Last Ride at Astroland

coneyND1.jpgSave Astroland campaigner Brian Gotlieb tries to keep the dream (or at least the swinging pirate ship) alive. Photos by Neil deMause

Yesterday was the official last day of business for Astroland, and supporters of the 45-year-old Coney Island institution turned out in hopes of sparking an 11th-hour reprieve that would keep the park's 23 rides and three game arcades open into 2008. Brian Gotlieb, the former Community Board 13 chair who formed Save Astroland last month, came bearing an estimated 9,000 petition signatures calling on all parties involved to broker a deal; he told the few dozen Coney fans who rallied outside the gates at noon, "The idea behind this is to keep things open until the plans for Astroland's successor are finalized."

coneyND2.jpgThe Hungry March Band entertain last-night parkgoers. Moments later, they would pile onto the Astrotower and ascend to the skies, still playing.

Next behind the bullhorn was Tricia Vita of the Coney Island History Project, who issued a direct plea to Joe Sitt, owner of Astroland's landlord Thor Equities. "Mr. Sitt: You like to think of yourself as Joey Coney Island. You say you want to be a hero. Now's your chance. You can create so much good will by giving Astroland and the businesses on the Boardwalk a one-year lease. That's all we're asking for." The rest of "we" were a bit more in the mood to be demanding: When Coney Island artist and former Rock Steady breakdancer Africasso, whose mashup sculpture of Coney attractions past and present is on display at the History Project booth under the Cyclone, said, "If we had our way, [Astroland] would be open forever and ever," it drew the biggest cheer of the day.

None of this was any surprise. What was unexpected was city Councilmember Dominic Recchia, the only local elected official to have spoken favorably of Sitt's timeshare-hotel plan for the Astroland site, addressed the crowd. Sounding at time like he was auditioning for the job of Sitt's new spokesperson, Recchia said he didn't want to see any "residential" development in the amusement district (bringing the day's second-biggest cheers)—and insisted that Thor had no intention of pursuing the scorched-earth policy that Sitt openly threatened earlier this year. "They have told me with confidence that they don't want to see this piece of land stay vacant," said the councilmember, adding: "One way or another, there will be rides on this property next year."

Recchia also reported that Thor would be willing to meet with Astroland owner Carol Hill Albert to negotiate a new lease. This came as a surprise to Albert, who was at that moment standing a hundred feet away inside the park gates—she hasn't officially endorsed the Save Astroland campaign, though park employees have helped collect signatures. Albert told the Voice that every time her representatives have met with Thor in the last nine months, the developer's offer has remained the same: Agree to a rent hike from her current $190,000 a year to $3 million, or get lost.

Notwithstanding hopes of a last-second deal—several rallyers made reference to Mayor Bloomberg's purchase of the landmark B&B Carousell on the eve of its auction two summers ago—it's looking increasingly likely that nothing is going to get worked out before the Coney Island Development Corporation issues its rezoning plan for the area, probably sometime in October. With all indications being that the rezoning will bar any hi-rise development between the Cyclone and Keyspan Park, Sitt will then face the decision that the Voice outlined last month: Flip his land to another developer, start knocking down buildings to try to scare the city into changing its mind, or take the city's offer to swap Astroland and his other parcels for city-owned land where he would be allowed to build condos.

This uncertain future cast an unsettling mood over what was otherwise a perfect late-summer day at the beach. In the early afternoon, the Coney land wars claimed another victim, as the Zipper ride located on the otherwise-vacant lot owned by Thor between West 12th Street and Stillwell Avenue was loaded onto a flatbed truck and began the long drive to its new home, reportedly at an amusement park in Honduras. (Its neighbor the Spider headed south last week.)

As for Astroland's final night (aside from the kiddie park, which will say open weekends through October 1 to serve the Sukkot holiday crowds), it was a busy one, though not too noticeably different from the usual haphazard cross-section of Brooklyn socioeconomics that would be there on a normal Sunday night. The Hungry March Band danced through the park, lending the air of an especially shambolic wake.

The throngs eventually shuffled off into the night, as Astrostaffers snapped pictures of each other and the camera crews that have taken up residence in recent weeks looked increasingly aimless. Albert walked the grounds, sharing tearful hugs with her employees, some of whom have been with the park for decades.

And then, at 10:48 pm, the operator of the Pirate Ship ushered off his final boatload of riders, declaring, "They never caught me! That's it! There are no more rides at Astroland." A few seconds later, the floodlights snapped off, casting Astroland into sudden darkness. The 50 or so remaining parkgoers went "Ooooh!"—one final thrill, and Astroland was shuttered, if not forever, at least for now.


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