The boardwalk, the hotdogs, the water, the beach, the rides, that’s the Coney Island everyone knows. The enormous buildings that run the entire length of the island, the long dark hallways, the concrete staircases, the slow scary elevators that reek of urine – those are the projects. That is the Coney Island that nobody knows.
In the summer of 2004, I decided that I wanted to photograph the people of this world of contrasts – their good and bad – their ugly and beautiful. I wanted to photograph the human side of this enormous mixture. It is a community of diverse and fascinating people – people who on so many levels are invisible to the outside world.
I read an article in the New York Times about an activist who wanted to build a community center to keep the kids off the street. I called the reporter that had written the article and she gave me the name of the man I wanted to talk to. I called and told him what I wanted to do; amazingly he was willing to help me. As we spent time together I realized that he know everyone in the projects.
With Sonny as my guide I began taking pictures. Sonny introduced me to all kinds of people. We would knock on someone’s door they would open it and see Sonny and invite us in.
When people let you into their home they are letting you into their lives. To thank them for this opportunity I gave each person I photographed a copy of the picture. As time went on another thing began to happen: trust. The projects are a close knit community. One of the most fascinating things about the projects was that so many people are related to each other. As I photographed more and more people, friends and relatives would see these pictures and want one of their own. People began to stop me and ask me to take their picture. People talked about what I was doing and said I could be trusted. I always kept my word.
Eventually I added some of the more interesting aspects of life in the projects. Many of the gang members asked me to photograph them by themselves or with friends or family.
Drugs and guns are most serious problems in the projects. Everyone knows someone killed in a shooting or who died of a drug overdose. In contrast, one of the things I enjoyed photographing was the Sunday church services. The music, the sermons, the stories that people told during the service. It was such a joyous time. Dressed in their best they could forget their problems of everyday life and get carried away in their faith.
It’s important to know what goes on in the projects. The addicts who were always talking about getting clean so they could get on with their lives while trying to get enough money for the next high – the man who spent years working in construction and because of asbestos contamination needs to carry around a respirator. The more you learn about something – the more difficult it is to label it. This is the reason I want people to know about the other Coney Island. There is a lot to discover.
Steve Hoffman, 2014
In the summer of 2004 I began photographing the African American community in Coney Island, in Brooklyn, New York.
It all started when I met a community activist named Sonny Fonville. He had lived in the projects all his life and knew everyone. I met him through an article in the New York Times about building an after school center in the neighborhood.
Sonny and I spent nearly two years together going from building to building. I photographed people in their apartments, in the hallways and the building elevators. During that time I also photographed in the neighborhood churches along Mermaid Avenue.
In late 2006 Sonny moved to North Carolina and I found myself on my own. At this time I was pretty well known throughout the projects and was able to continue my work. I also decided to concentrate on one of the housing units. The one I decided on was Carey Gardens on 23rd. I took some portraits against a brick wall and really liked the way they looked. I started to do more portraits against this wall and give the person being photographed a copy of the print. This became a really big thing. Every time I went to Coney Island I would bring a box of prints I had made. People going shopping or just out on the street would look through the box and find photos of themselves or friends or relatives. It was like Carey Gardens was one big extended family. Everyone related to everyone else.
I no longer had to ask people if they wanted to have their photograph taken. They began to arrive as soon as I did to have their portrait taken.
One of the things that really excited me was to go up to someone’s apartment and see one of my photographs hanging on the wall.
In 2008 I was part of a group show at the Brooklyn Museum. A class from the local middle school went to the museum to see the exhibit. One of the students saw a picture of her father that I had taken. It was the talk of the neighborhood.
After five years I still can’t wait to go to Coney Island to photograph the people there. I don’t know why. Coney Island is a dangerous place. Just last month an 87-year-old woman was shot and killed in front of her building on a Sunday afternoon. Last week I was walking across the parking lot when I was sure someone was pointing a gun at me from an apartment window.