and “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” His heart belonged here, not in Coney Island, and his enormous girth was enhanced by the hotdogs and egg creams. After all, this park was just a few subway stops from Tin Pan Alley on 28th Street.
People in this part of Brooklyn today seem barely aware that it exists and are indifferent. The amusement park is just over there, always had been, no one pays any attention. Time marched on without it. But is it possible no one ever sees it, just me?
My dream also begs the question of whether New York City, not to mention Brooklyn, could have handled two great amusement parks simultaneously. Well, why not? They nearly supported three major league baseball teams for 75 years. Palisades thrived for 70 years in New Jersey. Freedomland in the Bronx only lasted four. But just how much had these two parks—Coney and The Joe E. Brown Grounds—undercut each other’s business over the decades, leading to the demise of both?
In popular song, this park was associated with the ditty “I’ll See You My Dreams.” Ukulele Ike performed it there. “Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland” was Coney Island’s most famous song. And by odd coincidence, 50 years later, “I’ll See You in My Dreams” became popular by another, unrelated Joe Brown, the English ukulele player who does fine throwback numbers. Always playing second fiddle, many things were nearly, but not quite the same, as Coney.
--Josh Alan Friedman