Ghost World

You'll need a memory like an elephant to remember Coney Island

Whatever you think of Zigun's accommodation to the situation, he's certainly a walking encyclopedia of Coney Island lore: that grinning, goofy face you see out here on everything from billboards to the clock behind the bar at the museum? The 1897 logo of Steeplechase Park. The haunting terracotta wreck way down on the boardwalk? A Child's restaurant that closed in 1946 (landmarked). "One of the developers has plans to restore it, add a roof deck and reopen it as a restaurant," Zigun says. Express skepticism and Zigun loses patience. "Look, the Cyclone will be here, and the Wonder Wheel and the Parachute Jump, and the museum and the sideshow." Sure, but will they be surrounded by Red Lobster and Claire's Accessories stores?

In any case, not everyone thinks Zigun and his empire of freaks is so peachy. By chance, I run into Manny Cohen, who is (shall we say) more than a little skeptical of the developers and their big plans. Cohen is puffing on a cigar outside his own empire, the Coney Island Arcade. "Oh, you talked to the traitor?" he chuckles, nodding in the direction of the sideshow. Cohen has nothing but contempt for the developers: "They're gonna privatize the beach! This used to be a poor people's paradise!" He's says he's sure that the developers must be buying a new museum space for Zigun because, as Cohen so eloquently puts it, "he doesn't have a pot to pee in."

Loving a feud, but feeling that events may overtake this one rapidly, I stroll back to the boardwalk. Near Keyspan Stadium—it's supposedly a lot of fun to watch the Cyclones play here, even if the exterior adds nothing to the landscape—is a weedy, empty lot that once held the Thunderbolt, the roller coaster with the house under it where Alvy Singer lived in Annie Hall. The house, along with the coaster itself, was destroyed without warning in November 2000, in a surprise demolition under the direction of Mayor Giuliani.

It wasn't the first time the house was threatened: In 1926, owner George Moran hired a famous roller-coaster designer to build the Thunderbolt. The house was saved that time by running the ride's steel supports right through the building; Moran went on to live under the roller coaster for more than 40 years. Asked why he went to such trouble to save the house, Moran purportedly said, "You don't tear down buildings in Coney Island if you can help it."

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