This past Wednesday wasn’t just any old sunny summer middle-of-the-weekday, not at least for this intrepid urban historian and journalist. It so happened to be the 27th birthday of yours truly. As befits a Brooklyn-born birthday boy, I continued a fine personal tradition of spending the day at Coney Island, enjoying the surf, sand, clams and a world-class Roller Coaster. Enough has been written about the impending erasure of Coney’s working-class culture and its blue-collar atmosphere — this column will not contribute to the ongoing miasma. The truth is that Coney is a third-class recreational resort that is operating at a fifth of its capacity. It’s run-down and dingy. A new year-round water-park and shopping center will bring employment, fortunes and visitors that will directly affect Brooklyn’s economy for the greater good; it’s just a genuine heartbreaker that all the original, nitty gritty clam bars and dive spots will be erased for Applebee’s and TGIFridays. A quick moment of silence for Ruby’s Old Tyme Bar and Grill, soon to be RIP.
On Riegelmann Boardwalk, near West 17th street and just before Keyspan Park (home of the Brooklyn Cyclones) is . . . a parking lot. But before it was a parking lot there stood one of the most gloriously run-down, magically decrepit wood and steel structures one could hope to dream up after falling asleep reading Edward Gorey. This was the legendary Thunderbolt Roller Coaster, designed and built by John Miller, the man responsible for the basic science of today’s modern high-speed rollercoaster, and erected in 1925, two years before its still-operating sister coaster, the spectacular Cyclone. Miller worked with La Marcus A. Thompston, the man who invented the damn things. Miller advanced on Thompson’s designs by including an extra set of wheels underneath the track and attached to the car, which prevents the car from flying off at any of the turns, swoops and spins.
Although the Thunderbolt stopped operating in 1983, way before this Coney Island baby could get a chance to ride it, I was always a fan of wandering past the massive hulking shell and double-looped turns. There also used to be a building under the Thunderbolt, the Kensington Hotel, its construction predating the by thirty years. The Thunderbolt was actually built on top of and over the hotel — the steel support beams of the coaster were driven down through the hotel’s infrastructure. “You don’t tear down buildings in Coney Island if you can help it.” quoted Kensington Hotel owner George Moran in the papers of the day (what a glorious and ill-forgotten agenda nowadays). The Thunderbolt got its star turn in Hollywood as being the house where Alvy Singer, nee Woody Allen, grew up in his ode to the New York neurotic romance, Annie Hall. In fact, at last year’s Billyburg Short Film Festival, we watched a magnificent and heartbreaking short film, called Under the Roller Coaster, about the lovers, friends and family that lived under the coaster; the trailer can be seen here.
How did the Thunderbolt meet its ignominious end? At six a.m. on November 17th, 2000, Mayor Giuliani called in the wrecking ball. The claim was that the coaster was in danger of collapsing and damaging people around it (it wasn’t, and the entire perimeter was fenced off to interlopers.) as well as declaring that the coaster stood on city property (according to city maps, it didn’t). In fact, the city needed to take it down to make room for the up-and-coming Keyspan Park. Before sunup the wrecking balls tore into the dilapidated frame, and it came down within a few hours. Not coincidentally, preservationist Charles Denson and the Friends of Coney Island had submitted a claim for the Thunderbolt to be recognized by the Landmarks Preservation Society, but it was all too late. The Thunderbolt was no more. As the future of Coney Island emerges from its cotton candy haze, it’s important to realize that as much as things change, they might not stay the same, they might emerge drastically different, but we will always have the Coney Island of our minds.