The Playful Crowd: Pleasure Places in the Twentieth Century
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During the first part of the twentieth century thousands of working-class New Yorkers flocked to Coney Island in search of a release from their workaday lives and the values of bourgeois society. On the other side of the Atlantic, British workers headed off to the beach resort of Blackpool for entertainment and relaxation. However, by the middle of the century, a new type of park began to emerge, providing well-ordered, squeaky-clean, and carefully orchestrated corporate entertainment. Contrasting the experiences of Coney Island and Blackpool with those of Disneyland and Beamish, Gary S. Cross and John K. Walton explore playful crowds and the pursuit of pleasure in the twentieth century to offer a transatlantic perspective on changing ideas about leisure, class, and mass culture.
Blackpool and Coney Island were the definitive playgrounds of the industrial working class. Teeming crowds partook of a gritty vulgarity that offered a variety of pleasures and thrills from roller coaster rides and freak shows to dance halls and dioramas of exotic locales. Responding to the new money and mobility of the working class, the purveyors of Coney Island and Blackpool offered the playful crowd an "industrial saturnalia."Cross and Walton capture the sights and sounds of Blackpool and Coney Island and consider how these "Sodoms by the sea" flouted the social and cultural status quo. The authors also examine the resorts' very different fates as Coney Island has now become a mere shadow of its former self while Blackpool continues to lure visitors and offer new attractions.
The authors also explore the experiences offered at Disneyland and Beamish, a heritage park that celebrates Britain's industrial and social history. While both parks borrowed elements from their predecessors, they also adapted to the longings and concerns of postwar consumer culture. Appealing to middle-class families, Disney provided crowds a chance to indulge in child-like innocence and a nostalgia for a simpler time. At Beamish, crowds gathered to find an escape from the fragmented and hedonistic life of modern society in a reconstructed realm of the past where local traditions and nature prevail.
distressed conservative observers. As Lindsay Denison lamented at Coney Island (1905): “There is scarcely any variety of human flotsam and jetsam that is not represented in its permanent population…. Every defaulting cashier, every eloping couple, every man or woman harboring suicidal intent … comes flocking to it from every part of the land.” And at Coney Island, pleasure crowds meet a crowd of sellers: “a concentrated sublimation of all the mean, petty, degrading swindles which depraved
old Coney survived in the 1940s. Here five young women seem to enjoy the fact that their skirts were blown up by concealed air blasts. Library of Congress. Meanwhile, despite the war and demolition of Luna Park, Coney’s beach was attracting unprecedented crowds. On summer Sundays in the 1940s up to a million people would throng its beaches and streets, and 400,000 was an average figure for an ordinary warm weekend. Coney Island was an inevitable calling point for servicemen on leave during the
Blackpool’s Zoo occupied an accessible vacant site on the urban fringe that met the needs of its intended clientele. Blackpool’s eventual redevelopment of the “Golden Mile” area, though controversial, was also less damaging than the changes that New York’s City Hall forced on Coney Island. The main period of demolition and replacement, removing some of Blackpool’s oldest housing from the 1830s and 1840s, took nearly ten years, and the new seafront architecture was corporate and concrete, with a
extreme. Not only did Disney place the gazelles, elands, ostriches, zebras, and many other animals close to visitors (though behind hidden trenches), but Disney turned the traditional viewing of animals into a ride and story during which guests travel in “authentic” African safari trucks on a 20-minute voyage chasing would be “poachers” while snapping pictures of the animals in their natural habitats.82 This new gentility again was not enough, nor was even the old tried and true Disney formula
smells of a recently vanished past. Depending on voluntary labor, and beginning with the evocatively named Bluebell Railway in 1958, this expanded railway preservation movement rescued hundreds of locomotives and other rolling stock from scrap yards and put them to work on reopened branch lines. By the end of the twentieth century there were 63 such standard-gauge lines in Britain and 65 narrow-gauge or miniature ones, each attracting visitors with meticulous attention to period detail—alongside