Photo (c) Robert Schaffer.
Dick Zigun is the artistic director of Coney Island USA. His Sideshows by the Seashore not only features the last “10 in One” sideshow, but showcases burlesque, houses a museum, and plays hosts to many events, including the Coney Island Film Festival, and is the headquarters of the Mermaid Parade, which Zigun helped create. He’s been a Coney resident for over 30 years, a tireless Coney enthusiast — “the place where the hot dog, the roller coaster, and soft ice cream was invented,” he proclaims — and advocate for its interests, and has long been considered its unofficial mayor.
I recently met wet with Zigun to discuss the future of Coney Island. First I asked him how a kid from Bridgeport, Connecticut wound up in Coney.
“I got out of grad school in 1979,” he told me, “and I was hanging out in L.A., and I got influenced by this play, ‘Kid Twist’ which took place in Coney, so I came to New York. Where else could I go with two degrees in theater but New York? I started checking out neighborhoods, Tribeca, South Street Seaport, even Times Square, and I had this wacky idea to check out loft spaces in Coney Island, found something I liked, signed a lease in 1979, spent months renovating it. And then it burned down.”
Which seems an appropriate introduction to the old Coney. I asked Zigun what he thinks of the new plans for the old neighborhood. His response was mixed, but leaning toward the optimistic.
“It’s funny,” he said, “what I was afraid of in ’79 is happening now. Talk about being 10 years ahead of your time, I was 30 years ahead, in thinking I had to grab my chunk of real estate before gentrification gobbled it up. But for about 20, 25 years Coney was the neighborhood time forgot, and suddenly the forces of gentrification are here. Thor Equities snatched up Astroland, the city is now buying properties, and Coney is on the cusp of major change.
“But I’m now well situated, I had a 30-year head start! We own the Sideshows building, no mortgage. It guarantees, that with the changes, the Sideshow, the Mermaid Parade, the Museum and burlesque will also be here.”
I asked Zigun if Coney should change.
“You can’t stay with the status quo, because the status quo is, Coney Island is already broken. Before the rezoning in July, some 60 acres were zoned for amusements, but only 12 were actively in use. There was too much glass-strewn landfill, empty properties that’s not really historic Coney Island, and that’s a neighborhood that’s broken…”
Photo (cc) mikesalibaphoto.
But though Zigun has been at the forefront of efforts that got the Wonder Wheel, the Cyclone, and Childs Restaurant landmarked (and are now turned toward getting the Shore Theater and other Coney treasures the same status), he doesn’t want the place preserved in amber.
“To answer the question: Yes, Coney has to change, has to rebuild. It’s just a question, will it be done the right way or the wrong way? The Mayor started with a pretty good quality plan that I supported, but then they watered down the plan, which is when I resigned from the Development Corporation. For all the fighting and screaming, we didn’t lose everything, we had an influence. The Mayor’s plan originally had 15 acres for amusements, got shrunk to nine; now it’s up to twelve-and-a-half acres. So we did win something for the years of screaming.”
He has no problem with building hotels at Coney. “They do need to build hotels, hotels are fine, tourism is fine, it all depends where you put them. It was reasonable… to want [the hotels] on the North side of Surf Avenue instead of the South. This is not an unreasonable request, but we lost that fight…
“The question is, if you’re going to rebuild world-famous Coney Island — New York’s amusement park Coney Island — and you want it to be a world-class tourist attraction, for locals as well as for those who visit from out of town, is it going to be big enough? With the limited space, they’re jamming too much into the core areas, including hotels, so it’s a shame they didn’t move the hotels across the street.”
(Although the city has a history of messing things up, consider the South Street Seaport: They at least preserved a lot of the buildings on the area, which Zigun would like to be seen done in Coney as well.)
Zigun reiterated that he was fond of the Mayor’s first plan, and only protested strongly when the city backed off from it.
“I’m not going to condemn the current plan, it’s better than empty lots. For the city to buy back half of Thor’s properties, and to issue the RFP to new amusement operators, and to offer a 10-year lease to bring in new rides this May, I’m all for it, and I can’t wait for this to get going… aside from thinking the hotels should be elsewhere. But one hotel, especially if it had an indoor water park, would be a good thing. I’d also like to see nightclubs, theaters, restaurants, because that all helps bring an audience, makes for a good tourist neighborhood.
“The problem with Thor Equities’ history is that they’re brilliant at getting into an area first, assembling properties, putting together block-size development sites — but they’re more likely to flip properties than develop them, so it’s a hugely speculative as to whether they will actually build a hotel, or any building that amusements, restaurants, and the like could move into.
“If Thor is going to do it, I’d like to see him break ground yesterday. If they’re not going to do it, I hope they flip the property to somebody else who does it tomorrow.”
He also had some specific ideas for improving the Coney landscape.
“The main problem is that if all the development happens, there’s a limited amount of space, though there is a plan to build a pier for ferry service. If you make that an amusement pier, you can move some entertainment out into the water. That’s a good way to solve the space problem.
Photo (cc) vanz.
“The important thing is to get the good things in the city’s plan started, like the twelve-and-a-half acres of city-owned amusements, building the platform around the parachute jump, which will have new lights, re-installing the carousel, which is being restored, into a new building. And as this happens, we can increase the pressure to increase space to build new amusements.”
Zigun says there are “still battles to fight,” and he’s realistic about his chances. “Coney Island USA has six landmark hearings coming up. I don’t expect to get all six, but if we could get at three or four, I’d be delighted… [then,] if you have a new neighborhood, you’ll still have the Cyclone, the Wonder Wheel, Nathan’s, the Sideshow, and the old Shore theater, to give some sense that this is a historic amusement park, rather than being indistinguishable from something on the highway in New Jersey, something homogenized and suburbanized.”
Zigun hopes the city moves quickly to bring amusements to the area — by May, the start of the season, if possible. He blames news outlets for sending out the message that “Coney Island is dead” after the closing of Astroland, so all people know about Coney is that it doesn’t exist anymore.
“The presence of new rides in 2010 would do much to counter that belief… for the first time in a decade, there’s going to be an air show. The Mermaid Parade continues, but there will also be major new rides… The worst thing would be for nothing to happen.”