It’s Alive! Step Right Up and See for Yourself!
Coney Island was looking pretty good for being dead. A new gear had been put on the Wonder Wheel. The sun licked at the windows of the Freak Bar. There was the smell of fresh-laid paint.
But the condolence calls kept coming: disbelief from Boston, despondency from London. Friends came by on maudlin visits. Ferris wheel lovers sent their deep regrets.
“My own mother calls from Tucson — true story,” said Kenneth Hochman, a marketing executive who does a lot of work in Coney Island. “And she’s from Brooklyn, mind you.” Just the sort of woman who keeps track.
“So she calls a couple of months ago and says: ‘What? You didn’t tell me Coney Island closed?’ ” Indignant rimshot. “My own mother,” he said.
Last September, when the Astroland amusement park, a three-acre sliver of the area, was shut down in a battle with its landlord, erroneous reports went out around the world that all of Coney Island was a corpse. Overnight, it seemed, obituaries were composed. Carnie barkers were invited to their own wakes.
But the rumors of demise had been exaggerated greatly. All of Coney Island, from Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs to the world-renowned Cyclone, had not dropped off the Boardwalk into the sea.
“They’re all surprised when I tell them we’re still open,” said a frustrated Dennis Vourderis, whose family has run the Wonder Wheel for more than 40 years. “Unfortunately, the press did a great job announcing Astroland had closed, so now people think that Coney Island is closed.
“But they haven’t rolled the beach up yet,” he said. “It’s totally ridiculous.”
The premature announcement of their burial has been so widespread that several local merchants have pooled money in an existential media campaign. Beginning next month, there will be billboards on the highways, bus stop ads, commercials at the movies. The slogan: “Coney Island: Really Fun. Really Open.”
The blame for the confusion has fallen partly on an inattentive public and partly on the media, which flocked to Coney Island last fall to cover the removal of Astroland’s iconic six-ton rocket as if it were a visit from the pope. Images were beamed across the globe of what remained of the park: piles of rubble in a vacant lot of scorched earth.
“It looked like downtown Baghdad,” said Carol Albert, the park’s former owner who also runs the Cyclone. “You saw that and, of course, you thought there was nothing left but rats.”
Coney Island has always had a down-at-the-heels appeal and has seemed to hang forever on the edge of imminent death. It is one of those places, like Greenwich Village or Times Square, with as many lives as a wet cat in a thunderstorm.
But with opening day arriving Sunday, the announcements of its expiration have seemed to touch a painful nerve this year.
“The thing is, we ain’t closed,” said Jimmy Carchiolo, an old salt with a pigskin voice who has run a dart game behind the Wonder Wheel for 43 years. “Astroland went under, but everybody figures it’s the same. Astroland’s three acres. People don’t know how Coney Island works.”
Ever since the first carousel was installed on Surf Avenue in 1876, Coney Island has been a jumble of competing institutions, an amusement park cooperative of sorts. Today, there is the Cyclone, Nathan’s, the Wonder Wheel, KeySpan Park (where the Brooklyn Cyclones play), the New York Aquarium, the Coney Island Circus Sideshow and the Coney Island Museum.
The separate parts exist together, squabbling and sharing like a family, and giving off a tribal fractured energy, a mirror of New York’s.
“People think amusement parks are Disney World, where you pay one price and enter at the gate,” said Aaron Beebe, the director of the museum. “But Coney Island isn’t like that. It isn’t homogenized. It has lots of moving parts.”
But the mood is such that 2009 is already known as the Second Annual Last Summer. Adding to the grimness is a deep uncertainty about the future. Joseph J. Sitt, a developer, owns most of the land in Coney Island and has proposed to bring in shopping malls and large Las Vegas-style hotels. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has promised to preserve the area as an entertainment district and is looking to buy the developer out.
In the midst of this, of course, Coney Island is preparing for another busy summer, hollering like Lazarus that it’s actually alive. The other day, workers were changing light bulbs on the Thunderbolt and oiling metal couplings on the Cyclone. They were readying their roster of events: the Freak Hall of Fame party, the Tour de Brooklyn bike race. Zamora the Torture King is flying in from Vegas to headline at the sideshow. The world’s largest tug of war competition will be held next month.
With all this going on, Mr. Beebe discovered something poignant in the incorrect announcement of Coney Island’s death.
“It always feels like New York is on the edge of losing its soul,” he said, “and Coney Island represents that. Coney dying — it’s kind of like a stand-in for everything else.”
By ALAN FEUER