perhaps the busiest season Coney Island has seen in over 40 years, actually began with a long public funeral. A New Orleans Dixieland styled send off (featuring a blonde in a coffin) was staged in honor of iconic Coney structures and local businesses recently lost. The tribute might as well have been in honor of the many more businesses which will be lost at summer's end. Coney is no longer at a crossroads. Most every long-time boardwalk business is officially doomed or already dead. Like the boardwalk itself (set to be demolished in favor of a concrete walkway next summer) the remaining tenants are making the most of this final summer until ultimate eviction.
The evictors? Italian amusement ride maker and close Bloomberg chums, Zamperla Inc. To their credit, Zamperla is responsible for turning the empty lots left behind by Joe Sitt's conquest of Astroland Park and creating an even better amusements collection (New Luna Park) over the same land. To their credit, Zamperla picked up the pieces after the disastrous 2009 season and, almost overnight, gave the amusement area a buzz not seen since the 1960s. To their credit, Zamperla has already added to that buzz with this summer's opening of the Scream Zone. Scream Zone, also located on city owned property, offers Stillwell Avenue its first major rides since the 1977 fire which brought about the demise of the old Thunderbolt wooden roller coaster. For good or bad, Zamperla's finger prints are all over the new Coney Island. But while the prints say Zamperla, the fist clearly belongs to the city.
The city's five year brawl with Joe Sitt-head has made winners of both. While the city has won in contracts from companies like Zamperla, rezoning the area to bring in high rise condos and carte blanche to redevelop the entire area, Sitt has also won in hundreds of millions of dollars in flipped land profits. Of course few battles are win-win and this one too has seen its share of losers. From long time Astroland owner Carol Albert, to the Shore Hotel, to the old Coney Island Bank Building, to boardwalk honky-tonks, like Ruby's and Cha-Cha's, to the boardwalk itself, the battle has taken its toll on local business owners as well as the structures that many of them worked at or around. After two years of sellout crowds, even Ringling Brothers' Summer Circus has decided it can longer afford rent at the new Coney Island.
2011 marks a final goodbye to the Coney most have grown accustomed to. For the most part (Sitt is still looking to flip more land) the battle is over. The dust is clearing and what's lost is lost. Places like Ruby's will be replaced by corporate owned sports bars and with contracts being signed, nothing can stop the inevitable. The new Coney will be more commercial, more family friendly and, for ride goers and beer drinkers, a more expensive venture. That however doesn't mean Coney has to settle for the spiritless status which has plagued Times Square. Even with a boardwalk sans boards, sit-down restaurant chains, more Sitt created empty lots and rezoned districts to attract luxury condos where rides historically ruled, there is still untapped space available for a true expansion of the "People's Playground."
Much of this untapped space is not in the form of available land but instead, the sea.
Using the Atlantic Ocean, or better put, space over the ocean in the form of a pier as part of an amusement empire is something which Coney Island has not enjoyed in 100 years. Back then Coney was home to America's largest and busiest pier. It was anchored by a ferry terminal on the far end and restaurants, saloons and the country's largest dancehall at its base. Sadly, after 30 years of service, the Iron Pier (named after its iron foundation) was no match for the largest fire New York had ever seen. During the horrifically surreal Dreamland blaze of 1911 (the flames led to fleeing circus animals, including lions, charging down Surf Avenue) the pier slowly melted into the ocean. While the infamous 18 hour inferno is remembered for destroying the most beautiful of all amusement parks, many forget that it also took a direct connection into the Atlantic. With it, most of its contents, from its iron arches, to the steeples atop the giant dance-hall, were lost forever.
Although the wooden Steeplechase Pier still offers a walk over the ocean and while it's still a place for fisherman, young beachside divers, and random strollers to all convene, it doesn't offer much else. Unlike its more popular California and Jersey Shore counterparts, the narrow Steeplechase Pier has no room for rides, booths, businesses and certainly none for concert or show space.
By contrast, the Santa Monica Pier, perhaps the most widely known on earth, is a two level concrete structure which features rides (including a solar powered ferris wheel) a stage, arcades, shops, restaurants, a bar, a bike rental, a designated fishing area, offices for harbor officials and even a small, interactive aquarium. An added bonus, all the businesses are locally owned and devoid of soulless chains.
Originally built in 1916 by Charles Loof (of Coney Island lore) the pier still houses one of his antique carousels. Five years after the Dreamland disaster and around the same time that film studios were fleeing New York for Hollywood, Santa Monica took the mantle as America's most famous pier and beachside amusement. Even so, even the picturesque Southern California suburb has also had its share of ups and downs.
During a decline in the late '60s and early '70s, the nine acre slab of rides was slated for demolition. Unable to compete with Disneyland, other piers and smaller amusement parks throughout California had already met the wrecking ball. Closer to the immediate area, on the Venice Beach border, POP park/pier had been decommissioned in 1967 and was also slated for demolition. After a series of suspicious fires sealed the fate of the abandoned POP, the people of Santa Monica had had enough and fought to save their most historic of ocean playgrounds.
The people won (three of the four city councilors who had supported razing the Santa Monica Pier were voted out of office in 1974) but the historic structure would face further problems, including a 1983 storm which almost battered it into the ocean. Since that lowpoint however, it has evolved into the single most popular beachside locale in all of Greater LA. Tourism, movie/TV/commercial/video shoots, concerts, shows and private parties have provided Santa Monica a financial money maker and a jobs creator for local residents and entertainers to their landmark.
Unlike the still independent city of Santa Monica, Coney Island had already been incorporated into New York long before Dreamland and its Iron Pier burnt to a crisp. Since the "Mistake of 1898" any plans for (and in most cases, against) Coney Island have been decided from inside Manhattan's dubious City Hall offices. From not rebuilding Dreamland in 1911, to razing Luna Park in favor of public housing in the late 1940s, to allowing Fred (Donald's daddy) Trump to buy and level Steeplechase in the mid 1960s, to allowing the entire area to deteriorate throughout the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s, Coney's fate has been in Manhattan's hands. Even the current upswing and scheduled gentrification is being orchestrated from the Mayor's office and not Coney residents.
Thankfully the current Mayor loves money and a new pier offers Coney Island a financial boon it hasn't seen since the days of Steeplechase.