Childs’ is now a roller rink. It’s pretty cool. Everything else sucks.
After last weekend’s false start, Joe Sitt’s Festival By The Sea finally kicked off this weekend, giving Coney Island visitors a chance to see what $2.5 million buys.
And the answer is: Lots of balloons and “Welcome!” banners, but not so much in the way of festivities.
Of the two lots where aluminum tent supports had been set up — still sans tents, thanks to a disagreement with city safety inspectors — the one on the west side of Stillwell Avenue was completely vacant; on the east, a couple dozen vendors had set up their own mini-tents under the bare metal structure, giving the Festival the appearance of a street fair in search of a street.
A DJ blasting dance music (later supplanted by a salsa band), meanwhile, provided the “entertainment” that’s supposed to grant Sitt’s festival an aura of legality after past Coney flea markets were evicted for violating zoning laws.
The flea marketeers who did show up seemed pleased with the seaside atmosphere, despite a fairly meager customer turnout. “I enjoy pickles, and selling pickles, so here I am selling pickles!” exulted Pickle Pete, who has previously shopped his wares at Long Beach and points east. Nearby, a headband dealer by the name of David said he much preferred Coney to his usual market on the Upper West Side: “There’s a lot more attractions, whereas there we seemed to be pulling from the same customer base of locals,” though he also hoped the real tents would arrive soon. “I keep looking at this framework up above my head and thinking, what a waste of time to put this up if you’re not going to cover it,” he said, then rolled up his sleeve to show off a vivid tan line: “This is just since Friday.”
On Sitt’s other property two blocks east, a few additional rides had been added — including some inflatable kiddie slides and a Scrambler matching the one that departed with Astroland last fall — courtesy of Geren Rides, which ran last summer’s temporary ride concession on what’s now the flea market site. (Last year’s Ring of Fire is back, in fact, and was similarly unattended.)
A nearby food cart offers delicacies such as deep-fried Pop Tarts &mdash $4 for one, $7 for two, though the notion of anyone consuming two would likely make Tom Frieden glad he’s leaving town. And the World’s Largest Rat has apparently taken up residence — it’ll cost you two dollars to find out — though the recorded spiel is free.
Elsewhere in Coney, there are a handful of other new arrivals. The boardwalk storefronts have proven remarkably recession-proof, with a Pio Pio Riko (helpfully subtitled “The House of the Best Peruvian Chicken”) taking the place of the old Astroland beachfront arcade, while a fresh lemonade stand has replaced Lola Staar’s boutique, now displaced to Fort Greene. Lola herself, aka Dianna Carlin, is again running her Dreamland roller-skating rink in the landmarked Childs building (weekends only); next door, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus is prepping its one-ring “Boom-a-Ring” exhibition that will run from mid-June though Labor Day.
Out on Surf Avenue, meanwhile, Sideshows by the Seashore jefe Dick Zigun could be found, gloating only a little over the lack of zing on his nemesis Sitt’s big opening day. “I hope you’re reporting on the disaster!” he cried by way of greeting. Some of the Geren rides, he said, might turn out okay, but as for the flea market: “No press conference, no Joe Sitt, no Red Hook food vendors. If the Red Hook food vendors were there, I’d be eating lunch there!”
Of course, all this was (pardon the expression, Dick) sideshow, as the real verdict on the future of Coney will be decided this summer far from the beach. The first important date is June 26, the deadline by which the City Planning Commission must report back with its revised version of the rezoning plan that the city announced for Coney last spring (and which Zigun and other locals immediately decried as a sellout). Then, by August 14, the city council must vote on whether to approve the plan — something that’s less than 100% certain given Coney’s wild-card (in every sense of the word “wild”) councilmember Domenic Recchia, who has at various times declared himself an ally of Sitt, of amusement operators, of the community board, and of seemingly every other faction this side of the Tamil Tigers.
And even if the council approves Mayor Bloomberg’s rezoning plan, Coney’s years-long roller coaster may not be over: Not only are groups like the Municipal Art Society dissing the city’s preference for a single ride operator to oversee a reconfigured amusement district, but the state legislature still needs to sign off on the parkland swap that is at the heart of the mayor’s plans — without which Sitt can’t be bought out, and the rezoning likely falls apart.
All that, though, will likely wait for August. In the meantime, the Festival will be back next weekend, hopefully along with what was its most entertaining element: A Sitt-produced four-page festival guide that consists mostly of appeals for vendors and “Your Ad Here” placeholders. Its centerpiece: an entertainment schedule listing with details entirely consisting of “Friday: 3 DJ Sets. Saturday: 3 DJ Sets, Band, Band,” and so on — with the added caveat, “*subject to change without notice.” Flea markets are hard, but unintentional comedy is easy.
[Editor’s note: We also dropped by Coney on Saturday and took in the Festival. Not being the fair-minded journalist that Neil is, we will say that it blew. A bunch of middle-aged guys who were not Kiss played “Rock and Roll All Nite” for their dozen friends as vendors tried to look busy. Depressing. Meanwhile the boardwalk and Nathan’s were packed.]