This past weekend, the Applebee's of Coney Island had its grand opening, unveiling a giant shark tank filled with amusement park miniatures, including a neon Wonder Wheel and Cyclone.
The tank was made by Las Vegas' Acrylic Tank Manufacturing company, stars of a reality television show called Tanked, in which two guys make large, elaborate fish tanks, e.g., a 57,000 gallon aquarium for a Dallas megachurch and a "man-cave aquarium" for an NFL player.
photo: Coney Applebee's Facebook page
Next weekend, the international chain restaurant, that honey-glazed, Fiesta lime-flavored emblem of the suburban dining experience, will throw a Mermaid Parade Party in collaboration with Coney Island USA. Tickets to the party are $45 and they'll give you entry to Applebee's "comfortable air-conditioned dining room" for drinks and an all-you-can-eat buffet in the "ambiance of the hottest new restaurant" in Coney Island.
What is wrong with this picture?
Coney Island, wild child of the city's fringe, is suffocating in national chains. Applebee's has plenty of company, including Johnny Rockets, Red Mango, Dunkin Donuts, and Subway, with Hooters and Outback Steak House on the developers' wish list.
As Amusing the Zillion said six months ago, the park "famous for its quirky authenticity" is "about to look and taste more like Anyplace USA."
Zane Tankel, CEO of Apple-Metro, Inc., the Applebee's franchisee for New York City, sees it another way. He told the Daily News, “Coney Island’s time has come. It’s the renaissance of the neighborhood."
What kind of a renaissance is this?
The image on Applebee's Mermaid Parade Party ticket provides a clue--a photo of gals (and guys) who look nothing like the scrappy, freaky, iconoclastic artists that epitomize Coney's mermaids and men. The young women in the foreground are air-brushed stock-photo princesses better suited to a Disneyland float than a little red wagon pulled by a bearded drag queen on a three-speed bike.
And while the Mermaid Parade was originally meant, in part, to pay tribute to Coney's old Mardi Gras parades, the colors and beads on this poster seem just a little too Mardi Gras and not enough Mermaid. Maybe the poster was re-purposed from a Fat Tuesday Riblets Feast. Can a multi-national corporation truly get the Mermaid Parade, or the spirit of Coney Island?
I asked Zipper director Amy Nicholson her thoughts. She told me, "The Mermaid Parade embodies the spirit of Coney Island: wild, chaotic, creative, unfettered and free-spirited--words that I am sure do not appear in Applebee's brand guidelines. I wonder what will happen when pictures surface of topless women (or a guy with a shark on his penis) with their logo in the background."
(For more on that, check out Laurie Essig's essay on how the source of the Mermaid Parade's popularity is "bared breasts and the age-old question of whether or not the mermaid has a vagina.")
supertouchart: Big Dick Merman
We know that Bloomberg likes his luxury city to be clean and in uniform--everything gritty and chaotic, from newsstands to whole neighborhoods, has to be systematically rezoned and renovated to fall in line with his vision. Since Coney Island had the misfortune to get on Bloomberg's radar, it's been under siege by developers who aim to profit by cleaning it up and making it palatable for mainstream audiences (for the whole tragic story, you must see Zipper).
Applebee's is now selling the Mermaid Parade as a family-focused event: "The Mermaid Parade is all about family! Enjoy the largest art parade of the nation and join us at America's favorite family friendly restaurant." Families and kids have always attended the parade, but the event is not, and never was, "all about family." I'd say it's all about art, yes, along with: transgression, activism, crossdressing, freakiness, and tits. Lots of tits.
(We also know what "family" is code for in this country.)
From the beginning, the mermaid activists and their friends fought back against the developers and city planners. At the 2008 Mermaid Parade, in the window of Coney Island USA, the Queen Mermaid held a hunger strike to rescue Coney from the "gentrifying apocalypse of retail entertainment hell." In 2009, Miss Cyclone and the mermaids protested City Hall, demanding that Coney not become "Anywhere, USA."
But the wheels of politics and development kept on turning. Many of the fighters lost their steam as the bulldozers of Big Business knocked Coney nearly flat.
And then came Sandy.
2008: "The Empire is trying to...turn it into a shopping mall"
The hurricane wiped out the Mermaid Parade's headquarters. Parade founder Dick Zigun launched a Kickstarter campaign to save the event, which has become costly due to the high price of managing massive crowds. Coney Island USA wrote on their Kickstarter page, "A free parade is expensive. As the crowds have grown to 750,000 people over the past years, we've had to contend with more regulations and restrictions that have sharply increased the cost of the event."
As Coney has become cleaner and safer, like much of the city, it isn't just the intrepid freaks and scruffy locals who go out there--it's tourists and the new New Yorkers. Those bigger crowds mean the parade needs more money to keep going. Who has lots of money? The corporations that have made Coney Island more enticing to those new crowds--national and multinational chains that are desperate to appear "local" and "hip."
It's a vicious cycle.
I got in touch with the Mermaid Parade organizers at Coney Island USA. Their development director, Tim Pendrell, told me that a percentage of Applebee's sales during the party will go to the parade. He said, "They also donated the terrace overlooking the parade route as a reward for our Kickstarter campaign to save the parade. They've actually been the most supportive company to our Kickstarter campaign."
I asked Dick Zigun if he thinks it's problematic to have a multi-national, suburban-style chain sponsoring the urban artists' parade.
He told me: "It is so simplistic and inaccurate to proclaim the new Coney Island Applebee's generic and a standard suburban franchise. It is run by a local businessman who heavily themed it Coney Island, including a unique, expensive, large fish tank with sharks swimming around a submerged Wonderwheel, Cyclone, and Parachute Jump."
He continued, "From the first parade in 1983, sponsored by Nathan's, the Mermaid Parade has always worked with corporate sponsorship as long as they do not interfere with Artistic Policy. Astroland, Geek Squad, Dunkin Donuts, etc., and many, many beer companies have contributed to many of our 30 past parades. I not only protect the integrity of the parade's founding principles, I also have to pay for it. Pay the bills or disappear."
fishtank photo: Coney Applebee's Facebook page
Owned by IHOP, Applebee's comes from Missouri, originally Kansas, and has over 2,000 locations across America and internationally. But they like to look local. As they say on one site, "Marketed as 'America's Favorite Neighbor®,' each Applebee's reflects the neighborhood in which it is located. The decor further conveys this theme with photographs and memorabilia highlighting hometown heroes, local schools and area history."
The new Applebee's might be Coney themed, but it's not Coney. Of course, this is what's happening to the whole city--large corporations and smaller entrepreneurs alike are co-opting the city's authentic spaces and replacing them with a theme of authenticity.
When Bruce Ratner helped bring a lurid, flashy, New York-themed Applebee's to 42nd Street in Times Square in 2000, many of us gasped in horror. In his book The Devil's Playground, author James Traub put the chain restaurant in the category of "mass-produced dreck." Ratner defended it.
"Applebee's," said the real-estate developer, "they're what America is today." Ratner was right.
Zane Tankel owns both the Times Square and the Coney Island Applebee's. In fact, he runs every Applebee's in the city, at least 40 locations. Last year, he told Fox News that, because of Obamacare, he might not build more restaurants or hire more workers, and he would consider cutting workers' hours due to the high cost of paying their health insurance. Tankel's Apple-Metro revenue was over $137.2 million in 2011 according to Forbes.
One of the sharks in Applebee's tank was named after Mr. Tankel, and he's a killer. Reports the Daily News: "A Blacktip shark named Zane had to be removed Friday from the restaurant’s 5,000-gallon aquarium after devouring three Lookdown fish in a shocking killing spree. That very same day, a Whitetip shark died after colliding with a three-foot Wonder Wheel replica in the tank, leaving employees shaken by the mayhem."
typical American Applebee's
Reverend Billy from the Church of Stop Shopping is a former King Neptune of the Mermaid Parade. I asked his thoughts about Applebee's involvement there. I'll leave you with the colorful words he offered:
"Applebee's in the Mermaid Parade? Oh, Applebee's must have changed from the soft, safe, middle-class chain diner. They must be naked in there, full of smells and seductions, barkers at the bullhorn and mysterious skinny guys pulling the lever on the Cyclone smoking Chesterfield no filters while hawking tourist women's legs.
Applebee's must have changed. It must have accepted chance, danger, and the End of the World. It must love working families who only have ten bucks to spend. Applebee's in the Mermaid Parade. It must love scaly, slithering women who make people forget about money.
This is really interesting. Applebee's in the Mermaid Parade. This is really fascinating. The food there isn't still lousy and expensive? I won't find out. I'll rob the cash register and shout Freakalujah!"
photo: Evan Sante