photos by Neil deMause
Last year as Astroland’s summer season came to an end, supporters of the fabled Coney Island amusement park rallied outside the gates to demand that it remain open. This year, not so much: When the gates went up for Astroland’s final day yesterday morning, there was just a small crowd of families and curiosity seekers, who quickly fanned out with their cameras and ride tickets in hand.
The mood was very different this year, and for good reason. As park owner Carol Hill Albert announced on Thursday, the 46-year-old amusement park, which opened on the site of the old Feltman’s beer garden back when the Parachute Jump was still in working order, has run out of lives. Next year, in all likelihood, the space between the Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel will be an empty lot.
Thursday’s announcement was the culmination of a year-long standoff between Albert and developer Joe Sitt’s Thor Equities, to whom Albert grudgingly sold the land beneath the amusement park for $30 million in 2006. Last month, Albert said she needed a new lease for 2009 by August 22 or she’d have to close up shop; 13 days beyond that deadline, saying Thor had continued to rebuff all her attempts to negotiate, she pulled the plug. Asked yesterday if she’d reconsider her decision if Sitt had an 11th-hour change of heart, she replied: “No way. I’m done.”
Those who’d fought for two years to keep Astroland open seemed stunned at the finality, even if none could say they didn’t see it coming. “It’s a sad, sad day,” said Brian Gotlieb, the founder of Save Astroland. Dianna “Lola Staar” Carlin, who helped lead last year’s protests, was yesterday handing out cards headed “The Tragic Closing of Astroland Isn’t The End of Coney Island!!”
“I feel like things are just more desperate now,” said Carlin, noting that she and other shopkeepers along the boardwalk also haven’t heard from their landlord Thor about leases for 2008. “Are we the last ones standing, or are we going to be the next victims?”
For Charles Denson, the Coney native who’s penned two books on the neighborhood and now leads the Coney Island History Project, Astroland’s closing brought to mind how, when he was 12 years old, he wrote to Steeplechase Park owner Marie Tilyou begging that that Coney institution remain open. “It was really a momentous turning point in Coney Island history,” he said, while on his way to open the History Project’s new exhibit on the early years of Astroland. (The History Project closed yesterday along with the park, but is scheduled to return next spring in its location beneath the Cyclone, which Albert will continue to run under a lease with the city.) “She felt she had to close it, because of the housing projects coming in. This is like a repeat of the ’60s.”
Albert, he noted, tried to get a revitalized Astroland incorporated into the city’s rezoning plans before selling out to Thor, but was rebuffed in favor of a wholesale redevelopment proposal for the entire neighborhood. “The city didn’t just come in and say, ‘Let’s fix the vacant lots.’ They do this scorched earth policy.”
The somber overtones aside, it was a deceptively normal day at Astroland, with the sun shining and the kiddie rides filled as usual with kids insisting they were too 42 inches tall and could ride by themselves. There was the familiar blare of bad pop music over tinny speakers, the “Pop!” marking another winner in the water balloon races, the screams of the riders on the (as far as anyone knows, nameless) pirate ship ride. The only sign that anything was amiss was a park employee selling surplus “Astroland Staff” hats and t-shirts out of a shopping cart — that, and the fact that the tent covers on the kiddie rides had been removed, presaging the dismantling of the park that could begin as early as today and will be complete no later than January.
Over at the Kiddie Himalaya ride, meanwhile, one operator was going off-script: “I don’t want no shopping malls here!” she shouted while switching her young charges from forward to reverse. “I don’t want no, whattayacallit, condos. You have to fight, fight for what you believe in!”
Nine o’clock was the designated hour for the park’s demise, and as the final minutes ticked away, more cameras came out, with no hand-painted sign or underpowered incandescent light bulb too obscure to be captured for posterity. (One enterprising cameraman was spotted studiously videotaping a clown-shaped garbage can.) The crowd, though, showed no sign of thinning out, even as the deadline passed.
Finally, a little after 11, Albert herself got on the PA to make the announcement everyone was waiting for, but no one wanted to hear: “Astroland guests, please begin moving toward Surf Avenue. We are closing the park. Thank you very much for coming, and we’re sorry we have to start closing now.” At 11:28, a few dozen stragglers watched as Astroland’s gates slid shut for the final time.
What comes next, no one knows. Thor has promised to bring in more amusements next summer, but its track record after a similar promise this year was less than stellar: a few battered county fair rides, which closed up shop for lack of interest by August. Conspiracy theorists — and in Coney, there’s no other kind — fear that Thor’s master plan is to bring in an amusement operator that’s set up to fail, and then appear to the city for a hardship variance from the zoning rules, on the grounds this proves that Coney is only fit for condos.
Still, historian Denson said he’s hopeful that Coney is resilient enough to outlast a few more nails in its coffin. “Coney Island will survive in some form,” he said. “The war’s not over yet.” During arguments with city officials about the much-hated rezoning plan, he recalled, “a few times, [Economic Development Corporation project manager] Nate Bliss said to me, ‘You want vacant lots here?’ And I said, ‘As long as there’s vacant lots, there’s hope.'”