Phillip Lopate describes the shape of Manhattan Island as‘a luxury liner, permanently docked, going nowhere’. This feeling of being tethered to the land, unable to get to sea, was a feature of New York life for much of the twentieth century. New York was an island without a coast. The West Side piers that once welcomed the Lusitania spent most of the twentieth century crumbling or behind barbed wire, while the East Side’s coves and points were cut off from pedestrians by six lanes of the Robert Moses-designed Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive. It wasn’t much easier to reach the shores of Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx, either: with a few exceptions, they were largely reserved for municipal or industrial use, and easiest to see from the Staten Island Ferry (en route to the borough with the most beaches). Now, slowly, the city is reclaiming its shoreline, with some spectacular results.

Surfaced: Dreamland Bell by Tricia Vita

OBJECT:  Dreamland Bell


Artist Statement 

These photos of people ringing the Dreamland Bell were taken just a few days after it was raised from the ocean after ninety-eight years underwater. It was on display for Labor Day Weekend at the Coney Island History Project’s exhibition center under the Cyclone. In one of the photos, you’ll catch a glimpse of an archival image of the Bell welcoming visitors at the Iron Pier of Coney Island’s original Dreamland Park (1904-1911). Both Dreamland Park, which was on the site of the New York Aquarium, and the Pier, were destroyed by fire in 1911. Coney Island diver Gene Ritter, who had been searching for Dreamland artifacts for two decades, found the Bell twenty-five feet underwater, about one hundred yards offshore.

In these images, joy and optimism about the future of Coney Island is reflected among the many friends and acquaintances who made a special trip to see the Bell.  The discovery of the Bell symbolizes and presages the rebirth of Coney Island; it marks the return of something that was thought to have been irrevocably destroyed. No one expected the return of an artifact lost nearly one hundred years ago in a fire, and certainly not such an important artifact as the Dreamland Bell.

The Bell came to the History Project with just a few days’ notice. I had anticipated that Labor Day Weekend would be a sad occasion since it was the first anniversary of the closing of Astroland.  I brought a bouquet to commemorate the closing, and a few of us even wore our Astroland T-shirts. What happened instead was that Bell helped heal our sorrow over the lost Astroland.  The Bell marked the return of the real and eternal Dreamland, as opposed to the so-called “Dreamland Park,” a temporary assemblage of rides and attractions brought to the former Astroland site in the summer of 2009.

Tricia Vita spent the first 17 years of her life traveling through New England as a carny kid.  A scholarship took her to Sarah Lawrence College, then to an independent study program in Kyoto, Japan.  She is the translator of Inagaki Taruho’s One Thousand and One-Second Stories (Green Integer). After working as a freelance magazine writer for a decade, she took a sabbatical from journalism in 2007 to work with the Coney Island History Project.

Photo credits (c) Tricia Vita/Coney Island History Project.