Coney Island's Grand Past and Grim Future

Requiem for a dreamland

"In terms of Coney Island? Coney Island, you can't ask me. You really have to ask the city of New York. We have to follow the city's time card, so to speak," he demurs, citing the lack of adequate sewerage and electricity in the amusement district—another subsidy, apparently, that the taxpayers will be expected to provide. "When the new Coney Island is gonna happen . . . you know, three years, five years . . . or 10 years? So far, they're looking like they're gonna be somewhere closer to 10 years."

There's always another deal somewhere. In an article headlined, "Empty Storefronts Blot Union Square Area," The Wall Street Journal reported last month that "landlords . . . holding out for brand-name tenants and higher rents," were refusing to extend long-term leases to smaller retailers, turning San Francisco's Union Square into a wasteland of empty storefronts.

"It's like a major theme park losing its rides," fretted Joe D'Alessandro of San Francisco's Convention & Visitors Bureau.

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

"I'm very willing to be patient," said one of the leading landlord holdouts, Joe Sitt of Thor Equities.

'It has never been this small—it's never been this vulnerable," Charles Denson worries over the amusement area and the future of the neighborhood. "The city's been trying to get control of Coney Island for about 140 years. And now they've just about succeeded. They've always wanted to have control."

Yet Coney Island has faced worse supervillains. Horrible as the new demolitions will be, nothing permanent will be going up right away, not with the economy still staggering—and 10 years is a long time. Among other potential pitfalls, nobody at Thor or the city seems to have paid much heed to the fact that Coney is essentially a barrier island at a time when scientists almost universally expect global warming to bring rapidly rising sea levels. In what could be Coney's ultimate revenge, all those marvelous towers could make a lovely reef.

"I think the island is both welcoming and malicious. I think it'll thwart them in some way," says Richard Snow, who remembers seeing the remnants of the foundation holes dug for the great Friede Globe Tower, still visible into the 1970s. "I think I know enough about Coney to say that it won't work out the way anybody's saying it will."

They're opening up again at Ruby's Bar & Grill and all around the boardwalk, willing to give it a try for another summer, and then another, and see what happens. This is how it has always been. The tribute to Master, the Whompa! Man (given name: Genaoro Venegas Rivera) climaxes with a brief display of his portrait painted on Ruby's metal shutter—the most truthful artist's rendering that has been drawn down at Coney Island for a long, long time. Ruby's house band—a guitar, a pair of bongo drums, and three women backup singers—breaks into a new number, a simple song with the chorus repeated over and over: "We love Coney Island! We love Coney Island!"

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