Coney Island's Grand Past and Grim Future

Requiem for a dreamland

Just in case anyone didn't get the message, the bulldozing along Surf Avenue will provide a final object lesson—much as Robert Moses's blitzkrieg through the old boardwalk or Fred Trump's trashing of Steeplechase Park silenced dissent in the past. Organizations such as the preservationist group Save Coney Island have been moving to create a historic district throughout the old amusement district. Now they can try preserving the dust.

"It's what we call Phase 1," Sitt says, describing the demolitions.

Out on Coney, the small operators protested, but hunkered down. They are, many of them, the same people who did so much to keep Coney alive during the grim decades after the money ran out, when the island was all but abandoned by the city and brutalized by crime and racial conflict and poverty. It was they who kept Coney going through the 1970s, and '80s, and '90s, when all City Hall could think to propose were Koch's casinos, or Rudy Giuliani's gift of a $39 million ballpark to the Mets.

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

They were the ones who understood the lessons taught by the likes of Jane Jacobs in the ancient battles to defeat Moses, the idea that city neighborhoods must evolve organically, that they must be tended to and kept to a human scale. Slowly, year by year, piece by piece, it was they who put Coney back together again, made it once again a place with a touch of anarchy but little real danger and a remarkable variety of entertainments.

Coney Island today is a place where you can drink beer, "shoot a freak," see a geek, see a burlesque show, see fish, catch fish, eat fish, ride the Cyclone, ride the waves, win a kewpie doll, play Skee-Ball, go to a ballgame, see a band, lie on the sand. It is the last stand of the demimonde, the last place where you can feel the openness and the energy of 1970s New York, stripped of the accompanying dread of crime and decay.

The city and the developers they favor now propose to rescue us from all that, just as, in the past, they "rescued" a unique, prosperous community of 100,000 people by turning it into a bereft, isolated slum of 50,000 people. Where, 50 years ago, an unaccountable, unelected city authority tore down much of Coney Island under "Title 1," now an unaccountable, unelected city authority endorses tearing it down again under "Phase 1." And once again, anyone who objects is accused of championing "the nostalgic fables of the past."

It's not just Coney. Much like Thor Equities, Michael Bloomberg's administration has forwarded its development schemes everywhere with "renderings of some fantastic building." On and on it goes, from the Olympics and the West Side Stadium, to the gargantuan "airport village" in Jamaica, to the wall of condos planned for the Queens and Brooklyn waterfront along the East River, to the Hudson Yards project on the West Side, newly revived—an endless carny game of bait-and-switch, sold on the promise of one amazing, futuristic building after another, none of which ever seem to get built.

A veritable catalog of such swindles—past, present, and future—can be found in a triumphalist 2006 copy of New York magazine on "Tomorrowland"—the Oz-like New York it imagined would exist by 2016.

Therein can be found a headline that reads, "Brooklyn (Like It or Not) Will Get a Shimmering Frank Gehry Crown."

It refers, of course, to the Atlantic Yards project, where somehow no shimmering crowns ever appeared—only plans for a cheesy, college-style fieldhouse, built to house a bad basketball team owned by a mysterious Russian oligarch. In the process, the city—which currently claims to be unable to afford to let schoolchildren ride the subway at half-price—may well have squandered nearly $200 million for the cash-strapped MTA, money it left on the table in its rush to hand the site over to a single mega-developer that ended up flipping the whole project.

Just down the page, in the same New York article, is a mention of another coming attraction in Tomorrowland: the Thor Galleries Tower, in Albee Square.

The real problem here, though, isn't Joe Sitt, or even Mayor Mike, the developers' buddy, but the driving force behind them and so many other mayors and developers over the years. It's a mentality, a secular religion, a form of warped corporate progressivism that insists order and sterility and profit can always be imposed upon the vast creative anarchy of this city.

Down on Coney Island, they know better. They lick their wounds and hope, and await the Zamperlas, who have decided to call their three new acres of amusements "Luna Park," in a welcome acknowledgment of the past. It will even feature the spinning neon crescent moons that used to front the old Luna entrance. The new Luna Park has a 10-year lease, which is also welcome news, since it likely means that no 30-story towers will be going up on Surf Avenue for a while yet.

Joe Sitt is in no hurry. He deplores the way that "all the politics started" over Coney, and mentions no plans for "Phase 2" beyond erecting the low stands along Surf Avenue that he wants to have open by 2011.

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