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Celebrating the Colorful Characters of New York Street Fairs

Celebrating the Colorful Characters of New York Street Fairs

Brooklyn native Larry Racioppo looks back at scenic street carnivals of the 1970s.
Mother and child, 13th Street, 1976 © Larry Racioppo

While working as a cab driver, cameraman, waiter, photographer’s assistant, bartender, and carpenter, Brooklyn native Larry Racioppo traveled around the city in the 1970s making photos of New York as it teetered along the edge of bankruptcy. Despite — or perhaps because of — the lack of basic government services, the people found a way to make the best of their circumstances through creativity.

“The 1970s were a tough time for all New York City,” says Racioppo. “Government services were being cut back and unemployment was relatively high — but the working class people I knew and lived among were familiar with hard times. Volunteers from block associations, local churches, and fraternal orders like the Veterans of Foreign Wars created and staffed community events regularly. Most of these activities were focused on helping kids have fun.”

Girl and boy on circular car ride, 13th Street, 1976 © Larry Racioppo

It’s a way of life that has only existed in tiny, ungentrified pockets scattered across the five boroughs today. In the new exhibition, Bowery Street, Racioppo explores one of the last remaining vestiges of old New York: an undeveloped three-block section of Coney Island’s amusement area that is still home family-owned booths and concessions offering games of chance and skill.

“Here are games with regulation size basketballs and narrow rims, games with water pistols and darts, rings to toss and bbs for shooting zombies. Because they remind the 1970s street fair games I played years ago, I really enjoy photographing them,” says Racioppo, who received a 2021 New York City Artist Corps grant to document this little corner of Brooklyn that echoes a way of life Racioppo photographed at the very dawn of his career.

Gamblers placing bets, Fourth Avenue, 1974 © Larry Racioppo
Young woman and teens at the basketball booth, Fourth Avenue, 1974 © Larry Racioppo

A View From the Funky Ferris Wheel

In 1974, Larry Racioppo began documenting street fairs in South Brooklyn just as he embarked on his budding career as a photographer. Working as a photo assistant in Manhattan by day, Racioppo spent his evenings studying at Brooklyn College. “My Aunt Angie, who was very active in her local Catholic Church St. John the Evangelist, told me that it was sponsoring a street fair in a vacant lot on Fourth Avenue a few blocks from my apartment on 15th Street,” he says.

“Two years later, I was living on the same small floor through apartment and teaching Photography in an alternative high school in White Plains, NY, and photographing continually in my changing neighborhood. One afternoon, I chanced upon another street fair two blocks from my home.”

Chunooo at El Dorado Bumper Cars, Coney Island, 2021 © Larry Racioppo
View from the top of the Ferris wheel, Fourth Avenue, 1974 © Larry Racioppo

Racioppo made his way to the fair and photographed the magical world, one that offered escape for both young and old. “These fairs operated on a two-tier system: gambling for the adults, rides and games for the children. As a boy, I loved the rides and the small ring toss and dart throwing games. It didn’t matter how tacky the prizes were,” he says.

“I‘ve always enjoyed the carny-like atmosphere of these small fairs – a little unknown, a little dangerous, somewhat reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen’s song ‘Wild Billy’s Circus Story.’ One experience I remember strongly, but would not repeat today is getting into one of those funky Ferris wheel seats, and asking the operator to stop the ride when I was at the highest point so I could photograph.”

By Miss Rosen

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, including TimeVogueAperture, and Vice, among others.

Larry Racioppo: Bowery Street is on view at the Coney Island Museum’s Freak Bar Gallery in Brooklyn, New York, through the end of October 2021.

Two boys in between fair booths, 13th, Street 1976 © Larry Racioppo
“Take a Change” booth, 13th Street, 1976 © Larry Racioppo
Girl with cotton candy, Fourth Avenue, 1974 © Larry Racioppo
Nick at the wheel, Fourth Avenue, 1974 © Larry Racioppo
Ticket booth and empty ride, Fourth Avenue, 1974 © Larry Racioppo

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