September 11 – September 29, 2010

Presented by Richard Cohen

In 1987 I left the flat expanse of Dallas, Texas, for a new home: vertical, extravagant, outlandish, endlessly surprising New York City. I found a city I’d seen in Garry Winogrand photographs: street scenes of oddball characters, ancient ladies with torn stockings and streaked lipstick, juking streetwise teens flashing gang signs, vacant Wall Streeters staring dead ahead in the subway, gaping wide-eyed Midwesterners, lithe models who seemed to float along the sidewalk.

But always, every year since, the place I’ve been drawn to most is Coney Island. Camera in hand, I’ve ridden the F train on its clattering, chaotic course to the southernmost strand of Brooklyn. There, through most of the last century, was New York’s favorite playground: the beach, the boardwalk, the Cyclone, Nathan’s Hot Dogs.

After World War II, Coney Island fell into a decline. When I first saw it in 1987, it was as derelict and run-down as Times Square and the graffiti-strewn subways. But it carried on a classic tradition: an annual Mermaid Parade each June, inspired by Mardi Gras parades from the early 20th century.

In the years since, the Mermaid Parade has grown wilder each year, drawing thousands to the (still faintly derelict) seaside for a colorful, creative community procession. Hundreds of people in handmade costumes navigate push cart floats, celebrating their own eye-popping mythologies of the sea.

The Mermaids of Coney Island are only a small part of the endless visual panoply of New York. But in more than two decades, I’ve never found anything in the city as colorful, or as wacky, or as wonderful.

- Richard Cohen