Coney Island has been dying, slowly and quietly, for years. Forget the glory days of a nickelodeon on every corner; I’m talking about the Coney Island every contemporary Brooklynite knows and loves: those crumbling ruins of a war-era entertainment Mecca, a still-standing symbol of urban failure—of late 20th-century devastation after decades of post-war prosperity. That’s the Coney that’s been vanishing.
Of course, Coney Island has been in perpetual decline for decades, so it’s difficult to pinpoint the start of the current collapse. Could we say 2008? Astroland, the area’s signature amusement park, finally closed its gates at the end of that year’s season, leaving for rides just the roller coaster and the Ferris wheel. With Astroland went several other iconic establishments, though you might not have noticed. Coney’s only remaining inland alehouse that wasn’t a garish sports bar was the Luna Park Saloon—or, Luna P rk S loon, as its sign read. It shuttered to little fanfare sometime in late 2008 or early 2009; I found out by showing up for a Rolling Rock and meeting a FOR RENT sign and a locked door. Nearby, on Mermaid Avenue, the venerable neighborhood butcher shop, Major Prime Meat Market, closed when local legend Jimmy Prince went into retirement after almost 60 years of service. “This is bigger than the closing of Astroland,” a Coney lifer told the Post then.
Meanwhile, the businesses on the Boardwalk—the bars, Ruby’s and Cha Cha’s; the Shoot the Freak game; Lola Staar’s boutique; the food stands; and others—struggled seasonally to survive. Thor Equities, the evil developer that owned a huge chunk of amusement-area real estate, kept their leases dangling year after year (as they had done to Astroland); during early ‘09 off-season, the Boardwalk businesses’ facades displayed enormous “For Rent” signs, a reminder that they would go the way of Steeplechase as soon as someone offered Thor more money.
Unfortunately, that somebody was the Bloomberg administration, to which Thor finally sold out after years of stalling. The city contracted an Italian developer, Zamperla, whose first act was to open an amusement park on the old Astroland site and call it Luna Park—a nod to the most storied park in the neighborhood’s heyday history. Coneyphiles rejoiced, briefly. Zamperla seemed to get it.
But all Zamperla understands is il motivo di profitto. Last week, it gave nine classic Boardwalk businesses the heave-ho, citing a difference of vision. If Coney’s decline began in 2008, it just wrapped up: Ruby’s and Cha Cha’s are done. Shoot the Freak will be gone. Gregory & Paul’s, the food stand atop which the Astroland rocket once pointed toward the stars, is history. “Zamperla wants everything new,” Ruby’s owner told the Post. “But that’s not what Coney Island’s about—it’s about nostalgia.”
In their places will be a “huge” sports bar and at least two “upscale” restaurants. It’s the deathblow to the only Coney Island we’ve ever known. But we should’ve seen it coming.