Is Coney Island Finally Dead?

06/29/2009 4:00 AM |

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 misery continued: once I got to Riegelmann, I found a huge chunk of the Boardwalk torn up and the bars behind it — Ruby’s, Cha-Cha’s — closed. (I worried it was permanent but this is not 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.