Coney Island of the Mind: Big Thinkers Consider Coney, Offer Depressing Ideas


video polaroidchio, music Lou Reed, h/t Kinetic Carnival

The Center for an Urban Future has issued “Coney Island Visions,” in which a bunch of local big-brains are interviewed about the future of the ancient seaside playground, which has suffered from the attentions of developers in recent years.

We’ve summarized their offerings below, and we must say we found the job dispiriting. In general, the brainstormers play to form: the futurists like new things, the nostalgists like the past, and the planners like jargon. Nearly everyone is hot to have things “mixed” — that is, have the poor and the privileged equally enjoy the place — but few see that one of the pleasures of Coney is that it is for the poor, and reminds us all that the joys of city life are not contingent upon accommodations with the upscale. For all their unquestionably good intentions, most of the respondents have already submitted, whether grudgingly or enthusiastically, to the baleful idea that Coney can’t be what it is because powerful people say so.

Motherless Brooklyn author Jonathan Lethem: While “tattoo and mermaid nostalgia stuff is nice,” Coney was always about the cutting edge of “science and innovation… incubator babies were invented there.” Disdains “vapid slickness” of local redevelopment ideas, but suggests maybe the Nets stadium deal be moved there.

Video game developer Eric Zimmerman: Thinks the “amusement park model” isn’t “as deeply participatory as it could be,” Says people want an “interactive relationship with the media,” e.g. a “visual scavenger hunt” using “camera phones,” in which players “‘assassinate’ other players.”

Urban Planner Alex Garvin: Would like to “find today’s P.T. Barnum” (Dick Zigun doesn’t qualify?). Thinks a “real water-front transportation system” would be good for Coney Island, though he admits to traveling an hour by subway as a boy to get to Coney.

Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 author Mike Wallace: Notes in early days “raunchiness” drove Coney traffic; “you shot the moon” because after grinding workweeks “there was basically nobody overseeing you.” But today “Disneyland is the single most popular tourist destination on earth.” Doesn’t want a “reified,” nostalgic Coney. Says “talk to Vietnamese, Ecuadorian, Pakistani immigrants” and meet their needs; keep it cheap.

Coney Island: The People’s Playground author Michael Immerso: Don’t make it “a seaside mall.” Wants a new pier, a wider boardwalk; make Coney contiguous “from Asser Levy Park and Child’s Restaurant” and have “venues for dining and dancing overlooking the ocean.” Have “rides and traditional amusements in enclosed pavilions” including a “glass-sheathed Mermaid Pavilion.” Run ferries from Manhattan. Have the Aquarium integrate a ride that “evokes the Steeplechase Racetrack but with an aquatic theme.”

Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen CEO Lars Leibst: Thinks “it’s a shame that it looks like what it looks like.” Doesn’t like current plan, which “getting smaller and smaller” — we must “think big.” Likes a new pier and ferries. Favors “beautiful beach hotels” like in Santa Monica — “Don’t be afraid of going upscale” — and importing music, ballet and theatre from Manhattan.

Chelsea Market developer Irwin Cohen: Rezone “everything from the bay” to the amusement parks and bring in “new businesses making food and crafts” — make it an “all-year-round marketplace,” which will also create jobs. Revive bakeries, make Coney “the fish preparation center for New York City.” Make it also “a university without school rooms” where artisans develop skills e.g. glass-blowing or circus.

Dreamland Roller Rink founder Dianna Carlin: Zoning should “require a certain number of small storefronts for every larger chain store” to encourage “creative businesses.” Amusement park should “make the music video world of MTV come alive” and “pair visual and musical artists, like Matthew Barney and Bjork.”

Slackonomics author Lisa Chamberlain: Coney needs more than local patronage; likes “an express train from Times Square” and using “urban agriculture” in a “razzle dazzle” way. Also, bring the Aquarium “into the 21st Century.”

City College Graduate Urban Design Program’s Michael Sorkin: Wants to “restore Coney Island to its subversive, quasi-outlaw, quirky, individual, raffish qualities,” in defiance of “real estate interests.”

New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger: Reminisces.

Dreamland: A Novel author Kevin Baker: Appeal to “people of mixed incomes.” Make it “honky-tonk but still a safe place to bring your family.” Likes the current “nice pastiche.”

Big Apple Circus director Gary Dunning: It can’t only be “downscale of the downscale”; likes Tivoli Gardens and what Disney did with the New Amsterdam Theatre, but thinks the Sideshow stuff “has its place.” Big Apple has had discussion with Coney developers, but their approach “is that they were treating us like a commercial entity, which we are not.” Still wouldn’t mind coming, though “historically the carnivals and the circuses never really got along.”

Red Hook developer Greg O’Connell: Wants to keep it inexpensive. Wants more, not fewer amusements. If “you don’t have money, you can still walk down to the boardwalk, sit on a bench, watch all kinds of people go by.”

Metropolis editor Martin Pedersen: Coney “may be the last authentic place in the city,” but is “down on its heels.” Suggests “more and newer rides.”

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk president Charles Canfield: “You need to really upgrade it to a high level and you can theme it a little bit on the old”; maybe add indoor amusements like “a nice bowling center.”

Brooklyn College sociology professor Sharon Zukin: Wants priority for local food vendors, like the ones from the Red Hook ball fields and “Chinese vendors from Sunset Park,” but also wants to bring in “new entertainment technology” and “media development labs” and a branch of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Coney Island: Lost and Found author Charles Denson: Says city liaison Lynn Kelly and the EDC made “mistakes,” spurned the “amusement community” which sent “a message to the landowners.” Also, the planned high-rise condos would create “a picket fence of sight lines.” Regrets that “Bloomberg has put landmarking on hold in the neighborhood.” Wants to bring back the Steeplechase Pavilion.

Dwell editor-in-chief Karrie Jacobs: Worries that “one big amusement operator” in going to turn it into “something big and new and shiny.” Likes the Grand Central food court model for keeping “some connection to New York” (!), hopes “creative people and entertainment people are still a part of the picture.”

Fresh Kills Park project designer Ellen Neises: Wants to keep it “urban, mixed, fanciful and loose,” suggests we “draw a contemporary landscape fabric from the neighborhoods and subway stops out to the beach” and other urban-plannish things.

The Politics of Public Space author Setha Low: Wants a “cultural center” where “art, folklore, song, or important, iconic places are represented.” Or a “neighborhood center that highlights the diversity of neighborhoods.”

Enviromental designer Michael Singer: “How are the birds participating in this place? The wind? The sunlight and moonlight? How is plant life participating here? I’d give them an equal role with the other program needs… What are the needs of, say, a hawk that lives there.”

Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development co-founder Ron Shiffman: Like Lethem, favors bringing the Nets here. Doesn’t want to “separate people from the ocean.” Wants to keep it from being “screened and sanitized,” but is “not hopeful.”