Thursday, November 11, 2010

Coney Island, fading fast

Coney Island on a bright; clear November afternoon, comfortable in the sun, cold in the shadows, a breeze off the water. Here is the shuttered storefront of Ruby's

Their lease expired October 31st and was not renewed by the property's landlord, Central Amusement International, ironically hailed as the company breathing new life into a gasping Coney. 

The eviction notice taped to the roll down gates is signed by Valerio Ferrari, president of CAI. He also owns Zamperla, the company that opened the new Luna Park behind the boardwalk on land now owned by the city and purchased (with tax payers' money) for $95 million from the developer and notorious real estate flipper Joe Sitt. Joe Sitt still owns a much larger parcel of land where he pulled down just about everything on which he could lay his hands.

The 'new' Luna Park looked pretty makeshift to me when we walked by: surrounded by improvised chainlink which is plastered by Beware of the Dog signs, I had no idea that this was it. I was expecting something grand and gaudy and eccentric*, something like the old Coney Island when it was new. Not a bunch of rides plopped down on the tarmac.

Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

The story of what is happening to Coney Island cannot be told briefly, yet it is simple. It involves money (a developer, Joe Sitt) and it involves politics (a local councilman, Dominic Recchia, and the city, under Mayor Mike), those inseparable bed fellows. 

The heart of the problem is not complicated. Historic or iconic (which I define in terms of cultural significance) landmarks are not being protected.The city is not protecting what makes New York, New York.

Here is an article in the Village Voice, written by Kevin Baker in May, which helps unravel the knots and snarls and umbilical cords connecting our city government and Mike Bloomberg and Joe Sitt and the end of the idiosyncratic and unique Coney Island.

It starts like this:

They're getting very near the end now at Coney Island. They've been tearing pieces off the place for years, and soon the bulldozers will be back again, pushing over the last, weathered links to the past on Surf Avenue. Next to go this spring will be the old Bank of Coney Island, and the Shore Hotel, and the Grashorn Building, which goes all the way back to 1889. They'll take down what's left of Henderson's Music Hall, where they once put on shows the size of Broadway productions and where Harpo Marx made his stage debut.

Read the article.

What is home style wine???

Below, the Shore Theater, destined for demolition.*

*12/14/10: This statement is inaccurate, and was brought to my attention by a Flickr member:  The building above is in fact the Shore Hotel and has just been demolished. The building below is the Shore Theater and was awarded Landmark status today!

Nathan's - we went in, and we ate.


Fresh-shucked clams. The patrons were a mix of tourists and very local locals.

By the time we had finished our mid afternoon lunch, which also included a burger for the Frenchie and good New England clam chowder and fried clam strips for me, the light had turned magical.

Coney Island in November is empty streets, old buildings, wide alleyways, many signs about dangerous dogs, and fading, peeling paint. And shadows.

We headed back to the boardwalk.

The boardwalk, all day, was almost empty. Occasional couples walked by speaking Russian. A serious walker or two.  Small sand dunes grew in parallel rows on the parallel planks beneath them. These planks are destined to be ripped up in favour of concrete.

The gorgeous, rouged  and faded Childs Restaurant building, housing a roller rink run by Dianna Carlins  until last summer. Why did she have to move out? Anyone, anyone?

Her lease was not renewed. The landlord this time is Taconic Investment Partners.

It stands empty.

Red flags in the wintry sand warn of dangerous currents working beneath the surface. Currents that will drag you straight out and away, and under. 


Why do I rail?

Because Coney Island, burdened by blocklike condominiums, flattened by developers, still one of the most identifiable, storied, certified* neighbourhoods in this country's consciousness, is on the fast track to becoming Anywhere, America. 

* Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.

Walker Percy, The Moviegoer


  1. Sad and angry is how I feel. It's happening elsewhere, too, of course, but places like this are deep in the hearts of so many people.
    And it's the rude method that is so distasteful. "Your lease is up. Sod off!"

  2. your rant is well founded-
    so very sad & very true.
    I could just imagine what the old timers must feel who are closest to this place.
    You've really captured the last remaining bits beautifully.
    check out this link,

  3. What a reportage, Marie! Formidables fotos.

  4. What a great post Marie and truly beautiful pictures. Coney Island is truly iconic and it is one of the places I miss the most in NY. I loved the beach, the mangoes on a stick you can buy in the summer and Nathan's. Of course there is nothing like passing a few minutes while watching a little Shoot the Freak. I think you mentioned a few good candidates for the Freak job.

  5. Beautifully said and pictured, Marie. I felt as if I was walking with you all and am so glad I had a chance to go there years ago, at night in November when on the way to a wonderful pizza place, now gone. It was in bad shape then, but nothing like this sadness.
    I hope you will listen to The Klezmatics CD, "Wonder Wheel", with cover art by Steve Keene; it's Woody Guthrie lyrics to the K's amazing music and I could hear "Mermaid Avenue" playing as I read and looked at these beautiful sad pictures.
    Listen here.

  6. Those red flags are for the island, not the sea, if you get my drift.

    There's gold in them thar dunes. Here comes Mr. Hearst.

    Coney is NYC's beach because it was and still is the summer place for immigrants. Unfortunately, the new Manhattan, the retail diaspora, has eyes on it.

    Can these things coexist?

    Great post.

  7. Well written post, very moving, beautiful pictures and appropriately chosen quotes ... you hit the nail on the head with this one, Marie!

  8. Thank you for reading, everyone.

    Mit - indeed; though the rudeness is passing, the damage much farther reaching.

    Lily, thanks for the link - off to look, now.

    LIU - muchas gracias :-)

    Good idea, Monika, 'cept they've closed that, too.

    I feel very strongly about this - writing even this little took a long time and my computer collapsed half way. A sign.

    Anne B - thanks so much for mentioning the Klezmatics, I had quite forgotten about them after hearing them once on the radio, and they are wonderful.

    Yes, Frank, that was my drift, too :-)Thank you.

    Thanks, Lambert, for first mentioning the boardwalk; that is what sent me on my travels into the morass that is swirling Coney Island whirlpool-like down into a drain that lets out far into an unmonitored sea.

  9. If I may, I think the red flags warn us much more of the absence of a lifeguard on duty and thus of any trace of responsibility on the City's part if we drown or step in dog poop, than of mythical rip currents.

    Those do exist, but they aren't more dangerous than trains. Ride them and you're having safe fun. It's when you go against the momentum that you get hurt...

  10. Beence - ja, but sometimes you have go against the flow.

  11. I remember my parents bringing me to Coney Island when I was a little kid, going to Astroland was a treat! Riding the Cyclone for the first time and being scared senseless. It's really sad when the city does not want to save the uniqueness of Coney Island. It makes me feel really sad.

  12. Coney Island is being de-constructed piece by piece, for some overly sanitized retail mecca no doubt. Wonderful photos here btw!

  13. Meems, what memories you have - I don't know what it is like to live in the place where I was a child. I think it is a special thing.

    mheidelberger - thanks. Yes, it is a deep question: the one of how to define good bad taste, and what is 'eg', real, versus what is badly wrought in a sterile, unromantic way.


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