In the tunnel that leads to the Wonder Wheel

Coney Island: A Million Different Pasts

As I watch Manhattan’s continuing transformation into an overpriced mall, I find it difficult to believe that change is by nature positive. I walk around ranting and pointing—that was St Vincent’s Hospital! That was the Jefferson Market and so was Sammy’s Noodle Shop! That’s where my favorite movie theater used to be. I’m told I should get over it, that change is the nature of New York City, that I don’t have to become an old curmudgeon if I don’t want to. The option to just enjoy things for what they are doesn’t work for me though. I must protest.

Matt G draws in the sand, Thunderbolt in background


Coney Island is my metaphor. I fell in love with it during a period it was said to be dead, a vast wasteland by the beach. It was the 80s and I was a teenager. A particularly cool friend of my brother’s took him there, then he took me, and I’m pretty sure it changed me forever.


In the tunnel that leads to the Wonder Wheel

It’s not that I give a shit about amusement parks. It is history and partying that I give a shit about. And in the 80s, Coney Island was a big, sleazy outlaw party on a set of itself from a million pasts. You could drink beer out of paper bags without getting arrested, or smoke a joint on the beach knowing the cops never ventured onto the sand. There were old bars and functioning amusement rides, decrepit buildings put to new uses. The Thunderbolt was still there, a rusted fossil crawling slowly back out to sea. It was always crowded in those days, mostly Latino families and  teenagers blasting hip hop—most of the other white people were the old ones, the one’s who’d worked there for decades, whose memories hung cloudy in their eyes.

This was probably a fountain at one point.

My brother and I went there every weekend every summer, and at least a few times off season, and every visit was an adventure. Playing on the beach in the snow, sifting through records at Rainbow Village flea market, shooting pool at the Atlantis, spray painting graffiti under the boardwalk while my brother peed. I shot a bow and arrow there once, and never saw the stall again. It was sleazy and loud and spooky—you could sense the ghosts of the Shore Hotel as you ate fried chicken at the Kansas on the ground floor.

Crossing the street towards the Coppertone ad, you were in the 50s. Standing in the shade in a dark alley and you were in the 40s. There were signs still hanging that referred to places that hadn’t been there in almost a hundred years. To me, the place that felt the oldest of all, was the tiny bar that used to be in the Stillwell Avenue train station, until they demolished it. It seemed as if the men lining the bar had been stuck in place for years, and the only other thing in the bar was the line for the bathroom. It went from the street entrance to the very back of the bar where the two bathrooms were. Just in front of them, a small, aged black man sat on a stool next to a tiny table with a basket of quarters and a pile of little fast food napkins. When you made it to the front of the line you’d put a quarter in the basket and he would hand you two napkins. You could feel the years when you were in there. And just outside, the hip hop music blasted.

And then McDonalds wanted to open in the spot on the Boardwalk that housed the freak show, and everything started changing. Coney was in the news for the first time in ages–suddenly it was important, even trendy. The McDonalds never opened there, and the freak show moved to another location. But the work that the freak show did to promote the history of Coney was cool, and it attracted hipsters, and suddenly we were not the only white Manhattanites anymore.

Yet Coney went on, slowly gentrifying as the years passed. Slowly enough that it retained its history, retained its culture, retained its reputation as a place where the classes and races mixed together and celebrated being alive, as it had always been, Sodom by the Sea. Crowds moving to the dancehall reggae booming out of the Himalaya, young men selling cans of frosty Bud from coolers on the beach.

This building is gone, but the memories remain.

Often I have hated the change, the destruction, and these days, the horrific greed that drives it. This past decade or so has been hard on Coney—the death of the old train station, with the bar and the Coppertone ad and the flea market and Phillip’s Candy Store. Faber’s Fascination shrunk and shrunk and finally disappeared. The old bank building is gone, and sand fills the area under the Boardwalk—no one will be having fun there anymore. Just found out the Eldorado people sold their spot on Surf Avenue. To the  huge development corporation–did no one else want to buy it?

The thing these greedy developers don’t understand is that Coney represents two things, one that it will always be and one that it will never be again, and literally no amount of money can change that.

At the start of the 20th Century when the three major amusement parks were first open, it was the coolest, most modern place in the entire world. It was a place where millions of people saw and did things for the very first time–the extravagantly beautiful use of electricity, the new thrill of the rides and historical reenactments, laughing and swimming with people of vastly different backgrounds, freaks and snakes and the first use of incubators. But today, there are thousands of amusement parks, all kinds of attractions, and the coolest newest things are virtual. Everybody has them. Just as NYC can never be the most modern city in the world again, Coney will never be the monumental attraction it once was. It just ain’t gonna happen.

That’s what Coney will never be again. But what Coney will always be is a beautiful bit of sea shore, steeped in history, a place that requires celebration and defies change. Gritty, sleazy and real, no amount of cheap crap will ever destroy it. It’s made of memories and it creates more every day. I will tell myself this  when I go next weekend to check out the fantastic re-modeled Ruby’s: they’ve decorated their ceiling with pieces of the old Boardwalk, so people can drink and laugh and make out under it once again.

The spirit of Coney is exemplified by the sign posted by George C. Tilyou the morning after his Steeplechase Park burnt down in 1907:

To enquiring friends:

I have troubles today that I had not yesterday.

I had troubles yesterday which I have not today.

On this site will be built a bigger, better, Steeplechase Park.

Admission to the burning ruins — Ten cents.

We will dance in the burning ruins as the future rises around us.

Where were you in ninety-two?