Coney Island Shortcakes

INDIVIDUAL: is agent Dan Weiss with Kalene Rivers
GROUP SIZE: Large weekend crowds
NATURE OF GROUP: Satisfied Patrons
INCIDENCE OF SOCIOMETRY: Coney Island Shortcakes

This report was originally published on
and on a tri-fold display at Sociometry Fair 2008 in Chicago.  


Theorists of architecture, sociology, and psychogeography have struggled endlessly over the question of social space and how it might be dismantled. Ideally, the most effective tools for analyzing social space would illuminate an otherwise invisible network of human relationships, dissolving social anxiety and fostering creativity in its place. During the course of one summer, and to the delight of countless Coney Island locals and visitors, these tools briefly assumed the form of strawberries and shortcake. Our very first shortcake stand was planned innocently enough as a DIY excursion into the real Coney Island- we decided that in order to rediscover the materiality of a place so thickly enshrouded in myth, it was necessary to become part of the very mechanisms that kept it alive. As a result, we not only witnessed the unraveling of Coney Island’s social and economic networks but the logic of our own project as well. Suddenly the questions we had assumed to understand became far more complex. “What’s more American than Strawberry Shortcake at Coney Island?” Well, was it ever that American in the first place?


When it comes to absorbing history, memories, and the emotions associated with change and restructuring, Coney Island is particularly spongy. Each public land battle, bulldozed amusement, or threat of luxury condo takeover seems only to enhance the romantic residue on the surface of this historic place. Some visitors are drawn to the struggle in order to protest its fading glory, while others excitedly await its transition into ghost town status, enjoying frequent mid-winter visits. George C. Tilyou, the creator of Coney Island’s ill-fated Steeplechase Park, was prescient in mobilizing interests in loss and the passing of time to the advantage of the park. On the morning following the Steeplechase’s demise, Tilyou ended his solemn announcement with a sarcastic yet very relevant line: “Admission to the burning ruins — Ten cents.” For those passing through, Coney Island will always be a site of dramatic struggle, a magical place that is consistently fighting off it’s own erasure. However, we wanted to look beneath these memories and myths, to station ourselves among the lived everyday experiences of Coney Island. Originally aiming to find a familiar social network and economy that would render the park a little more readable, we eventually found something even more inspiring.


What we hoped to discover with this project was the transparent and original essence of Coney Island, something that we vaguely assumed to be harnessed to the American Experience (and Strawberry Shortcake, of course). Yet we quickly realized that this kind of experience had been effaced long ago, leaving a space in which culture is less rigidly defined. It almost seemed as if, upon closer inspection, the park never really had a specific origin, much like the Strawberry Shortcake itself. Is it really American or did we just put these two ingredients together? Regardless, Coney Island began to reveal itself as an accepting atmosphere- an amazing transition from the unreal caricature that it became over time. The results were enormous. Few visitors recognized the dessert as something American, and many were entirely unfamiliar with its appearance (“So, wait, it’s ice cream, right?”). Instead, the defining characteristic was a casual curiosity. While an unlikely place to discover social models to which we might aspire, Coney Island and it’s local amusement community provided a very diverse and playful social network. In our photos, the great diversity of Shortcake customers with whom we interacted are all linked together by this suddenly less familiar, strangely humorous, and remarkably uniting dessert.

Written by Timothy Leonido at the behest of Kalene Rivers and Daniel Weise


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