by Paul Ruben
In 1958, at the dawn of the theme park era, Lawrence Ferlinghetti published a book of poetry which has since become a modern classic, entitled A Coney Island of the Mind. I purchased a copy because I mistakenly thought it was about Coney Island, then the Holy Grail of amusement parks.
Coney Island – Sodom by the Sea or the Brooklyn Riviera – I’ve always been fascinated by it. Just as Orlando is the epicentre of today’s outdoor amusement industry, Coney Island was the standard to which other traditional amusement parks of its era were compared.
Today’s Coney Island is just a sample of the grandeur of earlier times, and now it is threatened by developers. Indeed, 2008 may be the final season for Astroland, one of two major parks at Coney Island, and Dino’s Wonder Wheel park may soon follow.
In their place a new development is planned with condominiums and some token glitzy new rides. Only the Parachute Jump, Wonder Wheel and Cyclone will be kept because they are designated historic landmarks.
I cringe when I hear the word “condominium.” Condos and shopping malls are the natural enemies of rollercoasters, and over the years many revered parks and rides have been replaced by them. What fun is that? Fortunately, in New York nothing is easy. Thor Equities’ plan for development is being challenged by the mayor’s plan calling for Thor’s property to be turned into parkland.
Carol Hill Albert, operator of Astroland, has sold her property to Thor, but it has been leased back to her for the time being. It is not yet resolved if this is to be her final season. “I am hoping that whatever solution is arrived at will be one that keeps Coney Island affordable,” she notes, “and keeps the beach and boardwalk open to the public, which it has always been.”
“The city should not lose sight of the area’s immediate future,” urges Jasper Goldman, senior policy analyst for the Municipal Art Society of New York. “It will be several years – even decades – before redevelopment is complete, and the city should create an interim plan to ensure that Coney Island remains a vital destination during this period.”
As it does every year, Astroland’s season began on Palm Sunday, this year March 16. Despite the cold weather, I was determined to attend. I was looking forward to riding their dark ride, Dante’s Inferno (better than the book), and the Cyclone, the classic wood coaster to which all others are compared. The Cyclone was thrilling, but for me the best part of the day is always the harrowing subway ride from midtown Manhattan.
Before I left Coney Island I stopped to see the nearby freak show featuring both a midget and a singing pony. I was told the pony couldn’t sing that day because he was a little horse, and I think they paid the midget under the table.