Places that Matter

Coney Island

click on image for slideshow
Cyclone, Chester Burger
Cyclone, Chester Burger
Hazel Hankin
Martha Cooper
Martha Cooper
Martha Cooper
Surf Avenue; Chester Burger
Coney Island Wonder Wheel; Beth Higgins, 2007
Wonder Wheel Sign, Historic Information; Beth Higgins, 2007
Astroland, Astroland sign and Wonder Wheel; Beth Higgins, 2007
Astroland Burger Boy; Beth Higgins, 2007
Mermaid Parade 2006, Johanna & Katrin, Beth Higgins 2006, Beth Higgins
Mermaid Parade, Sea horses, Beth HIggins 2006, Beth Higgins
Pauline Seng, 2009
Kia Benbow, 2009
Kia Benbow, 2009
Legendary seaside boardwalk, beach and center for entertainment
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Place Matters Profile

Coney Island today comprises one hundred acres of beachfront, two miles of boardwalk, gaping lots where rides and amusements once flourished, and the lively ghosts of the millions who, for a hundred fifty years, came here for fun. These ghosts still beckon people to the faded honky-tonk kingdom that used to be called "the World's Playground."

Step off the subway into the light-filled, renovated Stillwell Avenue station, cross Surf Avenue, and you'll understand what historian Elliot Willensky meant when he said in the documentary Coney Island, "where land and water meet, wonderful things always happen." At the intersection of Stillwell and Surf, Nathan's announces itself with gaudy signs and a whiff of grease that mingles with the sea breeze. Turning left on Surf, you'll walk the dividing line between bedraggled urban renewal houses and rundown furniture stores and, across the street, all that's left of Coney's flash and funk: bumper cars, raucous arcades, cotton candy. Housed in a former Child's Restaurant, the brightly bannered Sideshows by the Seashore is a combination freak show (contortionists! fire-eaters! Jackie the Human Tripod!) and shrine to the past, presided over by Dick Zigun, the founder of Coney Island USA. A genial, visionary entrepreneur, Zigun has since 1980 fought to stall Coney's decay and at the same time fend off the city's sporadic impulses to "Disneyfy" the place.

So what remains here? There's nothing left of the Golden Age when Dreamland, Luna Park and Steeplechase Park dazzled pleasure-seekers with dreams and amusements they'd never imagined. The bathhouses and old-time restaurants are long gone, and the rides of the 1940s and 1950s disappeared one by one. Astroland's Kiddie Park hung on until the summer of 2009. But you can still ride on the Wonder Wheel and, of course, the fabled Cyclone roller coaster, rattling and plunging down its wooden slats, and sounding as if it will shake itself apart at any moment. Walk up a ramp on to the Boardwalk and, if the beach is crowded, conjure up the famous 1940 Weegee photograph that shows people on top of people, no room to sit, the sand barely visible through the crowds. Across the wooden slats there's the expansive and magnificent beach, the soothing sounds of waves and the squawky seagulls sent into a feeding frenzy with every stray morsel of discarded junk food from the amusement park. 

On your right, there's an empty lot where the wreck of the Thunderbolt roller coaster once stood, with the former Kensington Hotel (the "House under the Roller Coaster," famously seen in Annie Hall) nestled underneath it. May Timpano and Fred Moran lived there for more than forty years, with the coaster rattling their living room and tilting all the pictures with each ride. The Thunderbolt and the house were illegally razed by the Giuliani administration in 2000.

Soaring gracefully over beach, boardwalk and decay is the landmark Parachute Jump, moved here from the 1939-1940 World's Fair and originally developed as a training simulator for the military. Next to it stands the grand new Cyclones minor-league baseball stadium, with its stunning ocean view. The ballpark opened in 2001; already wildly successful, it may hold the key to a new future for Coney Island. There are hopeful signs at last. In the summer of 2009, after years of inconclusive wrangling between the city and assorted developers, the city council approved a detailed plan to incorporate what remains of Coney's delights into a "vibrant year-round 27-acre urban amusement and entertainment district." The wider surrounding area is earmarked for hotels, housing and shopping malls - which has caused some dismay among connoisseurs of honky-tonk.

Still the old Coney vibe remains strong. The city bought the wonderful B&B Carousell (sic), which graced Surf Avenue for 73 years. Once restored, it will be moved, complete with its brass ring, to the new park, close to the Parachute Jump. Carol Albert, owner of Astroland, has announced that she has every piece of her rides in storage - "every sign, every lightbulb, every screw, every banner" - waiting to return. And in the summer of 2009, the Dreamland Bell was pulled from the ocean intact. Three feet tall and weighing five hundred pounds, it was made in 1895 and stood on the pier to greet the arriving steamboats with their cargo of merrymakers. During the catastrophic 1911 fire that destroyed Dreamland Park and its pier, the bell fell into the sea and was buried in mud for close to a century. No word yet as it its new resting place, but it would be a real mistake to rule out Coney Island. (December, 2009)