Coney Island: A Thrilling Past and Uncertain Future

The Cyclone roller coaster at New York's Coney Island i i

The Cyclone roller coaster, which has been designated a National Historic Place, will remain at Coney Island even if the land around it is redeveloped. Kate Davidson, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Kate Davidson, NPR
The Cyclone roller coaster at New York's Coney Island

The Cyclone roller coaster, which has been designated a National Historic Place, will remain at Coney Island even if the land around it is redeveloped.

Kate Davidson, NPR
Gerald Menditto has run the Cyclone roller coaster for 33 years, but he has never ridden it.

Gerald Menditto, who was born and raised in Coney Island, has operated the world-famous Cyclone roller coaster for 33 seasons, but never ridden it. He says that about "50 rugged guys" from the neighborhood have this same Coney Island tattoo. Kate Davidson, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Kate Davidson, NPR
Carol Hill Albert sold the land under Astroland for $30 million i i

Carol Hill Albert, whose family has owned Astroland since 1962, sold the land underneath her amusements for $30 million. Kate Davidson, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Kate Davidson, NPR
Carol Hill Albert sold the land under Astroland for $30 million

Carol Hill Albert, whose family has owned Astroland since 1962, sold the land underneath her amusements for $30 million.

Kate Davidson, NPR

From the top of the world-famous Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island, riders can see white-sand beaches, the Astroland amusement park and New York City's skyline before they take a heart-stopping plunge.

For 80 years, the view atop the wooden coaster has changed with the amusements and arcades below. But this weekend could be the final view of most of Astroland, the oldest amusement park at Coney Island. Development is encroaching upon — or rescuing — other parts of the district, too, depending upon your point of view.

A $2 Billion Makeover

In its heyday, Coney Island was considered “America’s Playground” and “The Nickel Empire.” Today, many of its lots sit empty, strewn with litter and weeds. For many residents, the need for some kind of makeover is not in dispute. What is in dispute is how to fashion that makeover. A major developer has bought parcels of the amusement district — 10 acres' worth — and wants to rezone the famed strip in a $2 billion overhaul, including high-rise hotels.

While Thor Equities promised to create a year-round amusement park with new shops and tantalizing rides, the developer also said it would need to rezone for high-rise buildings to finance it. Coney Island aficionados fear that such structures would tower over the Cyclone, and obscure the classic view from the Boardwalk.

They also worry that the mom-and-pop amusement operators at Coney could be priced out altogether in future plans, leaving only a few protected places, among them Coney Island's Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel.

And since the city has resisted giving in to Thor’s demands — at least so far — many of the "old salts" at Coney Island worry about what will happen, fearing it could become a ghost town, though the developer says that won’t happen. What is clear is that Coney Island is a much-loved piece of Americana, a uniquely American place built by dreamers, for dreamers.

Jimmy is a neighborhood butcher. i i

Jim Prince has worked for 58 years behind the butcher block at Major Prime Meat Market on Mermaid Avenue. He says Coney Island has always had its ups and downs. Kate Davidson, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Kate Davidson, NPR
Jimmy is a neighborhood butcher.

Jim Prince has worked for 58 years behind the butcher block at Major Prime Meat Market on Mermaid Avenue. He says Coney Island has always had its ups and downs.

Kate Davidson, NPR

A Storied Past

Cyclone manager Gerald Menditto grew up in the neighborhood and has watched gravel and weeds overtake the streets that he roamed as a kid. For 33 years, the tanned, tattooed, tough-talking Menditto has watched visitors pile onto his neck-snapping ride, but maybe he’s not so tough after all — he has never ridden it.

"I've been all over the ride. I walk it, I climb it. It's not the height, it's the drop," he says.

Tucked under the Cyclone is a building with a little storefront that houses the Coney Island History Project. The Project's director, Charles Denson, is collecting thousands of signatures for petitions demanding that Coney Island’s character be preserved. He says that visitors cherish Coney Island and its joys.

"You're brought here as a child and you see things that amaze you. And then you come back here as a teenager and you learn about sex," Denson says. " … And then there's another stage where you come back with your own kids and introduce them."

Denson, who has written two books about Coney Island, is fascinated by how the park has satiated the need for simple excitement. A carved, wooden horse behind the counter of his display case is an artifact from Coney Island's Steeplechase ride. The ride was almost crazy by today’s standards: People sat astride the horses, catapulting forward and often falling off. But for the ride's proprietor, George C. Tilyou, the end of the race was just the beginning.

When riders dismounted, they entered a theater called The Insanitorium where a dwarf spanked them as they exited and blowers lifted up women's skirts. Denson says that Tilyou was an amateur psychologist who knew that people didn’t mind being the butt of pranks as long as they could watch other people undergoing the same harmless humiliations.

Denson says that Coney Island’s effect on six-day-a-week workers was liberating. Many visitors, Denson points out, came from the “Old World” hoping for a bit of personal freedom, only to spend long hours in sweatshops and tenements. But at Coney Island, they could let loose.

"They went through The Insanitorium, the sexes mixed, they went into barrels and they were rolled over together. These were things they couldn't do in the old country and that's where they learned to be Americans," Denson says.

Though some of Coney Island's rides and arcades may be run-down and even hokey -– an Old West shooting gallery looks like it could have entertained kids in the ‘50s — many visitors say there’s a place for this sort of nostalgia. Often called the "Nickel Empire," the working poor could escape here and forget their cares, and feel like that nickel went a very long way.

C.C. Brown, 53, used to come to Coney Island regularly with her mother, who was a maid in the area. To coax her children to work with her, Brown's mother always promised them one ride when they were done cleaning and a visit to the famed Nathan's hot dog stand.

"My heart's here. A lot of people's hearts are here," Brown says. She wondered if she would ever see Coney Island again with the sort of kooky, edgy, storefront feel encapsulated by games like "Shoot the Freak."

But it was the boardwalk, where Brown often stayed overnight, that was clearly on her mind as she roamed the streets.

"If we had to work again early in the morning, [my mother would] take us under the boardwalk and we'd sleep underneath the boardwalk. And nobody bothered you and it was clean and it was neat," she says.

An Uncertain Future

Because New York City is resisting having high-rises soaring in the amusement district, no one is sure what will come next. And that tension is palpable these days. That’s why Carol Hill Albert, whose family has owned Astroland since 1962, says she sold the land underneath her amusements for $30 million.

But Albert says that if the stand-off continues between Thor Equities and the city, she’d like a new lease to protect her workers, her rides and her business. Many of those seasonal workers have been with her for decades, she says, and she doesn’t know if she’ll have to give Thor a "clean" site, or not. She’d love to get in another season of Astroland.

By some reports, attendance at Coney Island was up 30 percent this summer, and a recent Friday night saw the boardwalk jammed with thousands of people eyeing the fireworks, the neon of the old parachute jump and the glory of Deno’s Wonder Wheel.

Area business stalwarts are banding together to do what they can. Jim Prince, a genial butcher who has, for 58 years, been behind the butcher block of Major Prime Meat Market on Mermaid Avenue, says Coney Island has had a wonderful ride. But the magic only lasts, he feels, if everything is working together: the views, the surf, the arcades, the famous big rides, the parades, the kids, the crowds.

"It reminds me of the Cyclone. You have your ups, your downs, your twists, your turns. And at the end of the ride you're out of breath and you say to the ticket taker, 'Could I have another ride, please?'"

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.