The Call of the Wild Ride
By MARK CALDWELL
July 1, 2007
LEVIK, an 8-year-old on the loose at Coney Island, was ecstatic. He had come to the amusement park this late spring day with his classmates at the Lubavitcher Oholei Torah school in Crown Heights, which had rented Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park for the morning.
One contingent careered around the track on the miniature Big Wheel truck ride, each child excitedly swerving his own mercifully nonfunctional steering wheel. Another group headed to the Wonder Wheel, a terrifying attraction that has towered above the Boardwalk since 1920.
Levik considered his options. He praised the Sea Serpent, a gentle, child-sized roller coaster. But the Wonder Wheel? “No!” he replied firmly. “Too scary.”
That sentiment has been repeated frequently ever since the Wonder Wheel began not only spinning its passengers up and down as other Ferris wheels do, but also flinging them back and forth in sliding cars that convey the illusion that they’re going to slam into each other. (In fact, they miss each other by mere inches.) Along with the 1926-vintage Cyclone, its roller-coaster companion at the neighboring Astroland Amusement Park, the Wonder Wheel represents about all that’s left of early 20th-century Coney Island — the populist Elysium that made Nathan’s famous.
Once, Coney Island was an immense, chaotic, overpowering extravaganza of rides, shooting galleries, hot-dog stands, a six-story hotel shaped like an elephant, and three amusement parks that became the stuff of myth: Luna, Steeplechase, Dreamland.
By 1966, all of them had vanished, victims of fire, the wrecker’s ball and a long-term decline in the fortunes of Coney Island. Gone, also, were the fun-seeking hordes who had devoured them, driven out by decades of decay that culminated in a bloody riot in 1968.
The amusement area, which once sprawled from West 37th Street all the way to what is now the New York Aquarium, shrank to its present size, from Surf Avenue to the beach, between West 10th and 16th Streets. Huge tracts even of that stretch are vacant now, a landscape of weeds, fractured concrete and plywood fencing.
Nobody is happy with this situation. Local residents grieve over the neighborhood’s tattered state. The city wants to make Coney Island a magnet again, hoping, in the way of the Bloomberg era, to encourage private investment that will restore it to the roughneck glory of its midway and freak-show days.
In 2005, a prospective developer did indeed appear on the scene. Thor Equities, under its principal, Joseph Sitt, has bought up about half of the entertainment district in the critical blocks between KeySpan Park and the Cyclone, envisioning an investment of up to $2 billion. Late last year, Thor made its most monumental (and controversial) purchase when it bought up the land beneath Astroland, Coney’s largest surviving amusement area, and proposed to redevelop it with a bigger and brighter array of indoor and outdoor amusements stretching from Surf Avenue to the Boardwalk.
Mr. Sitt’s earlier plans called for some large apartment sites in the amusement district, including a 50-story tower on the Boardwalk. City officials and community activists, however, have been unbending in their commitment to keep apartments out. They recall a dark day in September 1966 when the developer Fred Trump, accompanied by six bikini-clad models and a bulldozer, began dismantling the famed 69-year-old Steeplechase Park for a never-built apartment complex.
Amanda Burden, chairwoman of the New York City Planning Commission, is adamant that the surviving amusement area not succumb to a beachfront residential enclave. “There is no way that will happen under this administration,” she said. And in fact, current zoning restricts the critical area to amusements; not even restaurants with table service are permitted, only food stands like Nathan’s.
But Mr. Sitt paid $30 million just for the 3.3 acres underneath Astroland. How could a collection of kiddie rides flanked by an 80-year-old roller coaster justify such a price without some other, plummier revenue stream? Over the last several weeks, Thor and the city have conducted intensive discussions in the effort to reach an accommodation that will preserve the amusement district but also repay the investment. Two weeks ago, in the most recent twist in the complicated plot, Thor offered to replace the residential elements of its plan with three hotels, including more than 400 time-share units, along with restaurants, shops, movie theaters and high-tech arcades.
Thus far, no agreement has been reached, and Coney Island seems caught in an up-and-down ride as wild as the Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel. Time may well be running out. Deno’s appears safe for now: Levik and his classmates will probably be able to savor it next season. But Astroland, barring a last-minute reprieve, is entering its last summer. By next year it could be gone. And in the eyes of many, that would mark a final tailspin and smash-up for New York’s most beloved tatty playground.
Paradoxically, even as Coney Island’s infrastructure disappears, its long-absent crowds have been returning en masse. KeySpan Park opened at Surf Avenue and West 16th Street in 2001, bringing professional baseball back to Brooklyn in the guise of the Cyclones. A city-financed cleanup improved the beach and the surrounding streetscape. Then, in May 2005, a spectacular new Coney Island-Stillwell Avenue subway station opened, replacing the grim original with a soaring arch that evokes grand European railway terminals. The city’s Parks Department estimates that last year more than 15 million people visited the beach and the Boardwalk, an increase of more than five million in three years.
The same morning that Levik was carefully choosing his next ride at Deno’s, the human landscape did look heartening. Despite the still-frigid surf, bathers were beginning to fill the beach. Young men did sit-ups on workout equipment in the sand. Children gathered under the metal palm trees that drenched them with a cooling spray.
A hundred yards down the Boardwalk, milling around the picnic tables outside Gregory and Paul’s — the blocklong food stand attached to Astroland — a group of South Asian girls were taking rides on the Cyclone. The girls were students at New Utrecht High School, and there was some debate as to whether school was still in session.
As a fresh carload of shrieking fun-seeking victims thundered down the track, a girl named Shezana emerged from the ride somewhat woozily. “I still feel like I’m falling down,” she said.
Her friend Farwa replied: “But screaming is good for your health.”
At least on the surface, much of Coney Island appears to be the thriving socially and ethnically diverse mosh pit it has always been, populated by bellowing teenagers and dignified elderly people, spenders and nonspenders, a maelstrom in which the Bermuda shorts and ankle socks of the American heartland mix with yarmulkes and Muslim veils, a place where carousel organ music and hip-hop amicably vie to drown each other out. The crowds exude an energy and a noisy verve rarely found anywhere in the city these days, an improbable but very real survival of the rough-and-ready, early-20th-century Coney Island.
At Astroland, Armmeen Williams was rapping into his wireless microphone to lure people into a balloon-shooting gallery: “Don’t be shy! Give it a try! Don’t hesitate! Participate! Two bucks! Try your luck!”
Nearby, an even earthier attraction beckoned: “Shoot the Freak: Live Human Target!” The Freak, green-eyed Enoz Gonzalez, darted around a littered vacant lot clad in Darth Vaderish armor, while his partner, Tommy Conwell, lured passers-by to an array of paint guns on the Boardwalk railing, with which they try to win prizes by splattering Mr. Gonzalez’s body.
He has been playing the Freak for three summers, and he likes the job. “There’s plenty of girls to talk to on the Boardwalk,” he explained.
Another amusement park stalwart is Dick Zigun, founder and artistic director of Coney Island USA, a group eager to incorporate in Coney Island’s future as many elements as possible of its past. Mr. Zigun spent his early years as a performance artist who strolled the Boardwalk in an antique bathing suit as the “Mayor of Coney Island.” He notes that Coney Island has managed to survive the bad times, and he expresses confidence that nothing will destroy its spirit. “Because of New York, our customers will always be multicultural, urban and half-naked,” Mr. Zigun said.
But will they keep coming if the amusements keep dwindling? The Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone still draw crowds; the 262-foot-high Parachute Jump, though closed, remains a striking sight, illuminated at night. All three are protected as city landmarks. Yet as demolition progresses, they’re surrounded by growing emptiness against a backdrop of Soviet-style high-rises in Bensonhurst.
Mr. Sitt promises free-access indoor and outdoor amusements with the same pay-per-ride arrangement now in effect at Deno’s and Astroland. He also voices the hope that displaced rental business tenants will return to the site.
“We’d like to have them back for local ‘flava,’ ” he said. But he added a warning. “Coney Island needs salvation,” he said. “And the longer we wait to begin, the harder it’s going to be.”
With Astroland now under the control of Thor, Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park is almost the last vestige of what Ms. Burden of the City Planning Commission wants to preserve. Its founder, a Greek immigrant named Denos Vourderis, came to Coney Island in 1970 as a food service worker at Ward’s Kiddie Park, which had occupied the site since the 1940s. He learned the business and bought it in 1980, adding the Wonder Wheel in 1983. When Mr. Vourderis died in 1994, his son Dennis took over and remains in control, at least for now.
"So far, our plans are to stay open,” Dennis Vourderis said the other day, sitting at a picnic table next to the pizza counter, surrounded by the boys from Oholei Torah. “A lot of the people who come here can’t afford $20 a person just for admission. Twenty dollars a family for everything is more like it.”
Deno’s shuns the scripted, laundered atmosphere of corporate theme parks of the Disney and Six Flags ilk. “Here,” Mr. Vourderis said, “I put a teen from Brooklyn out in the sun for eight hours, and it’s hard to keep him cheerful. That’s the grumpy guy at the ride who yells ‘Siddown!’ at you.”
Mr. Vourderis revels equally in Coney Island’s eclectic, unpredictable palette of aromas.
“Maria’s popping corn at the snack bar right now; you’ll smell it in a minute,” he said. “Later you’ll smell shish kebabs. We put the Sweet Shop in the middle of the park: we could sell 25 percent more on the Boardwalk, but the candy apple smell pulls people in. Occasionally it mixes in with a machine oil smell from the rides. But the best part is the fresh sea smell, the ocean breeze in the morning.”
On a Saturday evening a couple of weeks ago, Astroland was even more crowded than Deno’s as Carol Albert, the park’s owner, patrolled her kiddie rides, shooting galleries and Ski-Ball games.
“What happened to my werewolf?” Ms. Albert asked a park worker, pointing to the fanged but comatose mechanical monster that sagged from a window above Dante’s Inferno, a mild scare ride. “He’s supposed to go off with a scream every 90 seconds,” she added, “but he seems to have been asleep the last couple of days.”
Earlier there had been a thunderstorm, but now people were streaming in, and rides were lighting up with a popping and glaring incandescence long vanished even from 42nd Street. Astroland’s painted signs, many of which are the work of local artists commissioned by the Alberts to preserve the park’s carny atmosphere, are deliberately louche, their lettering wobbly.
“Turn up the music!” Ms. Albert ordered an attendant at the carousel. Then she noticed a little boy of about 3 who was seated on a miniature antique fire engine ride and looked as if he was about to burst into tears. Ms. Albert pointed to the brass bell. “Ring the bell!” she sang out. “Go ahead, ring the bell!” As soon as he did so, his face lit up. His father began snapping pictures.
But the probable closing of Astroland after this summer adds a rueful undercurrent to Ms. Albert’s attachment. “We sold the real estate to Thor last fall,” she said. “And for us to stay open, they’d have to agree to lease the property back to us.”
Unless Thor agrees to such an arrangement, or unless the city succeeds in finding a new location for the park — and at this point there’s no firm prospect for either — Ms. Albert will have to sell off her rides and abandon the site, leaving patrons of the Cyclone and Wonder Wheel to stare at yet another gaping wasteland. Deno’s will stand nearly alone, save for a dwindling array of forlorn small concessions dotting the emptiness around it.
The city remains adamant that it will approve no plan that dilutes Coney’s character.
“That area between KeySpan Park and the Cyclone has to remain a totally democratic amusement park,” said Lynn Kelly, president of the Coney Island Development Corporation, a city- and state-financed entity. “We want people to be a part of it even if they don’t spend a dime.”
Ms. Burden agrees. “I was out there yesterday,” she said of the amusement area. “It was teeming with every race, age and demographic. It’s the most populist, communal, democratic place on earth. That has to remain. It has to be affordable to all New Yorkers.”
Mr. Sitt continues to affirm his desire that, whatever shape it eventually takes, Coney Island’s shrunken but so-far surviving amusement complex will roar back with a 21st-century vigor, gaudier, with more harrowing rides, and crowds just as diverse but bigger than ever.
Nothing, however, has been settled. Will the amusement- and conference-oriented hotels that Mr. Sitt recently suggested satisfy everyone, including the developer, the community and the city, perhaps by bringing a critical mass of patrons to the area 24 hours a day, 365 days a year? Possibly.
But how big might these hotels be, and where, exactly, would they be? At this point, no one will venture an opinion.
Community activists, surviving small-business owners and Coney Island freaks of all descriptions are queasy. This feels like the moment when the Cyclone cars approach the 86-foot-high apex of the ride. Breathing is taut; anticipation is building.
Everyone aboard wants the thrill; everybody wants fun, including, perhaps, a good cathartic scream. But everybody also hopes the ride will stay on the rails.
Mark Caldwell is the author of “New York Night: The Mystique and Its History.”