The future started in the early 1990s. 80 years after the blaze, local commercial diver, Gene Ritter took his professional gear to Coney's shallow shores. For nearly two decades Ritter used his free time to scour the ocean floor for long lost Dreamland relics. For nearly two decades his quest was mostly fruitless. And then in 2009, a major find. Buried deep in the murky waters, Ritter came across a 500 pound brass bell which was used to announce ferry departures. Since being carefully excavated out of the sandy bed it had known for nearly a century, the bell has made the local rounds for the general public. From stops at the Coney Island History Project, to Brooklyn's Borough Hall, to more recently, the CIUSA Museum, it has served as a small but needed reminder of the greatness that was Dreamland's Iron Pier. A tangible link for today's Coney goers of its previous greatness. A reminder of the George C. Tilyou quote: "If Paris is France, Coney Island, between June and September, is the world."
Of course the world is a much smaller place than it was in the pre-Dreamland fire days when the Steeplechase owner and founder made his proclamation. That however doesn't excuse Coney for settling on mediocrity. New Luna Park is nice. The Scream Zone is nice. Additional city land like the Steeplechase Plaza which will feature rides as well, should also be nice. To some, sports bars and widespread gentrification will be nice too. Still, none of it is or will ever be earth shattering like the Coney of old. None of it will match the survivors of Coney's past. From the Cyclone, to the Wonder Wheel, to the Parachute Jump, to Nathan's, virtually all of Coney's landmarks were built before World War II. A new pier, one that dares to be great can change the blandness that even a newer, brighter, and family friendly Coney now offers.
Unfortunately, an opportunity for a truly eye-popping new attraction took a step back earlier this year. Kowtowing to local religious leaders, the courts stopped Borough President, Marty Markowitz, from building his uber-modern $64 million amphitheater inside Asser Levy Park. With that money still in his pocket (for another 2+ years when his term ends at least) Marty can still bring something grand to Coney. Something which can serve as an area attraction and bookmark the eastern end of the electric eden. This something of course should be building a New Dreamland Pier.
A new Dreamland Pier could not only mimmic Santa Monica's enormous success but also bring back a slice of Coney's glorious past. The country's largest dancehall might no longer be needed but more rides, bars, restaurants, booths, even a small concert stage would be a welcome addition. As would the amount of jobs that would create. Like the long lost one, a new pier could also bring ferry service from Manhattan. Although four separate subway lines (D, F, N, Q) reach the Coney Island terminal and a fifth line (B) reaches the nearby Brighton Beach station and has the track capacity to extend to Ocean Parkway, all five lines have been hampered by MTA cutbacks. Even without the cutbacks, express service to the area has always been limited at best. The B doesn't operate on weekends and the N hasn't made use of its express tracks since 1968. Until (and if ever) full time express routes are worked with the B and N lines, ferry service would be a helpful alternative. It would be an attractive one as well. Simply being on a boat could bring in crowds for the same reason that the Staten Island Ferry has been a mainstay for so many decades.
Placing the pier and ferry terminal south of Asser Levy Park and closer to Ocean Parkway would also help in transforming the area in an array of ways. First of all, it would help in expanding Coney's entertainment empire. Not just in terms of the pier's square footage, but by moving its location east of the original one and towards Ocean Boulevard, it would nearly double the boardwalks space for foot traffic. This would open a half mile of boardwalk and beach space to visitors who rarely venture east of the Cyclone. That eastern addition would also create an entire area (aquarium, park, pier) which could never fall victim to new condos. Having a new pier built as an extension of Ocean Blvd., would also alleviate commuter traffic off the heavily congested Stillwell Avenue Terminal. Aside from a ferry terminal it would also allow the B (again, if ever put to use on weekends) to offer a true express route into the amusement area.
A pier south of Ocean Parkway would also help in bridging two neighborhoods which have long been divided by the grand, 200+ foot wide boulevard itself. For decades the massive road has seen rides to the west and an ever changing residential community, Brighton Beach, to the east. Originally a South Hampton type of summer escape for New York's most elite, Brighton's shores were once dotted with palace-like hotels and gardens. By the 1920s, the area morphed into a middle class Jewish neighborhood. Often mentioned by Larry King, Woody Allen, Neil Diamond and featured in Neil Simon's musical turned movie, Brighton Beach Memoirs, the neighborhood changed again 50 years later as exiles began arriving from the old Soviet Union. The USSR's fall brought in more immigrants and has since turned Brighton Beach into this country's largest Ukrainian and Russian community.
Associated with giant supper clubs, gaudy ethnic lounges, and underworld activities often highlighted in James Gray films, the neighborhood also has a large but less profiled non-Soviet population of Poles, Turks, Middle Easterners and Asians. Together these various groups provide the neighborhood with a diverse mixture of stores, restaurants and delis. Smack between Brighton and Coney however, there is little to speak of.
A pier south of Ocean Parkway would not only bridge the two communities but rejuvenate the boulevard itself. Ocean Parkway, once modeled after the Champs-Elysees, now only features drab high rise condos. Aging, unattractive, box shaped, clay colored, structures, untied to either Coney or Brighton. A port of displeasing nothing, practically screaming for some sort of life. A pier would give the once famous road the exuberance it demanded when being built.
Finally, it would allow the new aquarium (scheduled to re-open in 2014 after a $150 million facelift) to act as the centerpiece of an improved and enlarged amusement district. With rides on each side of it as well as a nearby ferry terminal, the new aquarium (showcasing a new shark tank viewable from the boardwalk) should witness its most prolific crowds ever. By far! Two piers bookending the amusement district with an aquarium centering it all would finally create something worthy of Coney's grand past. It would instantly make Coney bigger than Seaside Heights, bigger than Wildwood, bigger than Santa Monica and be the true successor that Coney has waited a century for.
Above, a Google Earth shot of Coney as seen last summer. The yellow and blue Ringling Brothers tent to the left has since been replaced by a temporary stage for summer concerts. Unfortunately, that land has already been rezoned for high rise luxury condos.
When that happens, the summer concerts stage will again be moved. Originally they took place at the amphitheater in the park to the right, although noise complaints led to a court order barring the concerts from its 25 year old bandshell. The bandshell was to be replaced by a new, $64M, ultra modern venue in the park although the recent legal setbacks has all but shelved those plans.
Below, the same 2010 satellite image with the Santa Monica pier (minus its enormous parking lot) lightly superimposed over the Coney Island photo.
The pier is outlined in blue. The aquarium, set to be completely revamped over the next three years, is outlined in red. The current amusement area (including lots which have already been rezoned for luxury high rises) is outlined in yellow. Above that, the Stillwell Avenue Terminal where the D, F, N and Q lines all stop. To the right of that, the West 8th Street Station, which serves the F and Q lines. To the right of that, the Ocean Parkway Station, which serves only the Q line but also features tracks for the B line.
Even with the poorly drawn lines made off a poor PhotoShop knockoff, the impact of a pier is obvious. Doubling up the amusement space, bringing in more rides and businesses, creating jobs, including an extra subway station, subway line, and adding a ferry terminal to the electric eden, while allowing the often overlooked but soon to be refurbished aquarium to serve as the area's center, and also bridging two long separated neighborhoods, can all be the result of a new pier.
Marty Markowitz is sitting on $64 million. While private businesses like Zamperla can bid for the rights to build rides, 64 large should be more than enough for a pier itself. Coney Island needs something big. Ocean Parkway needs something big. Brighton Beach could use an economic jolt as well. Build the pier and they all will come.*