Sunday, June 10, 2007

AU HASARD, CONEY ISLAND. Went down to Coney today. I had my softshell crab at Nathan's, bumper cars, skeeball, wade on the beach, and drinks at Ruby's, as per usual. And I enjoyed also the vicarious company of Coney's faithful, for whom the place is an oasis: the hipsters and tourists, but mainly the poor, who wandered the boardwalk and soaked up the negative ions, clams and corndogs, loud noises, and other cheap thrills. As Puerto Rican Day paraders filtered back to Brooklyn a little circle was formed on the Boardwalk within which speakers blared salsa and drunk Boricuas danced, some as obscenely as possible. Kids screamed on the cheesy rides and wolfed cotton candy and regarded their garish surroundings with obvious wonder, as if this ramshackle amusement park were the greatest place on earth.

I don't know how long any of us will have this opportunity:
Joe Sitt’s Thor Equities bought the Astroland site late last year to level and build a $2-billion Vegas-style amusement-condo complex.

Thor’s theme park would include movie theaters, beachfront luxury condos, a 150-foot waterslide, a multi-level carousel, and first new roller coaster since the Cyclone was built in 1927.

To build his Xanadu, Sitt needs a city rezoning — one that city officials have been reluctant to give, though negotiations continue. Neither Sitt nor city officials would comment on those talks for this article.
As anyone who follows City development might have guessed, the developers have not been idle: a fat strip of amusements has already been torn away. Some sideshows and snack-shops are gone, as are the batting cages and the miniature golf course.

I mourn these, but I am especially sorry to have lost the go-kart tracks. Many of us New Yorkers don't drive, and appreciated the go-karts, outfitted with absurd fiberglas Formula-One shells, as our best chance to indulge in a reckless simulacrum of same. We revved the noisy lawn-mower motors, bounced off the tires that buffered the hairpin turns, and engaged in joyful and ridiculous combat with the other Speed Racers, some of them laughing out loud at the absurdity of it, some fixing a dead-eyed gaze on the scrap of daylight for which they were competing. What's left of our little arena, the late International Speedway, is pictured above.

Other photos of the devastation are available at the Gowanus Lounge. As one of the commenters puts it, "There will be only condos in Coney Island. Thor wants to kill Coney Island, proof is in their fences which their permits proudly proclaim they will only be there for this summer season and will disappear right after labor day. Why make Coney look like crap for the summer season? To drive business away."

I think that's right. Business was a bit slow for a relatively nice Sunday, and the Parade may have been the least of the anti-attraction. Everyone knows the fix is in. When the West Side Stadium was defeated, it was because another corporate behemoth, Cablevision, pushed against it. But there's no well-heeled sugar daddy sticking up for old Coney now. Its disposition is totally in the hands of the developers and the City, which is to say that the developers will win, with some fiddling around the edges as a sop to civic interest -- "a circus, an inflatable slide and movies under the stars."

Well, as Jack Lemmon sighed in Save the Tiger about jockstraps made from the American flag, maybe it's terrific. I don't live at this end of the F train: maybe the community's interests are indeed best served by condos and circuses. The spread of money in this City is relentless, and while Coney would seem at present a bridge too far, who am I, an unmoneyed interest, to dispute the wisdom of real estate? It may be there is jam enough in the housing boom to magnetize wealth into this far-flung neighborhood, and I can't in good conscience hope against it; though my thirty years' experience of local booms and busts tells me that a developer's long-odds crap shoot often ends with the City (that is, us citizens) covering his tab, I must pray for a positive result -- especially since, things being what they are, there's no chance of stopping the game.

I cannot mourn too much. Coney's pleasure palaces of yore, Luna Park and Dreamland, burned and faded from the grasp of those who loved them before I came onto the scene; now I, in my turn, must accept that the Coney I know is also passing away. It may become something like South Street Seaport, or Battery Park City. Or it may become a speculator's loss, like Columbia Gardens in Butte, Montana -- about which I was told by Stephanie Cannon, a Montana native who was my companion on today's outting, and for whom I won a stuffed tiger on the Midway. Columbia Gardens was a children's amusement park dedicated, allegedly in perpetuity, by 19th Century copper king W. A. Clark. In 1973, it was destroyed by the proprietors of the Berkeley Mine in the vain hope that more copper could be extracted from the ground beneath it, and soon became a rancid Superfund site: a pit of fetid water and the corpses of local wildlife.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea/By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown/Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

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