My girlfriend and I visited Coney Island this past Friday afternoon. I wanted to see what all of the hubbub was about, being that the various theme parks (or, more likely, a commercial public relations collective of all the various theme parks) have spent a bundle of money to promote how happening the place is. It’s been two years since they tore down a lot of the shit that made the place fun, and I can say that some of the midway has started to come back. The new rides are mediocre–a little infantile–and the batting cages and go-kart track are still sorely missed. Where the bumper boats and go-karts were is now an open air flea market, with card table booths hawking irregular socks and knock off Power Rangers toys. Nothing has been done to fix the boardwalk, nothing has really changed except that there’s slightly more Coney Island fun than there was last year, but far less Coney Island fun than there was in 2008. I say: give it another year. Hopefully by then the empty lots will be filled, the midway restored (at least with games if not go-karts), and it will be a decent place to hang out again. For you and your fucking miserable goddamned family.
I had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion about the “restoration” of Coney Island in 2007 or 2008, and I thought it was interesting. It was couched as a simple zoning conversion which would allow more freedom in construction, but as the members of the panel (which included one woman who claimed the 1939 World’s Fair was held at Coney Island [false] and one of Bloomberg’s deputy mayors who looked about as interested in Coney Island as I am in recalling his title) described their proposed changes I got a little worried. They wanted to build a ring of hi-rise hotels with commercial space on the ground level that would completely obscure the Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel from Surf Avenue. The panel talked about demolishing the low-income housing that surrounds the Coney Island amusements and replacing it with luxury apartment buildings. I had to laugh at their contingency plan for the disenfranchised children in the neighborhood: a brand new community center twenty blocks West in a completely different neighborhood. You know, since kids don’t like rides and ice cream and shit like that. They’d rather toss the medicine ball around with Mr. Touches-A-Lot.
As the historically-incorrect woman assured the crowd that no views of the Life Savers Parachute Jump would be obscured–you know, the Parachute Jump, that rusted relic that actually is from the 1939 World’s Fair which hasn’t worked since before my parents were born–it occurred to me that what this panel aimed to do was make Coney Island palatable to families. And not just any families, but white families, hopefully with those out-of-town tourist dollars (I assume demure Asian families would also be encouraged). They wanted these project kids twenty blocks West, throwing deflated basketballs at a net-less hoop, so Minnesota Joe and his nuclear family could enjoy a turn on the bumper cars without hearing any of that blasted rap music. I scoffed at the idea: a New York City tourist might brave Lenox Avenue for some soul food or Avenue A for a dive bar, but they aren’t sitting for two-plus fucking hours on the subway to ride a Ferris wheel. At least, that’s what I thought.
When I first visited Coney Island as a teenager, it was a pretty hard scrabble place. Even then, it was a pale imitator of the 1970s Coney Island which was the home turf for the titular gang in The Warriors. I recall a lot of loud music, broken glass, hard-looking dudes with their shirts off mean mugging everyone in sight. It wasn’t even the kind of place you wanted to bring a date, much less your white bread family. Then, as the city improved, Coney Island improved with it, getting generally cleaner and safer and more enjoyable for a wide variety of people. Don’t misunderstand, Coney Island was a family destination even in 2008, but it was more for local families, for children reared in New York who know to keep their money in their sock and their senses alert at all times. Frankly, I thought it was a swell place to bring children of all ages, but then I am not a parent. I take it for granted that folks might have to brook a mugging or a random shooting sometimes. That’s life in the big city for you.
Having seen Coney Island in the process of being rebuilt, I get the distinct impression that they want to create more of a DisneyWorld effect, and not that of a local fairground. It’s like developers think that Coney Island will become a seaside resort: chromosome-deficient Midwestern kids happily splashing in a kiddie pool while mom sips margaritas behind a fence that obscures the Atlantic Ocean, five-hundred feed away. Starbucks and Pinkberry become the circled wagons that keep those noisy black folks at bay. “Anything for the children,” is the motto of the day, as we become more segregated and our culture more homogenized in order to restrict a child below the age of twelve from seeing an exposed nipple. I’ve had enough of this shit; kids, get on my level. Coney Island is fun as hell, and if you’re not wise then you could be parted from your cotton candy money in a minute. But the flip side of that is you’ll probably see some junkie with a parrot on his head juggling for quarters. That’s New York City, not motherfucking Abercrombie & Fitch.