Here is how you can show people that electricity is safe and wonderful: Go to an amusement park, find a live elephant, murder it with 6,600 volts of electricity, and then film the whole thing for posterity.
This is exactly what Thomas Edison did to Topsy 104 years ago in Coney Island’s Luna Park, a few blocks from Totonno’s, where I am currently sitting, shoving pizza into my mouth. Totonno’s, whose tin walls are adorned with vintage boxing memorabilia, has been at this location since 1924, which means it was open for business even as Luna Parka fabled fairyland whose architecture was based, believe it or not, on a romantic conception of Baghdad—was welcoming throngs of google-eyed daytrippers.
To my shame, I haven’t experienced Coney much lately, unless you count the three times I’ve watched the 1928 Speedy, in which Harold Lloyd romances his girlfriend in Luna Park, on Turner Classic Movies. The truth is, I haven’t been here for decades—not since my 18th birthday, when my boyfriend, who was a member of the Progressive Labor Party, or the International Socialists, or some such group , took a moment out from leaflet-writing to convince me to ride the Cyclone. (So terrifying was this experience that I have rarely been on a ride since.)
But all this development talk—condos, or a hotel, or even that dreaded entity, the upscale seaside shopping mall, are set to soar over the boardwalk in the next few yearsand the doleful warning that this is the last summer when even the faded, paltry vestiges of Coney’s glory days will be visible, have impelled me to come out here and take a look around before it’s too late.
The older something is, the better I like it, which is why I start at Totonno’s, though the restaurant is actually far younger than so many of the Coney Island attractions I wish I could see: the Elephant Hotel—an actual seven-story tin-skinned pachyderm with a cigar shop in one hoof and the Atlantic visible through windows in the eyes (it burned down in 1896); or Dreamland, where the aquarium now stands, which until 1911 offered a miniature village built to resemble a 15th-century Nuremberg and populated by 300 midgets.
The elephants and midgets have vanished without a trace. In their stead, Totonno’s now finds itself a stone’s throw from the boarded-up Terminal Hotel (even in its heyday not exactly the Plaza Athénée, one suspects) and several memorial street murals in honor of local residents cut down long before their time. After I pay the check—a small pizza, a beer, and two Cokes add up to an astonishing $29—I walk a few blocks to the boardwalk, where I immediately see something I’d buy if I had deep pockets and a loft: the disintegrating carcass of a rocket ship that reads “Astroland Park” across its fuselage, sure to be on the auction block any day now.
Will the new Coney Island have a fetid alleyway suitable for “Shoot the Freak”a game whose gleeful sadism provides a concrete link to what was considered wholesome fun in the early years of the last century? (No freak in residence today, as it turns out—maybe the developers have shot him already.)
Along the boardwalk, there are frequent markers telling you what beautiful old building formally occupied the site: In 1829, you could have checked into the Coney Island House hotel; a Howard Johnson graced the spot in 1940; in 1923, an event called the Baby Parade, where infants rode in decorated carriages, took place right where you’re standing.
You can be sure the new developers aren’t planning any Baby Parade. In fact, it’ll be a miracle if the Mermaid Parade can hang on, though the legendary Dick Zigun—who is almost single-handedly responsible for the landmark status that now protects the Parachute Jump, the Wonder Wheel, and the Cyclone, who runs the Coney Island sideshow (the last one in the USA!) and the Coney Island Museum (he’s got that film of Topsy’s execution) and who first thought up the Mermaid Parade—insists that it’s not in danger.
You might think Zigun would be full of unmitigated hatred for the developers, but you would be wrong. “There’s a lot of bad information getting out,” he says as we sit at a red-and-yellow picnic table, within earshot of the museum’s barker extolling acts like Insectavora and the Twisted Shockmeister. “I am not nostalgic at all about empty lots, furniture stores, and bus-parking lots. If the developers are going to build nightclubs and restaurants and rides, I’m all for it. What’s wrong with having a 21st-century amusement park?”
“But what about Ruby’s?” I ask. “Ruby’s is closing. Ruby’s and Cha Cha’s they will rip down,” Zigun says flatly and with an alarming lack of sympathy. Actually, this is devastating news—who doesn’t love a place like Ruby’s, a boardwalk institution with a soused clientele sitting on dilapidated couches in the back, and thousands of photos of summers past plastered behind the bar? After all, you can buy an $18 mojito in a swanky lounge anywhere in the country, but a beer and an ear of corn within view of the ocean is an increasingly rare and fragile pleasure.
Whatever you think of Zigun’s accommodation to the situation, he’s certainly a walking encyclopedia of Coney Island lore: that grinning, goofy face you see out here on everything from billboards to the clock behind the bar at the museum? The 1897 logo of Steeplechase Park. The haunting terracotta wreck way down on the boardwalk? A Child’s restaurant that closed in 1946 (landmarked). “One of the developers has plans to restore it, add a roof deck and reopen it as a restaurant,” Zigun says. Express skepticism and Zigun loses patience. “Look, the Cyclone will be here, and the Wonder Wheel and the Parachute Jump, and the museum and the sideshow.” Sure, but will they be surrounded by Red Lobster and Claire’s Accessories stores?
In any case, not everyone thinks Zigun and his empire of freaks is so peachy. By chance, I run into Manny Cohen, who is (shall we say) more than a little skeptical of the developers and their big plans. Cohen is puffing on a cigar outside his own empire, the Coney Island Arcade. “Oh, you talked to the traitor?” he chuckles, nodding in the direction of the sideshow. Cohen has nothing but contempt for the developers: “They’re gonna privatize the beach! This used to be a poor people’s paradise!” He’s says he’s sure that the developers must be buying a new museum space for Zigun because, as Cohen so eloquently puts it, “he doesn’t have a pot to pee in.”
Loving a feud, but feeling that events may overtake this one rapidly, I stroll back to the boardwalk. Near Keyspan Stadium—it’s supposedly a lot of fun to watch the Cyclones play here, even if the exterior adds nothing to the landscape—is a weedy, empty lot that once held the Thunderbolt, the roller coaster with the house under it where Alvy Singer lived in Annie Hall. The house, along with the coaster itself, was destroyed without warning in November 2000, in a surprise demolition under the direction of Mayor Giuliani.
It wasn’t the first time the house was threatened: In 1926, owner George Moran hired a famous roller-coaster designer to build the Thunderbolt. The house was saved that time by running the ride’s steel supports right through the building; Moran went on to live under the roller coaster for more than 40 years. Asked why he went to such trouble to save the house, Moran purportedly said, “You don’t tear down buildings in Coney Island if you can help it.”