Through his camera lens, Otto C. Dreschmeyer (1896-1983) documented the iconic neighborhood of Coney Island, and other Brooklyn scenes during the late 1960s. An amateur photographer, (likely using a Hasselblad camera), Otto Dreschmeyer’s style captured moments of everyday reality within Brooklyn’s public spaces. The Otto Dreschmeyer Brooklyn Slides (v1988.12) include the unveiling day at the JFK Memorial monument and the 1965 Memorial Day parade in Prospect Park, Coney Island of the late 1960s (with images of fireworks, sunset views of the shoreline, and night shots), and a few images of boats and boat rides in Sheepshead Bay.
The most intimate images are at his Rockwood residence, of a calico cat in a swath of garden sunshine. Dreschmeyer himself never appears in the images and remains somewhat enigmatic in terms of his life, profession, and motives for photographing these 157 slides while in his seventies.
Otto Dreschmeyer was never married, and based on US census records, likely lived his entire life in the family home with his widowed sister, Ella Piens. Their parents were German immigrants, and their Ridgewood family home was considered part of Bushwick, Brooklyn until 1977. After The 1977 Blackout and looting in Bushwick, Ridgewood became a Queens neighborhood in an effort to disassociate the neighborhood from Bushwick’s resulting reputation. At the age of 40, Dreschmeyer was responsible for a tragic car accident in 1936 that was reported in The New York Times. He also submitted a WWII draft card in 1942 but was not drafted for service. While digitizing and cataloging this collection of slides, I began to spin my own tales about this enigmatic, amateur photographer: What work did he do in his life? Was he retired? Was he a recluse?
The local scenes he photographed are set within the years of social upheaval following President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the Civil Rights Movement, and the beginning of the US military involvement in Vietnam.
As to Dreschmeyer’s main subject matter of Coney Island, BHS provides additional resources to contextualize these images in their time. Charles Denson’s Coney Island: Lost and Found, is part memoir, part historical research, and is a first hand account of the neighborhood in the late 1960s when Dreschmeyer was photographing there. The closing of Steeplechase Amusement Park in 1965 was a symbolic moment that illustrated the fall into economic decline by both the amusement parks and the neighborhood. From Denson’s perspective, “Only through war metaphors could what was happening to my neighborhood in 1965 be described…The city was taking their homes…By the time the war ended ten years later, nearly 40 city blocks of homes and businesses had been destroyed” (pg. 105). Under urban renewal plans, middle class family homes were demolished by the city while high-rise, low income public housing buildings were being constructed. Coney Island of the 1960s and 1970s became known for its crime and poverty, partially due to the city’s neglect. On Memorial Day weekend in 1966 The New York Times reported that 4,000 youths took over the boardwalk and threw bottles at people, causing the parks to close early. Then in April of 1968, another New York Times article reports on several thousands of rioters that stormed and looted the boardwalk and subways.
However, the tensions felt in Coney Island during these years were not deterrents to Dreschmeyer. Whether intentional or accidental, Dreschmeyer took quieter, everyday images of this neighborhood in transition that captures the Coney Island sightseers, new construction sites, the old rides and attractions, the boardwalk strollers, and the evening sunsets.