Coney Island is dying. Or is it already dead? Or will it keep clinging to life as it has since its mid-19th century decline? Unfortunately, what little is left of the historic oceanside Brooklyn attraction has received some heavy coffin nails. Yet there remain dedicated New Yorkers who are determined to save it.
On a cool, sunny, Sunday morning in October, I took a Historic District Tour offered free of charge by Save Coney Island, a organization devoted to preserving Coney Island’s history. The walk included several structures already being demolished, and others that are in danger, all of which are proposed for landmark designation. Currently, the only structures to have historic landmark designation are the Cyclone roller coaster, Deno’s Wonder Wheel, the Parachute Jump, and Child’s Restaurant. Most of the rest are owned by Thor Equities, which has plans to level the old sites to make way for condos and other shiny new buildings.
We started at the Shore Theatre, built in 1925, which is one of Coney Island’s most visible buildings and was once a center for vaudeville performances. As was the 1899 Henderson’s Music Hall (shown above), the first performance venue for the Marx brothers, which is already in the process of being demolished. Continuing down Surf Avenue, we stopped again and again in front of crumbling, yet intact, old buildings draped in Thor Equities banners. The Grashorn Building is the oldest in the area and the neoclassical Bank of Coney Island was ornately constructed in 1923 at the height of Coney Island’s success.
Unfortunately, when I returned just two weeks later, the bank was already ripped open, it’s stunning decor exposed to the sky. From an opening in the fence, we could just glimpse the carved walls behind the construction equipment.
While the Bank of Coney Island and Henderson’s are beyond hope for preservation, it is not impossible for the other historic buildings. And there’s even been some success already. Coney Island USA, which boasts freaks, beer, and history, is in the original Child’s Restaurant. Rather than completely remodel the building, the museum/freakshow kept some of the building’s grittiness in their restoration. It fits perfectly with Coney Island’s character, and represents the possibilities for the neighboring buildings on Surf Avenue.
Last week, nine of the businesses on the boardwalk were notified by landlord Zamperla that their leases would not be renewed. Although not in their peak shape, places like Ruby’s and the odd, but typically Coney Island, Shoot the Freak, were icons of the district. Zamperla is responsible for Luna Park, which opened this summer on the site of Astroland. For most of the employees and patrons of the boardwalk businesses, theses closures seem like yet another brutal gouge in the scarred skin of dreamland.
This past Saturday, I went to the rally for Ruby’s, where a few hundred people came out to support the bar and grill that’s been operating on the boardwalk for over 75 years. It and the other eight businesses have to leave by November 15, and its patrons and lovers of Coney Island were having a final drink while protesting the closures.
As drastic as the remaking of Coney Island appears, it’s a reflection of what’s been happening all around New York. The Bowery has long disappeared beneath steel and glass, while Williamsburg is pocked by the numerous abandoned construction sites for condos that have yet to go up. Nevertheless, New York’s identity is change. The rate of real estate and new residents keeps the city in constant movement, and that’s part of what makes it so exciting. But if it continues to lose its historic buildings, it will end up as character-less as a midwestern strip mall.
It’s even possible that the wooden planks of the boardwalk will be replaced with concrete. Yes, the boards are in need of repairs, but this seems a bit like replacing Prospect Park with astroturf because it’s a pain to mow. If enough people can articulate how important Coney Island’s quirky history is to Brooklyn, perhaps the streamrolling can be stopped. The preservation of Coney Island will take effort, but hopefully the city and its government can be convinced that this is important. If not, the historic district of the famed Atlantic destination will be as regrettable a loss as New York’s original Penn Station.
Interested in getting involved? Look no further than Save Coney Island’s website! They’re always looking for volunteers, and love it when you get the word out.