September 21, 2008

World Without End, Unfortunately


The headline in the UK Sun said it all: “World Does Not End.”

            It seems the first test of the seventeen mile long supercollider buried under the Alps—an experiment in which particle physicists were hoping to recreate the Big Bang—was a success, and the world was not sucked into a man-made black hole.

            My first (and only) reaction was “Well, goddammit.”

            Thing is, how a group of physicists can call a recreation of the Big Bang a “success” when the world wasn’t vaporized as a result is beyond me. It couldn’t have been a very good recreation then, could it?

            It would’ve seemed utterly appropriate if the world had ended on that Wednesday, given that Astroland and most of the other surrounding stands on the Coney Island boardwalk had shut down for good three days earlier. The Cyclone and Wonder Wheel aside, Coney was officially declared dead. And that being the case, what was left to live for?

            Okay, that’s overstating it a bit. I’m not going to go snuff it because the Ring Toss was shuttered. But Coney was a very important symbol to me throughout my life, long before I ever had the chance to visit it in person—and that first, magical visit only cemented things. After all these years of writing about my deep and abiding love for Coney Island, it would be remiss of me not to say something about its sad and ignoble demise. I’ve bemoaned the loss of lesser things in my time.

            But you know, I’ve written too many obits for Coney already over these past years, only to have it rise from the grave like some mad, grinning zombie the next season. That’s why I’m wondering if I should even bother this time around. Coney’s been shut down, then miraculously resurrected, so many times over the past four or five years for “one last season” that I’ve gotten used to it. I just assume now that it will always come back, always be there. To be honest, the constant talk of Coney’s death and resurrection has left me a little wearied of the whole thing. It’s become the Amusement Park that Cried Wolf. When this latest announcement was made that Astroland was absolutely shutting down forever and ever for real this time, I just shrugged. Most news outlets did too.

            Consider this:

            The Coney Island amusement park has been there in one form or another for well over a century now. Over the decades it’s gone through any number of radical changes. The Coney we know today is just a tiny, pale hangnail of the greatness that once was, when Steeplechase Park, Luna Park and Dreamland filled the neighborhood with light and midgets and insanity. Astroland, in fact, was only a minor latecomer, long after Luna Park and Dreamland burned down.

            They invented the hot dog and the roller coaster there, and it was one of the first places in New York to make extensive use of electrical lighting (maybe not the best idea in retrospect, given that everything was built from plywood, paint and tar). By the turn of the twentieth century, it was the most famous beach in the world. At its peak, there was nothing else like it anywhere.

            After each of the fires, though, Coney was rebuilt a little smaller, a little less extravagant, a little less insane—until the late 1960s, when it had been reduced to a single park contained on three acres. Still it survived, and people loved it for what it was. Even after the Thunderbolt closed down, and the Parachute Jump kept getting stuck, and do-gooders forced the freak show to close down, it remained the People’s Riviera.

            Nowadays, the only thing that seems certain is that one of these days—in spite of Mayor Bloomberg’s tepid (and tardy) assurances that Coney can be saved—Thor Equities, another of your typically corrupt private developers with no concept of history or spirit, will bulldoze the fried clam stands and Ruby’s and the shooting gallery and the arcade and Dante’s Inferno and the Ghost Hole to erect luxury condos, high-end cafes and a few fancy new rides. Chances are good they’ll also set up a gate and charge admission.

            It’ll be like the third great fire—or the predictably pathetic and Biblical end of Sodom by the Sea.

            It may not be next season, or the season after that, or the season after that—but it’s going to happen. And when it finally does, we’ll all have heard the “death/resurrection” story so many times few of us will even care. And who knows? That may be the plan.

            Thing is, people claim that the redevelopment is a good thing, since Coney had become so seedy in recent years. Well if these people knew their history, they’d remember that Coney has always been seedy. That was always central to its charm, and why it was such a New York icon. From the late nineteenth century onward, Coney had always been home to pickpockets, drunks, hookers, dangerous rides and even more dangerous food. And since the late nineteenth century, local politicians have been pushing to make Coney clean and nice and upscale. It was almost as if they were pissed that there was a place in New York where poor folk could go to have fun on the cheap.

            Well, now it seems they’ll finally get their wish, just like they have with the rest of the city.

            I can only take solace in knowing that Thor’s plan to create an upscale Coney free of seedy characters, rigged games and low-rent crime is absolutely doomed. As Morgan has pointed out, the upscale types won’t want to make the trip down there from Manhattan when they could just as easily go to the Hamptons. And with the commute it would present, who would choose to buy a condo down there? Even beyond the commute, who would want to drop that kind of money on a luxury condo when it meant living between the Cyclone and the elevated subway? And have they taken a look around the rest of the neighborhood lately?

            Part of me hopes that even if it isn’t a complete and immediate economic disaster for Thor Equities (a name that just screams “fun,” doesn’t it?), the vengeful spirits of Zip the What-Is-It?, Otis the Frog Boy, and Topsy the elephant will haunt the condos and rampage drunkenly through the cafes and boutiques. I’ve learned that if there’s one thing the wealthy have absolutely no stomach for, it’s rampaging drunken pinhead ghosts.

            Even without drunken ghosts the joke may be on them. Given the way the economy’s headed these days, my guess is the poor—and there are gonna be a lot more of them—are gonna need a place to go to let off a little steam on the cheap. Even back in the early 1900s, Coney was known as a safety valve. Think about it.

            In the first part of Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud argues for the persistence of even the earliest memories—as well as our ability to retrieve them—by making an archaeological analogy. No matter how much or over how many centuries a city is built up, he says, if you know what you’re looking for you can always find the remnants of the earliest settlement if you just do a little digging in the right place.

            After laying this idea out for a few pages he stops himself, admitting that it’s an analogy that doesn’t really work at all. You can utterly decimate the past, he says, and even if you do find the remains of what you’re looking for, they’ll most likely be completely shattered. The best you can hope for is a recreation based on a lot of guesswork.

            It’s a disheartening thought in this present case, but I do believe that Thor will fail, and as it did after the fires, Coney will rise again. It may take awhile and will undoubtedly be different from the seedy Coney we love, but the poor and ugly and freakish will once more take control. All we’ll need to do is give it some time. The spirit of the place, like so much sausage grease and cigar ash, has become an integral part of the beach itself. It’s what holds the Boardwalk together. All it’ll need is a little coaxing to ooze back out.

            Or, you know, something like that.


You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.