Last year, it was hard to imagine that a visit to Coney Island could be any more depressing. The boardwalk was falling apart; Astroland, the charmingly shanty Kiddie Park and cornerstone of the amusement district, was marked for destruction. Vacant lots, strewn with litter and rubble, peppered the streets. A few community gardens ameliorated the blight, and then the city announced it would be shutting two of them down.
The neighborhood has enjoyed a steady decline since its WWII-era heyday, when the streets were lined with arcades, bathhouses and amusements, well past Keyspan Park, the often-unused stadium that now draws the unofficial boundary between Coney Island the neighborhood and Coney Island the tourist destination. 2008 looked like a nadir. Then came 2009.
After spending almost a year on the Coney Island beat for the New York City News Service, I hadn’t taken the N train to the end of the line in months. On an unseasonably warm day in March, I decided to take the trip; little in life beats a sunny-day beer on the boardwalk.
Heartbreak began before I stepped foot off the train: As the subway pulled into the Stillwell Avenue station, I could see from the elevated tracks that my beloved Luna Park Saloon had shuttered; tucked inconspicuously into a strip mall on Neptune Avenue, it was a genuine Old Man Bar, where I’d spent many a knocked-off-early reporting day sucking down Rolling Rocks and watching muted Clint Eastwood movies while the gambling regulars sat glued to horse races, shouting at the screen with crumpled forms in their fists.
the case.) The shops all boasted prominent Thor “For Lease” banners. A short walk to the old Astroland lot revealed, through a chain-link fence, a scene of decimation, like a Ground Zero miniature. The skies turned gray and it got cold. I hid out in Peggy O’Neill’s, practically a T.G.I. Fridays, where I spotted a handful of the leather-skinned, perma-tanned fixture-drunks, in exile without a Ruby’s.
It doesn’t even take a visit to Coney Island to feel awful about what’s happening out there; you can just pick up the newspaper. The same old problems with Joe Sitt and his company, Thor, a major landowner in the amusement district with roughly 10 acres of property, have only gotten worse. The man dying to bring condos to the beachfront neighborhood has effectively shut off negotiations with the city, which has drastically scaled back its own Coney redevelopment plans. The city’s plan for the area, while better than Thor’s, is imperfect anyway, as it calls for glitzy, large-scale development, a “Vegasification” or “Times Square-izing,” that spurns the modest entrepreneurialism that has given Coney its kooky charm over the last century.
Major’s Market is a great example of that spirit. Or, was. It had been serving cuts of meat for 75 years before its proprietor, local celebrity Jimmy Prince, shut it down in February. Aside from its victuals, the butcher shop was best known for the colorful displays of Coneyphilia that graced its façade, as well as the messages of hope: “Coney Island is coming back.”
We’ll see. The local community board announced that it had gone bankrupt. A few weeks ago, the beach was closed for a day following a sewage leak. In April, a cab driver murdered a 27-year-old resident of the Gravesend Houses on W. 33rd Street, chopped her body into pieces and stuffed them into four garbage bags. It was only the most gruesome slaying in a crime and killing spree that gripped the neighborhood this spring. Shootings were up threefold from the same time last year.
Given the misery that has befallen Coney, it seemed fitting that it rained on the Mermaid Parade this year. That Mardi Gras-esque celebration of Coney freakdom (and pirate chic, Somalis be damned), in the guise of Neptunian bacchanalia, commonly draws some of the season’s largest crowds to the area. This year, they were thinner. But people still came.
On Saturday morning, the weather alternated between a drizzle and a shower. By 2pm, the official start of the march, the skies hadn’t cleared, but the rains had stopped. Throngs surged from the Stillwell station. Men festooned with feather hats danced down Surf Avenue. Floats passed with mermaids twisting in bikinis. Women in gaudy sea costumes watched from behind police barricades. The crowd’s umbrellas seemed to close all at once, revealing a view of the proud freaks strolling down the thoroughfare, in the shadows of the shuttered Shore Theater and distant housing projects. A little rain and a lot of bad news couldn’t kill the spirit of celebration.
After the parade, I hid out at Beer Island, a sandy, al fresco brew garden near the boardwalk, which had been overtaken with revelers, drinking and dancing to the blares of a jacked-up jukebox. “It’s like a whole concert atmosphere,” an Italian told me, “without a concert.” But the umbrellas jutting out of the plastic tables trembled in an ominous breeze. The prospect of rain was constant, not a question of if but when; the clouds were Thor and Bloomberg, threatening to shut down the Coney bash. Party-pooping reminders of Coney’s dire straits surrounded us: Sitt’s garish flea market tents, more shanty town than carnival; posters that pleaded “Don’t Shrink Coney—Fix the Plan”; Thor “For Lease” signage splayed across buildings fronts. It started to pour.
But much of the crowd stayed, some huddling beneath the umbrellas, others shimmying, Brooklyn Lagers in hand. For a day in the rain, Coney Island was the People’s Playground again, a reminder of the neighborhood’s past, and a suggestion of what could, God willing, be its future. The state of Coney Island is weak, but the love and fortitude of its supporters is strong. “Luckily we’re all drunk enough not to care about the rain,” a mermaid told me at Beer Island. “Hopefully, it’ll stop.”