There are good reasons not to redevelop Coney Island, and chief among them is fighting off the monoculture. That’s become a problem nationwide—the corporatization of every storefront and strip mall, eradicating every population center’s regional character. This is what happened in Times Square, too: it wasn’t that Giuliani robbed the area of its seediness, but of its New Yorkness, what then we associated mostly with porno theaters. His crime was not to replace it with the anodyne but with the homogeneous, with a Disney store that wouldn’t seem out of place as the flagship of any Podunk shopping mall.
No one but those with a buck to make should want to see Coney Island become just another seaside shopping strip. But at the same time, is Coney Island as it stands really worth preserving, in and of itself?
Why should we fight to save a decrepit corner of 20th Century failure? Ruby’s, frankly, is divey—yeah, charmingly so, seedy in its own alluring way. I’ve happily downed many a bottle of beer at its bar, have found it a welcoming second-home when working alone out in Coney. (The first time I went there, the bar was full of residents from where I’m from, Bay Ridge; it was the last time, too.) And there’s no reason Ruby’s couldn’t exist alongside upscale competitors on a redeveloped boardwalk. But too many people believe that Coney Island as it stands is Coney Island, that Coney Island could be no other way. And that point of view ignores the area’s long, illustrious history. George Tilyou—or any of the neighborhood’s visionary amusement operators—would have taken one look at the Boardwalk as it stands and thought bigger, thought more beautiful. They would have dreamed.
So why do we look at Coney Island and celebrate its empty lots? Its makeshift, second-rate amusements? I am far from a shill for Zamperla, the Italian amusement operator who issued the eviction notices to the Boardwalk businesses; on the contrary, the company strikes me as greedy, unfeeling, unimaginative. I have no doubt that they will ruin Coney Island. But just because whatever Zamperla replaces Ruby’s with won’t be better than Ruby’s doesn’t mean that Ruby’s is the best we could have. I don’t think that the issue boils down to a simple matter of mall-ification versus the status quo—I don’t think Coney Island hasn’t already been ruined. Just because we’ve never known any other Coney Island than the one that exists now, just because we’ve grown attached to the one last corner of authentic New York-as-it-once-was, doesn’t mean that we should fear any and all change. “We’re living in the past,” one 30-year-old onlooker at the Save Ruby’s Rally told me. “And it’s not even our past.”
Putting an Applebee’s where a family-operated bar and grill operated for 75 years won’t compensate for the lack of imagination (and investment) that has caused Coney to atrophy. But neither will clinging desperately, and blindly, to the ghost of a grand past we never got to see. Granted, there are old timers—many of those in the rally crowd—with a real and valid emotional connection to the neighborhood as it once was, and to its few surviving institutions. But the world does not belong to the dying. And neither should New York—it’s a city that, in a perfect world, would belong neither to the oligarchs nor to the nostalgics.