Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Destruction of Coney

Over the next couple of weeks, I'll be posting about Coney Island, featuring places and things that are there now, but probably won't be there for long, thanks to the city's repugnant plans to destroy what remains of New York's "Sodom by the Sea."

It's been a long fight.

For decades, developers and politicians have lusted to level Coney Island, one way or another. As historian Charles Denson said in the Daily News, "Coney Island has a history of land grabs." Since the end of its heyday, as developers and the city have hacked away at it, Coney's once-sprawling amusement area has gotten smaller and smaller.

Moses over Brooklyn

Robert Moses started chopping up Coney in the 1940s. As Wikipedia writes, "In 1953, Moses had the entire island rezoned for residential use only and announced plans to demolish the amusements to make room for low income housing." The city edited his plan, zoning parts of Coney for "amusement only." Moses still managed to clear away homes, businesses, and amusements, leaving mostly empty lots behind.

In 1966, Donald Trump's father, Fred Trump, bought Steeplechase Park from its longtime owner. He wanted to replace it with "a modern Miami Beach high-rise apartment dwelling." But the Lindsay administration wanted the site zoned for recreational use. The city envisioned "a combination Disney and Tivoli Gardens." Writes Jerome Tuccille in Trump, the city planned "a monumental park with indoor swimming pools, restaurants, and concert facilities...a multilevel seafront park development."

Sound familiar?

Steeplechase was demolished. Nothing was built. The site remained an empty lot for more than three decades.

Fred Trump axing Steeplechase

In 1976, when casinos were legalized in New York State, mayor Koch aimed to turn Coney Island into another Atlantic City. In Coney Island Lost & Found, Denson writes about the swarm of speculators that descended--slick guys in limos and silk shirts--to snap up properties. But the Trumps put the kibosh on that plan, protecting their interests in Atlantic City--or maybe it was revenge against the city for squashing their Miami beach high-rise dreams a decade earlier. Property owners bulldozed more of Coney in anticipation of casinos, leaving more empty lots.

In the 1980s, Kansas Fried Chicken king Horace Bullard bought up several properties with plans to build another Disney, only to lose them to the city. In 2000, without warning or permission, Giuliani demolished the Thunderbolt rollercoaster, owned by Bullard. It was a beautiful wreck that bloomed with moonflower vines and bird nests in summertime. A woman named May Timpano lived in the house beneath the coaster, the one featured in Annie Hall.

It is now an empty lot.

Thunderbolt, C.B.'s flickr

Today, after decades of butchering, through bloody wars waged between the city and developers, what remains of Coney's iconic amusement park is small. Now the Bloomberg administration intends to make it even smaller, to continue the carnage of Coney. What will be demolished next? What empty lots, filled with the rubble of our memories, will we have to endure before the next Disney-Condo monstrosity rises?

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Kitty Graves said...

Great post! I am going to link this up to my Coney Island Examiner page at:

Also a huge fan of the 'under the roller coaster' recordings. I get emotional each and every time I listen to them. What a lovely story of Mae and Fred - Stories like that give credence to the hopeless romantics of the world.

EV Grieve said...

That Denson book is a beauty. I recommend it to anyone who loves and appreciate COney Island and its history.

I look forward to more from Coney Island, Jeremiah.

ShatteredMonocle said...

Of all the topics covered on blogs like this, of all the contentious rezoning and development projects fucking the city and its neighborhoods, this is the one that absolutely sends me into a blind rage.

The PBS documentary is also amazing. Perhaps the shit heads on the City Council that approved Bloomberg's plan last week should've watched it.

East Bay Eva said...

There is one small correction I have to make. The place where the Thunderbolt once stood is part of where Keyspan Park is now. Giuliani forced the Thunderbolt be ripped down in order for that stadium to be built.

Jeremiah Moss said...

thanks eva. i was trying to figure that out, but the descriptions i found were not clear. my understanding is that keyspan went into the steeplechase spot, and was supposed to be expanded into the thunderbolt spot, but wasn't. is that not right?

JakeGould said...

Eva, you are 100% wrong. You know that empty lot next to Keyspan park? The one where there is a forlorn rotting building named PLAYLAND on it? That is where the Thunderbolt was.

It was torn down for no valid reason. Unless you consider that Giuliani most likely tore it down to make sure any photo ops for Keyspan didn't include a rotting old roller coaster in the background. Heck, anyone going to the stadium would have seen it over the eastern side of the stadium.

The "expansion" would have been to build additional "community" fields. So far the only such thing that was ever built was that tiny soccer field behind the stadium near the boardwalk.

That said, anyone lamenting the fate of Coney Island needs to realize one thing: Nothing will change until Thor Equities is pushed out of the picture. I keep hoping that one day one of these new/amazing financial scandals will hit them and take them out so all their holdings go into receivership.

Past that, the argument over zoning is just not going to change anything.

Heck, Dick Zigun famously was screwed over by the local community board and resigned his post when it was pretty clear he was being used as a shill for city purposes.

And as much as I want to support groups like Save Coney Island, there is barely anyone but the same handful of people showing up at any rallies and such.

It's all sad because my larger theory is the game of dividing/conquering worked very well here. And it's tragic. Even Deno's Wonder Wheel Park is getting screwed in the end and they were here since the beginning.

Kitty Graves said...

JackS, I am happy you got here before I did because I couldn't have said it better myself. --

Eva, Guiliani did not remove the thunderbolt be/c it was in the way of erecting a structure. Instead, he moved it because it was considered an eyesore. The lot that the Thunderbolt stood on is exactly what JackS said it was: EMPTY and remains completely unkempt.

You know, Mae Timpano wasn't even given the courtesy of pre-notification regarding the demolition? She had to find via a telephone call. Then, she hauled ass down to Coney Island to sit idly by and watch as a lifetime of memories was brought to the ground for absolutely no good reason.

Eva, please do a bit of investigating on the subject. I am confident your opinion of the demolition will change once you learn the real story behind it.

Andrew TSKS said...

WOW. I thought the house under the coaster had been a bit of faked hyperbole from Mr. Allen. Had no clue it really existed. Thanks for that!

Also, this whole "destruction of Coney" thing makes me want to spit blood, but I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir.