Coney Island Dreams, Coney Island Schemes
We’re skipping the annual Mermaid Parade this year. We’re disinclined to be Judges at present, and as Judges is the only way we go.
I’ve grown disenchanted. While Coney Island is always on the move and (for the last couple of decades) on the mend, I’ve never been able to fully embrace the thing standing in front of me — what I am really seeking is the Coney of the past or future, for it is both a sliver of what it was, and a mere shadow of its own potential.
From its peak attendance during World War Two, the world’s premiere fun zone got slammed by a succession of developments in the post-war era that eroded its fabled status as America’s Playground: air conditioning made local folks less desperate to get to the beach; trains, plains and automobiles made other beaches and amusement parks much easier to get to; suburbanization saw people moving out of NYC (a trend that began to reverse a couple of decades ago). The scale and number of attractions at Coney dwindled. Crime went up; quality of life in the area went down. Like I say, it’s been improving as a destination for years, thanks to the advent of a number of fun-centers: Coney Island USA (1980), the Brooklyn Cyclones baseball team (2001), the light installation on the Parachute Jump (2006), Luna Park (2010), the return of B & B Carousell (2013), and the opening of the Coney Island Amphitheatre (2016). And one of the area’s last remaining eyesores, the long-shuttered Shore Hotel has finally been purchased, with plans to turn its beautiful theatre into a new entertainment venue.
All things remaining the same, I predict that this trend will continue. Not only have there long been (admittedly controversial) plans by real estate developers to build new residential towers in the area, but the population of Brooklyn overall continues to increase. The frontier of that growth is still several neighborhoods away, but one can imagine that process continuing to the point that the outward edge gets closer and closer to South Brooklyn, potentially bringing thousands of new regular visitors. Me, if I had dough to invest, public or private, I would bet on the long term future of Coney Island.
I’ve been day-dreaming about what that long term future might look like for decades. Here are some of my fool notions:
Coney Island lies at the far edge of New York City, the end of several subway lines in fact. When I lived in Greenpoint, it took me an hour to get there. If you live in another borough, it takes even longer. Once upon a time, that distance was an attraction. People wanted to “get out of the city”. In its earliest phase as destination (early to mid 1800s) the area was actually full of beachside hotels. In the heyday of the amusement parks (roughly 1904-1944), the “benefit” vs. “the cost” (in time) of making the excursion was much more clear-cut and obvious. As the attraction of the area diminished, the journey became less worth making. (Now that I live in Park Slope, I go there many times a summer. When I lived in Greenpoint, it was once or twice a year at most). We’ll get to the attractions in a minute, but I also think it needs to be far easier to get to Coney Island. The two go hand in hand.Here are some thoughts about other possibilities:
Speedboat Water Taxi
Pictured above is the Shark, which tools around New York harbor, departing from South Street Seaport. I’ve taken this ride with my kids. It’s great fun. Express speedboat service to Coney Island, if not shorter than a train ride, would at least have the benefit of being exhilarating — a ride unto itself.
Years ago Brooklyn treasure Bob Diamond lobbied hard to revive a trolley line in Brooklyn, with the specific goal of increasing transportation options to Red Hook, an area which remains preposterously cut off from the rest of the city, despite being quite close as the crow flies. He couldn’t muster the support and his trolley collection now lies rusting. I took the picture above at the Red Hook waterfront a few weeks ago. San Francisco and New Orleans still operate such lines because they didn’t make the foolish, short-sighted decision to junk them in the mid twentieth century like most other cities. And tourists love them. New York has trashed all its track however. Like I say: “dreams”.
Express Tour Bus
I took this photo a few days ago with this very blog post in mind. These tour bus thingies are all over the city. The idea would be express service, with only a couple of key stops, and perhaps a tour guide prepping the passengers with a little historical background on the route. It’s better than NOT doin’ it!
By all accounts, Coney Island’s attractiveness as a destination was greatest between the years 1904 and 1911, when its three main amusement parks, Steeplechase, Dreamland and the original Luna Park combined to make Coney Island a veritable fairyland on the scale we nowadays associate only with the Disney theme parks, and were every bit as magical. Their fabulousness was too great to describe here, and is well covered in myriad other sources. The point is that now they are gone. Dreamland burnt in 1911, Luna in 1944, and Steeplechase was demolished by the villainous Fred Trump in 1964 (at a moment when the World’s Fair up in Queens probably made it seem more okay than it was). The area the parks occupied stretched past where the New York Aquarium is now, and across the street past where the housing projects are. After Steeplechase closed, some smaller parks remained: Astroland (which closed a few years ago), Denos’ Wonder Wheel Amusement Park (which remains), and several independent ride and booth operators.
Now admittedly for years, I’ve been too easy an audience for Coney Island’s amusement parks. I’ve never been to a large, modern amusement park on the scale of Six Flags. Prior to Coney Island, I’m pretty sure I’d only ever been to two amusement parks, both of them tiny: Rhode Island’s now defunct Rocky Point, and Connecticut’s equally miniscule Quassy. So I’ve always been an easy date when it comes to contemporary Coney: “What do you mean? This place is great!” But I understand that modern visitors expect a lot more.
Believe it or not, on more than one occasion, the folks from Disney crunched the numbers on opening a park out there, but they couldn’t make it work to their satisfaction. Among other things, they felt potential for parking facilities were inadequate and for something on the scale they envisioned they imagined people driving in from far-flung regions. And the infrastructure on Coney Island (things like sewer and water) is quite bad and would need city investment. But since we’re dreaming, a HUGE amusement park out there would be just Jim Dandy wouldn’t it? You’d need to rezone, and you’d need to either move, or build around the housing projects, but nothing is impossible. And think of the local people it would employ
Some specific things I personally would like to see out there in an expanded amusement district:
- At least one amazing dark ride. There are 2 or 3 truly pathetic ones out there right now. They’re enjoyable, but they’re over in 1 or 2 minutes. Ten minutes — that’s more like it!
- More sideshows and performing arts! Coney Island USA is cool, but back in the day (say the 1920s and 30s), Coney was a place with NUMEROUS sideshows and similar places operating simultaneously. Each competing with the others for business and thus keeping the level of quality high. And a Ripley’s Odditorium would be nice.
- Tented circus! At various times over the years, Ringling Bros., Cole Brothers, Big Apple Circus, and other organizations have pitched a tent out at Coney. I want a circus out there every summer!
- Wax Museum! They used to have them out there back in the day. At least one would be amazing, especially with a Hall of Horrors! At the very least, a Madame Tussaud’s franchise.
- A “Bowery” or “Bourbon Street”. There are a couple of little places on Surf Avenue and a couple on the boardwalk, and this is what suggested this to me. What it would be is a strip of live music venues, saloons, burlesque houses and the like, either on Surf Ave, or better yet, one block back on Mermaid Ave. (so that it can be as naughty as it needs to be, but away from the family audiences.)
- Cinemas. This seems a modest thing and yet I don’t think there are any for miles around there. A first run multi-plex with a “movie palace” architectural vibe would be nice. But also an old time revival house that shows silent and old time movies — Joe Franklin used to operate one of those nostalgia theatres out there years ago.
- Racetrack! This is one of the crazier dreams, but it’s not random. Before it had amusement parks, Coney Island was the site of several horse racing tracks. That is why Steeplechase amusement park had that as its theme. One of the late Horace Bullard’s plans for Coney included casinos etc on the model of Atlantic City. What I’m envisioning is something like Belmont or Aqueduct, set back aways from Coney, perhaps in neighboring Gravesend or Sheepshead Bay.
- Brooklyn Dodgers! Yeah, that’s right! Trade the minor league Cyclones franchise in and replace it with a major league team. Brooklyn has never been the same since the Dodgers left! Put it in South Brooklyn!
Oh, I got more ideas — way more ideas than that about how to improve Coney Island, if I only had a billion dollars. No point in dreaming small! If you wanna hear more, ask me! Even better — back me! I ain’t shy!