Monday, July 25, 2011

Coney Island, The Ghost, Lingers Sadly On ... and On ...PBS Sheds A Few More Tears ...

Luna Park

Amazing that any of it is still there. As a wee kid once, when my Mom took us to Brooklyn and we lived with my grandmother on Hart Street for a couple of months, we got to run through the sand, get lifted high over Coney inside the giant Wonder Wheel, feel the sudden heart-pounding drop strapped into a Parachute Jump chair. Thousands of people all around. A real amusement park of major rides, each distinctively different. Production rides. Not the smaller carny ones that came to the county fair.

Years later at Steeplechase Park (1897-1964), I rode a steel horse and tried pretending it was a wild race. The aging apparatus needed more than oil. The park came down in a season or two. Today, minor league baseball games are played in the same space.

On a poignant PBS documentary taking a look at the Coney Island's dim prospects for survival, somebody noted the "diversity" of those old attractions, of the inherent architectural values. Amen to that. Perhaps more than any other amusement park, Coney was a wondrously atmospheric place. Indeed, its architectural charms were as much a draw as were its individual amusements. I grew up on the other coast entranced by glorified images of it on post cards, by the mere sounds of Luna ... Steeplechase ... Dreamland.

But now, irony of ironies, people both older and younger than myself are ruing the recent demise of, yes, the oddly jumbled, hardly memorable Astroland. Atmosphere? Totally not. Perhaps its only redeeming virtue was that it stood in the shadows of the famed Cyclone roller coaster, arguably one of the best ever built. New Yorkers had the savvy and resolve to save this classic wooden thriller. But the claustrophobic carnival package of generic midway rides offered by Astroland, itself ultimately fenced in for security reasons, was no match for today's modern version of an amusement park. Walt Disney changed all that, Brooklyn. At the end of 2008, your Tilt-a-Whirl made its final run.

What had unfortunately followed the faceless Astroland into Coney were years of seedy gang warfare. So eerie was the place, that on visits to the Big City, I would ride out there on the subway, hoping to find what had only even half-way remained when I was a kid, take a brief walk across the street, look around at creepy teenage figures, maybe grab a Nathan's Hot Dog, hurry back across the street for the return to civilization over the mighty Brooklyn Bridge.


Not all seaside midways last. San Francisco's Playland-at-the-Beach, across the street from where I was raised, slowly fizzled away, the Big Dipper coaster condemned in 1956, an inferior set of carnival rides inserted as a last-ditch drive to keep death alive. Playland's own version of Astroland, indeed. Now, where in better days sailors and their momentary girlfriends screamed through the fog down rickety Big Dipper drops into a forest of white lumber, there stands a bland two story condominium complex. Even up the street at the new and "improved" Cliff House, the old commercial museum of Playland-era piano players and slot-machine games, which occupied a space under the old Cliff House, has been 86d. There's not a trace left of the beach side glitter in which I grew up. The Boardwalk at Santa Cruz has been intelligently preserved. The boardwalk at Santa Monica has been "saved," but only a merry-g0-round and a few of the old eatery shacks. The rest is a modern spread of newer rides.

And Coney? Even the Felds could not revive old glories. A two year all-summer stint of Ringling under canvas was a long shot. Circuses don't do well hanging around too long. Ringling has ditched Coney for a new arena under construction near the Atlantic yards.

I feel for those New Yorkers who cry for Coney. But the free market, both beautiful and bitter, ultimately decides. Certainly in the Big Apple. Unless they can get Disney to install its magic, the best they might hope for is a consortium of high rise condos cradling a compact little fun zone featuring the Cyclone and a few other upscale amusements. I can already envision the Museum of Nathans. In it, please, a vast panorama of life-sized photographs of old Coney. That fantastically colorful world was already on the wane when I first experienced a precious few of its residual delights. Oh, what an exciting place it was, and it ain't never coming back.

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