Coney Island's Grand Past and Grim Future

Requiem for a dreamland

Coney Island's Grand Past and Grim Future

They're getting very near the end now at Coney Island. They've been tearing pieces off the place for years, and soon the bulldozers will be back again, pushing over the last, weathered links to the past on Surf Avenue. Next to go this spring will be the old Bank of Coney Island, and the Shore Hotel, and the Grashorn Building, which goes all the way back to 1889. They'll take down what's left of Henderson's Music Hall, where they once put on shows the size of Broadway productions and where Harpo Marx made his stage debut.

A strip of faceless new buildings will replace the battered old ones, and the stands, with their small operators still holding on inside them, selling fast food and rides and games and T-shirts, will be replaced by . . . new stands selling fast food and rides and games and T-shirts. Then these new buildings will be torn down in turn, sometime in the next two or three or five or 10 years, and from their rubble will rise the new Coney Island, one that will be bigger and better and more exciting than it ever was before. Or so the story goes.

If it seems senseless, all this tearing up and building down, you have to understand that what's really going on at Coney is a scam as old as the place itself, one that's known in carny parlance as "a razzle." It's the same con New Yorkers have been subjected to all over the city for the past 10 years, a racket business and government run with almost breathtaking coordination against the rest of us. If it succeeds out in Coney Island, it will spell the demise, once and for all, of the city's most iconic neighborhood, and right now, things are looking as bleak as they have ever been. But then Coney has a long history of somehow evading all attempts by outsiders to make it into something it doesn't want to be.

Photograph courtesy Michael Saliba
Luna Park, in all its glory, circa 1910
Photograph courtesy Charles Denson Archive /
Luna Park, in all its glory, circa 1910

The news that the wrecking crews will be back came just as Coney was looking forward to its best summer in years. The Ringling Bros. Circus is set to return, along with a new park run by Central Amusement International and featuring 19 tempting high-tech rides designed by the internationally renowned Zamperla company. On a windy Saturday in late March, workers were bustling about, hastening to install the infrastructure in time for the new park's opening day on Memorial Weekend. The sun was out, and some of the small-stand owners felt optimistic enough to open up. Workmen walked the tracks of the Cyclone roller coaster, peering at each of its ancient wooden slats, while at Ruby's Bar & Grill out on the boardwalk, the Blues Man and Mermaid Holly and Chocolate Jesus were leading a tribute to a late, lamented regular known as Master, the Whompa! Man.

Everywhere there was a sense of activity and purpose that was a welcome departure from the year before. The 2009 season was a disaster, after the developer Thor Equities bought up most of the old amusement area and reduced it to rubble. Coney had been nuked, and the place took on something of a post-apocalyptic atmosphere. There were reports of Chechen thugs pulling scams and roughing up patrons along Jones Walk. A strip club opened across Surf Avenue, as did a bowling alley that was known to hold dubious bachelor parties in a back room.

Adding mortal insult to injury, Thor brought in a flea market, promoted as "Flea by the Sea." When the fleas took flight at the end of the summer, they left their plastic tenting behind, to be fouled and shredded over the winter months. Coney was literally blowing in the wind, and images of the desolation slowed business to a crawl.

The place seemed finished.

Somehow, Coney clawed its way back from the abyss—again. Over the winter, the city announced that it had finally resolved its long stalemate with Thor, agreeing to buy back part of the hostage amusement district and set into motion its own master plan for Coney. Then came the news that the bulldozers would be returning, filling the air with concrete dust and the sound of something ripping as they tore out the old heart of the neighborhood.

Something about Coney Island makes reality shimmy and flicker. Some way in which the sun and the sand converge, or how the long summer light plays along the boardwalk, that seems to make it hard for anyone to see or think too clearly—the perfect spot to reel in a sucker.

Back in 1893, Coney's ultimate showman, George C. Tilyou, tried to buy the gigantic new Ferris wheel that had been unveiled at the Chicago Exposition. When he was turned down, Tilyou went back to Coney, set up a considerably smaller wheel, and stuck a sign out front. It read: "WORLD'S LARGEST FERRIS WHEEL."

A few years later, when the mania for Coney was at its height, and anything at all seemed possible, a huckster named Samuel Friede announced the imminent construction of the most incredible building ever seen. The Friede Globe Tower was to be just that—an enormous, globe-shaped structure built around a central tower. At 700 feet high, it would be the tallest building in the world, with the most powerful searchlight ever made beaming from the top of its tower.

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