Thursday, June 19, 2008
CONEY ISLAND DREAMIN
I can't get enough of Coney Island, Brooklyn's ramshackle amusement mecca by the sea.
Who doesn't like the crashing ocean waves as a backdrop to such attractions as the Cyclone roller coaster, Ruby's Old Tyme bar and the paintball game, Shoot the Freak. For more than 100 years, Coney Island has hosted some sort of amusement park or another, some grand, others not so grand. Coney Island was in it's heyday at the turn of the century.
Coney Island's first amusement park arrived in 1895. Sea Lion park featured a log flume type of aquatic ride. The park came about ten years after the world's first roller coaster debuted at the resort destination, than a fairly baron area reached primarily by steam train and by steamship. The famous Steeplechase amusement park--full of daredevil thrill rides opens in 1897, but catches fire ten years later. It was rebuilt. Luna Park opened in 1903 and Dreamland followed a year later.
The big crowds started arriving in 1920, when the subway connected Coney Island to the rest of New York city. Three years later, 175 businesses were razed to make room for the new boardwalk. It wasn't long after that the still standing and still iconic Cyclone roller coaster debuted. Luna Park had a three decade run at Coney until, it too, burned down in 1944. Steeplechase closed 20-years later. This was the beginning of the end.
Coney Island fell into urban decay. The blighted area was now packed with city housing projects, businesses boarded up and only a few attractions remained in what had become one of New York city's biggest slums. Through the 1980's, the famed resort had fallen into disrepair. Gangs ruled the streets and New Yorkers had discovered much more modern and cleaner places that soon became known as "Theme parks."
A revival began in the 1990's when locals and historians capitalized on the honky-tonk feel Coney Island had become. Many people say the carnival-esque feel is what Coney Island was all about for years, but It wasn't. Coney Islanders talk of keeping cheap attractions like the freak show and the boardwalks scarce rinky-dink amusement parks. But, back in it's heyday, Coney Island was anything but honky-tonk. It was a grand, even elegant resort, where the women wore long dresses and the men wore suits, ties and sharp hats. The kids were told to behave themselves.
Flash forward to Coney Island, 2008 and dramatic change is ahead. Several swaths of land were plowed to make way for an ambitious redevelopment of the core area of Coney Island. But, the city, developer Thor Equities and a local community board have been doing battle over the plans. The original Thor plan included lots of new amusements, year-round attractions, a healthy amount of apartment housing and a few big hotels. Now, that plan has been scaled back. Fewer amusements, more housing and hotels.
In the meantime, those patches of land that had been bulldozed have been populated by some temporary attractions, because the city and developers are dragging their feet. In one lot on Stillwell avenue, a petting zoo has taken form for the rest of the summer. Across the street, a traveling carnival has been hired for the summer to fill the void.
About eight years ago, while working for WABC, I had the opportunity to have an email conversation with the man in charge of theme park development for the Walt Disney Company, which owned our radio station. I suggested to him that Disney should consider resurrecting the dying amusement park, by doing what only Disney could do: recreate Steeplechase, Luna Park and Dreamland, but make them year round attractions.
He said that Disney actually considered doing something there, but in the end the consensus was that because of the North East's cold weather, even indoor attractions probably wouldn't draw a steady year round crowd. The plan was dropped.
Too bad, because while Thor Equities might be able to create a suitable revamp of the area, Disney knows how to make magic. Like it or not, they did it to Times Square and they could easily do it to Coney Island. They call themselves Imaginears (get it, think Mickey), but unfortunately, they're not being very imaginative when it comes to Coney Island. Someone needs to step up to the plate and think out of the box and make this place as magical as it was for a little kid growing up in the roaring 20's. Unfortunately, not many of those folks are around anymore to tell us those wonderful stories.