Coney Island's Grand Past and Grim Future

Requiem for a dreamland

Yet apart from these back-alley entertainments, the sense of anarchy, the whiff of real danger, was inherent even in many of Coney's sanctioned family attractions. Its rides were designed to knock people together, scare the wits out of them, and encourage sexual contact.

There was a hand-operated roller coaster that went flying out over Surf Avenue one day, killing four passengers. There were elevators that were rigged to crash, dance floors that were greased to make you fall, park benches strung with electric wiring to give you a zetz and get you up and on your way, spending money. In its tableaux and staged plays, devils dragged young women down to Hell, towns flooded, volcanoes erupted, tenements burned, cities were pounded to ruins by battleships. There was an "Incubator Theatre," where you could watch actual premature babies struggling for life, and "Son-of-Ham" shows, where you could throw a baseball at the head of a black man. There were not one but two miniature cities filled entirely with dwarves and midgets, and a dwarf dressed in a clown suit who hit patrons with a cattle prod for the amusement of their fellow customers.

In their most notorious performance, Coney's entrepreneurs brought Tom Edison's men out to electrocute an elephant named Topsy for the "crime" of having killed two men, one of whom fed it a lighted cigarette.

Astroland begs for mercy, to no avail.
Astroland begs for mercy, to no avail.
Coney Island was the last place where you could feel the energy of 1970s New York, without the crime
and decay.
Fotolia / Sabino Parente
Coney Island was the last place where you could feel the energy of 1970s New York, without the crime and decay.

Even the millions of individual light bulbs that gave the parks their mesmerizing beauty could seem forbidding. When all the rides shut down for the night, the lights could be heard making an ominous hissing sound. One observer wrote, "The view of Luna Park . . . suggests a cemetery of fire, the tombs, turrets, and towers illuminated, and mortuary shafts of fire."

Exquisite as the lights were, there was something fearsome and dreadful about them, a premonition of burning cities to come, all over the world. Parks that had been touted as decent entertainment for America's white middle-class had morphed into something else—something a little terrifying. Coney had burrowed deep down into the psyche of America, of the modern world—maybe too deep for its own good.

Back in this century, the city was prepared to save Coney Island from Thor. Even before Sitt made his move on Coney, the Bloomberg administration had spun the Coney Island Development Corporation (CIDC) off from the New York Economic Development Corporation (NYEDC).

Development corporations, for those unfamiliar with the bewildering layers of public, quasi-public, and private organizations that now constitute our government, are officially "nonprofit corporations serving the city."

This description exudes a sense of selfless philanthropy. But, in fact, what it means is that development corporations exist outside the democratic process, as bodies composed of whatever functionaries and political allies the mayor chooses to appoint, and unaccountable to anyone else.

In 2005—coincidentally, the same year that Sitt first showed an interest in Coney Island, and also the one and only election year that he and his family have ever displayed a real interest in electoral politics, sprinkling at least $40,000 in contributions among Councilman Recchia and other officials around the city and the borough—the CIDC began rallying neighborhood groups, city government departments, and public interest organizations such as the Municipal Arts Society (MAS) to come up with an alternative plan that might save Coney Island.

Many of the smaller operators and preservationist groups out at Coney had been trying for years to talk to the city about plans for rebuilding the island, about bringing in new jobs and entertainments, and utilizing its empty lots. But any suggestions for such human-scale, incremental improvements were ignored. Instead, the city insisted, a grand plan—a new grand plan—was needed.

Hearings were held. Charrettes were held. Participation was invited from all sides, and many of Coney's year-round residents and small-business owners enthusiastically took part. The MAS issued its own, spectacular artists' renderings of what Coney Island might look like.

Soon, the CIDC had a comprehensive plan, one that would address all of Coney's needs and problems. The neighborhood's crumbling infrastructure would be rebuilt, the old Shore vaudeville and movie theater would be renovated and reopened, and parking and mass transit would better connect the island to the rest of Brooklyn and the city. Lynn B. Kelly, president of the CIDC, promised to preserve the 27-acre amusement district and all of its "treasured icons" in a dynamic video presentation for its website.

What's more, it was promised that significant measures would be taken to improve the lives of its 50,000 year-round residents. Some 4,000 to 5,000 units of new housing are to be built, 1,000 of them "affordable." Six thousand permanent jobs are to be created, along with 25,000 construction jobs, and there will be 500,000 new square feet of retail added to an area that, as Kelly rightly points out, currently lacks a "decent supermarket, a place to buy a book, a pair of shoes."

The video is as good as any Coney spieler. It features vivid images of a trashed, graffiti-ed Coney Island (although what most of the images actually show is the recent block-clearing by Thor and the city).

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