Last Summer at Coney Island

The operative phrase in the title Last Summer at Coney Island is “last summer”. The picture on the poster above says it all. As I write this, the vacant lot shown above contains not a puddle but a thriving, packed amusement park. The movie therefore misleads us before we even enter the cinema, then continues to mislead and befog us for another couple of hours, before attempting to tack a little truth and wisdom on to its last five minutes. It looks very much like the director recognized the obsolesence of his film when it was nearly done, and was obligated by events to insert a few inconvenient facts that just happen to discredit the few intelligible points his film tries to make.

What are those points? Well let’s start with the popular, almost universal misconception, fueled by a gleeful media, that THIS IS THE END OF CONEY ISLAND. Ironic to report, some people (maybe most people) live for Apocalypse. But it turns out that rumors of Coney Island’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Phoenixes do not die. The question is, what will it be in its next incarnation and how do we make that happen?

Coney Island has had at least three major phases during its life as a resort: first, as a long strip of hotels, casinos and racetracks for decades in the late 19th century (no one ever mentions that in the current debate); then a heyday of great amusement parks compromising the first half of the twentieth century; then for several decades, a sort of blighted urban slum around and about the ruin of the old amusement parks and the fragments that remained.

So let’s get something straight. For the most part, apart from its spirit, there is very little in Coney Island to “preserve”. We can talk about resurrecting its glory days, of reviving its greatness, but this weird paranoia that we’re going to “lose Coney Island” has been nothing if not perplexing to me. Most of the parts that are left and worth preserving ARE preserved. The Cyclone, Deno’s Wonder Wheel and the Parachute Jump are all landmarked, so they’re not going anywhere. Coney Island USA (best known for its sideshow, which is only a couple of decades old but is truly the spiritual home of Coney Island’s amusement days) now owns its own building, so THAT’S not going anywhere. B & B  Carousell was bought by Mayor Bloomberg and is going to be installed in a new pavilion near the Parachute Jump — so THAT’S not going anywhere. So during the brouhaha of “last summer” (and the summers leading up to it) the only real question was the disposition of Astro Land, and that is the real crux of director J.L. Aronson’s rather jumbled, incoherent film. In fact, he would have done better to call this movie  Last Summer at Astro Land, and STILL better to restrict his storytelling to that aspect of the story. As it is now, he hasn’t decided (at least not in his film) whether he’s telling a story about the future of Coney Island or the death of its youngest amusement park.  This mania about preserving Astro Land, which was a decidedly depressing, down-at-the-heels, county fair sort of midway, given all the potential for possible other, fabulous, gleaming, state-of-the-art attractions and amusements, was nothing short of amazing to me. Astro Land (est. 1962) does NOT date from the heyday of the great amusement parks. What vitality it possessed already died during the Johnson administration. What on EARTH were its virtues?  A lot of what I hear is the same sort of idiocy that went on surrounding the Times Square re-development. A certain romanticization of garbage. The bemoaning of “Disneyfication” and the dire presence of Applebees, and wistful longing for the days of crackheads, muggings, and dirty old men in trench coats. These poets of filth are generally well-heeled hipsters who live a safe distance away from the squalor, in Williamsburg and Park Slope. A couple of them make their appearance in Aronson’s film. “I love the gorgeous grunginess,” says one. “It’s like Atlantic City without the money,” quips the other. Everyone laughs. Yes, yes, very cool. Well, you know what? Where I come from, the phrase “without the money” is — quite literally — catastrophic. There IS tragedy at Coney Island and it ALREADY HAPPENED. 40 years ago! These chowderheads who show up to Coney Island once a year at the Mermaid Parade are just slumming spectators enjoying the seedy atmosphere; meanwhile its somebody else’s living hell. Okay, so let’s face it, one of the loudest, most widespread opinions about what the future of Coney Island should be is a moronic view held by stunted pubescents — that the place ought to be a perpetual location for re-makes of The Warriors, a place where it’s “charming” that our children dig up used condoms and broken Smirnoff’s bottles on the beach, hooligans piss in public, and junkies sleep on the picnic tables. Frankly, this is an opinion no responsible adult in a position of leadership needs to honor or even listen to, and I am very glad that they don’t.

I am much more in accord with Lynn Kelly, the level-headed President of the Coney Island Development Corporation, who says in the film, “We have to do SOMETHING. The worst thing would be to leave it as it is.”  One reason all the chicken littleism bugs me (apart from the fact that I despise chicken littleism) is that there is nowhere to go but up. The area has to be developed, and it’s going to be developed, and therefore it will be improved. To quote Shakespeare’s Friar, “There art thou happy”.

Now we must deal with the justifiable worry about the nature of that improvement. No one (or very few people) want to see some scenario where only rich people have access to Coney Island, that it all falls into private hands, and the amusement district and boardwalk area are replaced by condos. While an unprincipled developer (the universally reviled Joe Sitt of Thor Equities) certainly made a lot of noise and exerted a lot of pressure to change the zoning to allow that happen, he is well known as a “property-flipper”, it’s been widely known all along that his real agenda has been to re-sell his property to the city at an extortionist’s price — which he eventually did. The city now owns that land (i.e. we paid for it, so it BETTER be public) and the new re-zoning plan passed last year guarantees a 12 acre amusement district, much smaller than the 50 acres in the CDIC’s original proposed plan, but, on the other hand it has the virtue of being REAL.

Is it smaller than we would like? Sure! As readers of this blog and No Applause can imagine, I would naturally prefer Coney Island to be a wonderland greater even than that of its glory days, but there is only one way that can happen and it hasn’t happened. A private group or corporation needs (or needed to have) bought that property and build (or built) the desired park. Over the years there has been investigation of such a project. Apparently, Disney has looked into it more than once, but the numbers wouldn’t crunch. Local landowner Horace Bullard had plans drawn up for his own park but was eventually thwarted by Mayor Giuliani’s pet project, Keyspan Park (which ended up being an improvement to the area in its own right). There was interest in building casinos at one point (which would have made Coney “Atlantic City with the money”), but local politicians wouldn’t legalize gambling. And always bedeviling such efforts is the crappy local infrastructure, bad sewage, high crime, etc.  No one has stepped up to build us a larger park, so now we’ll have a 12 acre amusement district (3/4 the size of the World Trade Center property), city owned and guaranteed. The bloody word “amusement” appears a thousand times on the CIDC and EDC’s web sites. The press and the public want it.  And until the permanent park is built we have a temporary one — Luna Park — in place. It is vastly better than Astro Land was. It is pleasing to look at, it’s clean, and the rides are funner. This is in addition to Deno’s Wonderwheel Park, The Cyclone,  the sideshow, the independent games and booths, the Brooklyn Cyclones baseball team, and Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus.

So how very frustrating to sit there for an hour and half in this film and listen to people rant like maniacs about “the end of Coney Island”. As we have seen, it was only the end of Astro Land, and the beginning of much else. A light suddenly dawned during the Q &A at the world premiere last night at BAM, when we learned that film-maker J.L. Aronson comes to the project having been employed for years in making commercial films for… Astro Land! And interesting to note that the film’s major Jeremiah is Charles Denson, director of the Coney Island History Project, which is largely funded by the Astro Land organization, and ensconced beneath the Cyclone, which Astro Land continues to manage. These people naturally have, shall we say, a certain point of view.

Now, Denson wrote the terrific book Coney Island: Lost and Found, as perfect a record as you can get of the roller-coaster ups and downs of the Coney Island amusement district’s history. All players in this story rightly look to his book as the Bible in their deliberations on the future of the place. While he’s a remarkable historian and caretaker of Coney Island’s past, as a spokesman and advocate for its future he doesn’t come off as terribly logical, practical or consistent. He rightly bemoans the loss of mom and pop stores and residential houses and places like Feltman’s Restaurant (which, as he mentions, housed several retail shops)…but then complains about the prospect of new housing units, malls and chain stores. There is only so much the planners in this process can do. One thing they cannot do is stop it from being 2010. The old stuff is gone. You can’t make it come back again. He and others also bewail the idea of multi-storied hotels going up, preferring instead smaller, “European-style” hotels. People will establish businesses they feel will yield them a profit. You can’t MAKE them set up unprofitable, but so-much-more charming businesses just because the alternative offends your aesthetics.

On this issue, as with so much about what goes on with Coney, I am in accord with my old boss Dick Zigun of Coney Island USA (and earns his title of “unofficial mayor of Coney Island” by having reasonable opinions, at least publicly) who always says “Let’s bring back the Elephant Hotel!”. That is so completely the right idea and the way to think about this (sans prostitutes, anyway). And quite frankly, Mr. Denson, the word “European” should stick in your throat like a rotten fish bone when talking about Coney Island, the ultimate garish, American, capitalist free-for-all (even if it is capitalist at popular prices). Dick’s line is always, “Of course there should be development in Coney Island, we just hope it’s the right kind, and that’s what we’ll advocate for” (I paraphrase but I don’t think I’m far off the mark). The idea that there shouldn’t be hotels on Coney Island is mind-bogglingly backward. Who doesn’t want people to come to Coney Island and stay a couple of days and spread their money around, not just to the Joe Sitts of the world, but to the carnival ride operator, the tee shirt seller, and the hundreds of people who might staff a hotel? But Aronson’s a little confused on the subject. When City Councilman Dominic Recchia mentions the fact that his friends complain that there is no place for an out-of-towner to stay at Coney Island, he is quite right. But, as if refuting Recchia’s point, Aronson cuts to a shot of one of those single-occupancy fleabags on Surf Avenue, the kind of place where desperate people go to be murdered. Yes, by all means, let’s preserve that.

I guess my point is…let’s have a little less fog at the seashore, shall we? If you want to do something very real and specific to help Coney Island’s past and future, there is an organization called Save Coney Island that wants to landmark and save many of the existing structures that remain out there and do indeed deserve to be saved. (One of them is Henderson’s — where Harpo Marx made his theatrical debut and peed his pants!) To find out about their effort and what you can to help, go here.

And if you’d like to hear some of my own reminiscences on Coney Island courtesy the Coney Island History Project’s Oral History Archive, go here.

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5 comments

  1. As someone who has been documenting Thor Equities desecration of Coney Island, I feel compelled to point out that the picture on the poster is not misleading. The vacant lot on the poster is indeed still vacant. It is Thor’s lot on Stillwell Ave, where the failed flea market structures stand unoccupied, as does the rest of Thor Equities property. One of the things that struck me about the film was that scenes shot 2 or 3 years ago of Thor’s vacant property look exactly the same today. In the poster, the thriving new amusement park that you refer to, the new Luna Park, would be located where the Astrotower, which will get a redo, still stands today

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      • But to return to the point of the opening paragraph, Coney Island is not, as the photograph implies, nor is it in danger of being, an entire empty parking lot. Given the position you describe, the photographer also has Keyspan park and Ringling Brothers circus at his or her back. So the photographer very selectively shows the one part of the amusement area that appears desolate, implying that it represents the current or future Coney Island.

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  2. […] Much rending of hair and gnashing of teeth in today’s reporting that the Luna Park overseers are booting several concessionaires from the Coney Island boardwalk, including Ruby’s, Cha-Cha’s and Shoot the Freak. I for one, think this is a tremendous development, and a great step in the rehabilitation of Coney Island as a venue for New Yorkers and tourists alike. Shoot the Freak is, of course, beneath contempt. Anyone who thinks such an “attraction” needs to be “preserved”, should spend a few minutes there dodging rounds of live ammunition. As far as Ruby’s and Cha-Cha’s go: PLEASE. Some people are going to try and make this about class, and you know what? If you’re going to tell me that it’s a crime and a sin to deprive the poor of their DIVE BARS at what is supposedly a family destination, you’re really barking up the wrong tree here. I spent my childhood in such joints while my alcoholic parents cavorted with their “friends”, just the sort of “characters” certain partisans love to sentimentalize now. To me, any romanticizing about it is evidence of a light acquaintance with the subject: an annual dabbling after the Mermaid Parade. May Ruby’s and Cha-Cha’s always flourish, but let them do so over on Mermaid Avenue. Let Coney Island be a resort for all 8 million New Yorkers and their estimated 47 million annual tourists, and not just a fringe of elites who like to rubberneck at the seediness that has prevented investment in the area for a half century.  For more ranting along these lines, go here. […]

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