Coney Island's Grand Past and Grim Future

Requiem for a dreamland

Coney, he insists, is "not our Coney Island—it's the world's Coney Island," and he wanted to make it into a world-class, $1.5 billion resort. There would be a "Las Vegas component," with a huge—you guessed it—Bellagio-style hotel. There would be shopping plazas and an indoor water park and futuristic rides, and an enormous fountain that would project images of mermaids and whales, and a mooring mast for a blimp to fly around advertising the wonders of the new Coney.

"It was supposed to be a hobby, this project—supposed to be a labor of love," claims Sitt. "For us, it was to just bring things that would bring the traffic back to Coney Island, a place . . . that nobody cared about, you know. Coney Island was left for dead."

To show everyone just how fabulous it would be, Thor leaked an artist's rendering of what Sitt's new Coney would look like. The remaining operators, hanging on at Coney by the skin of their teeth, looked past the Bellagio-style hotel, and the blimps and all the mermaids and the whales, and noticed that Sitt's plan required 575—or maybe 975 condominiums—right in the heart of Coney's amusement zone.

“Joey Coney Island,” Joe Sitt’s superhero name
Photograph courtesy Julie Rosenberg
“Joey Coney Island,” Joe Sitt’s superhero name
Photograph courtesy Wiros

Sitt claimed that such a residential component—or at least time-shares—was necessary to make his new Coney a viable community around the calendar year. But once the amusement area was developed for housing, everybody knew it was over. This was the very heart of Coney, "the playground of the world" for over a century, the home of Skee-Ball and roasting corn and screams from the scary rides echoing out over the beach at night. Turn it into condos, and Coney Island could never be more than a pathetic shadow of its former self, with a few token rides and games.

Desperate, the preservationists and the small-businessmen looked to the city, which, going into 2009, remained adamant, refusing to change the zoning and let Sitt build anything. But the city, it turned out, had its own fantastic plans.

Coney Island has always suffered from grandiosity. It is always going to be the next Newport, the next Atlantic City, the next Disneyland or Las Vegas. Like the perfect mark, it has never been able to accept the limits of what it can be, or see the beauty of what it is.

What those who wish to improve Coney Island can never accept is the edginess, the streak of anarchy etched deep in the soul of any great carnival. The whole history of Coney Island can be written as the attempt to impose order and civilization on a place that always manages to elude it.

Already by the 1820s, New Yorkers were driving their carriages out to Coney across the old Shell Road, desperate to escape the smothering heat of the city. They built bonfires on the beach at night and danced around them, slipping the traces of Victorian propriety.

After the Civil War, the entire island was expropriated by a spectacularly crooked politician named John Y. McKane, who turned over most of the land to himself and his cronies and made it such a hotbed of vice that the newspapers called it "Sodom by the Sea." McKane was so egregiously corrupt and violent, even in the heyday of Tammany Hall, that he was finally packed off to jail.

But a pattern was established. Again and again, corporate and government interests, often working together, would try to turn Coney Island to their own purposes through ever more ambitious schemes and fantasies.

First, they tried to make it into an exclusive resort for the wealthy by building a racetrack and elegant stick hotels. Wonderful 19th-century follies went up, such as "Coney's Colossus," a gigantic hotel built entirely in the shape of an elephant, complete with an observatory in its houdah, and a cigar shop in one of its legs. Before long, though, it was filled with whores and petty crooks.

"At night, its eyes glowed yellow above the bathhouses and band shells and carousels," wrote Richard Snow, Coney's most eloquent chronicler, in Coney Island: A Postcard Journey to the City of Fire. "Complex, facetious, and a little sinister, it was an augury."

Next they tried to bring out the middle class by building Coney's three legendary amusement parks: Tilyou's Steeplechase, Luna Park, and Dreamland. These were truly phenomenal, the most beautiful amusement parks ever built—a fantastic Dr. Seuss collection of towers and domes, minarets and lagoons and whirling, spinning rides—nearly every inch limned with millions of individual light bulbs that blazed at night like nothing ever had before.

It was a huge hit—so phenomenal that people wrote waltzes and popular songs to celebrate the opening of a new park. The three parks remain, to this day, the most gorgeous amusement parks ever created, and around them, the amusement areas of Coney sprawled out to some 60 acres.

Even so, a spirit of lawlessness kept creeping back in. The middle class came, but so did Manhattan's gangsters, tooling around the neighborhood in their brand-new automobiles, taking potshots at one another. Coney had its own Bowery, full of low dives and girlie shows and brothels.

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