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The World Beyond the Wonder Wheel

Posted on 3:23 AM by Sameer Shah

IN 2004, a documentary photographer named Steve Hoffman began visiting Coney Island, where his grandparents lived and where as a child in the 1960s he often spent summer days at the beach and the amusement park.

After several months, Mr. Hoffman began to focus on a Coney Island he did not know as a child. This was the community of African-Americans who live in Carey Gardens, a housing project at 23rd Street and Mermaid Avenue, two blocks from the beach and six blocks from the amusement area.

At first, Mr. Hoffman relied on a community leader named Sonny Fonville for entree into this world, but in time he established relationships with residents. Most of his photographs are portraits, and he routinely offers a print to his subjects in thanks for cooperating.

Mr. Hoffman frequently takes pictures at the local basketball court, where kids practice for hours, emulating Stephon Marbury, Knicks point guard and local hero. A graffiti-covered wall near the court has become a favorite backdrop for portraits, and when Mr. Hoffman shows up to hand out prints of pictures taken on previous visits, other residents come by dressed especially for a portrait sitting.

Mr. Hoffman, who lives on Long Island, photographs at Carey Gardens every Saturday or Sunday. His sessions at the wall have developed into family gatherings, with people stopping by to look at the prints and comment on an image of a sister or a grandchild.

“So many people have lived there for so long that many are related to one another,” Mr. Hoffman explained. “It really makes me feel like I am documenting one extended family.”

Coney Island is currently a magnet for public and private money that is helping to create jobs and attract new residents. Many longtime residents of Carey Gardens view these developments skeptically, but Mr. Hoffman’s portraits serve as a potent reminder of both the community’s vitality and its great needs.

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