Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Maybe Now We're Seeing a Real Coney Island Revival

Posted By on Wed, Jun 5, 2013 at 12:28 PM

When I started journalism school in 2007, I was put on the Coney Island beat. Of course, I'd been to Coney Island before: had ridden the Cyclone, eaten at Nathan's, watched the Mermaid Parade, hung out at the Siren Festival, swam in the ocean. But I didn't know many details of the neighborhood's history (or much about the non-amusement areas). So I walked around a lot, all the way to Sea Gate and up to the creek, and I read books and watched documentaries about the way things had been, marveling at photographs of the electric-lighted grandeur of the old Luna Park and its stunning entrance, all steeples and sharp crescents. It's impossible for me to imagine how magical Coney Island must have seemed in its heyday because I've never seen anything like it in real life, certainly not in Coney Island; by 2007, almost all of it was gone. That was right before the Bloomberg administration announced its redevelopment plans, when landowners were waiting-and-seeing before venturing to build anything, when all the empty lots just sat as empty lots.

But Coney Island at its peak wasn't just about awesome amusement parks: it was also known for vaudeville. There were acts playing the saloons, Jimmy Durante playing piano and Eddie Cantor singing. (You could argue this tradition lived on, in a very different fashion, in places like the back of Cha-Cha's.) And then there were the theaters: the Surf Theater, the Manhattan Beach Theater, the Brighton Beach Music Hall. There was Henderson’s , where Harpo joined the Marx Brothers' act, according to the blog Travalanche. Al Jolson and Jerry Lewis performed at The Shore Theater, which by its end was showing pornography before it closed in the 70s. (It's still sitting, shuttered and unused, on Surf Avenue right when you get off the subway.)

The thing that got me down the most about the neighborhood when I started working there (particularly as an arts reporter) wasn't that Dreamland had burned down so many years ago and not been rebuilt, or that a much-needed boost to the local economy for the people who, you know, live in Coney Island was so slow-coming. It was that a one-time entertainment Mecca didn't even have a goddamn movie theater anymore. (I don't mean to diminish the good work the people of Coney Island USA do.)

So the news in the Brooklyn Paper today that outgoing Borough President Marty Markowitz's plan to turn the old Child's building on the Boardwalk into a 5,000-seat amphitheater will probably actually happen by 2015 is super exciting: not just because it promises new parkland and the maintenance of a beautiful old building (except the "hole" they'll be knocking in the side), but because it also signals a serious commitment to the arts in Coney Island. (You know, where the Mermaid Parade needs a Kickstarter to survive.) You couldn't say the area's on its way back just because there are new roller coasters there. Coney Island wasn't just about the roller coasters.

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart

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About The Author

Henry Stewart

Henry Stewart

Henry Stewart is the Culture Editor at The L Magazine and Brooklyn Magazine. He has always lived in Brooklyn.

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