Coney Island is dilapidated and gritty and trashy, which is why I love it. It’s like the Cyclone rollercoaster – rickety, loud, scary at times and a helluva good time. But who knows how long it can hold out against the spreading Yuppie blight? The invasion of big-box retailers and chain stores, the transformation of historic neighborhoods into banal tourist meccas, the dizzying climb of real estate prices are clear-cutting the city of its distinctiveness, block by block.
Now there’s nothing wrong with change; New York’s character is built shaped by the waves of immigrants and newcomers who have made the city a unique polyglot stew with their voices, cultures and ideas. The vitality and opportunity, the danger and gruffness, the rarefied ideas and cheap thrills excite many and horrify more. But that’s always been fine by me. If New York opened its arms to everyone it would be just like every place else.
But this is precisely what’s happening. The banality of suburbia has triumphed – the blank-faced chino-and-oxford clone, the lead-brained and lead-footed SUV driver, the processed-haired, wild-eyed shopaholic have made the city a bastion of their aggressive mediocrity. What culture remains has been mummified. It’s been tagged, dissected and curated for tourists to gawk over.
This is what awaits Coney Island. The neighborhood is in desperate need of development. The poverty and vacant lots testify to decay and abandonment. While it’s long been ignored by developers and left to die by City Hall, Coney Island still teems with raw urban life. On a typical July 4th weekend the beach is packed with people like penguins on an ice shelf. But they don’t buy their clothes from Armani Exchange, perhaps instead from one of the second-hand stores on Surf Ave.
This is the New York of the working class and the poor, whose needs and desires are ignored in the development process. And it’s a crowd that’s largely brown and black, which scares politicians and developers transfixed with the lure of white tourists.
Abandonment has its charms. Coney Island is not like the ur-waterfront, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. You don’t have to be worried about being hassled by rent-a-cops if you don’t look right, if you’re a teenager, if you’re not shopping, if you’ve got a skateboard under your arm, a boombox on your shoulder, or a beer in a paper bag. (There are plenty of real cops though.) And the boardwalk doesn’t close at midnight.
Coney Island, and Brighton Beach to the east offer a wide expanse of tan sand to stake a claim amid a sea of New Yorkers. Bring a towel, trunks, some food and drink, and your only expense is subway fare for a day at the ocean. A few bucks will score you some ice cream or a cold beer from cooler-totting vendors trudging across the sand, hawking their offerings while dodging cops. You can spark a joint on the beach without fear of getting busted, perhaps one of the few public places in New York where it’s still possible.
The boardwalk has it all – unsightly carnies, greasy food (or is it greasy carnies and unsightly food?), corny buskers, squalling children, tattooed freaks and stumbling drunks.
Coney Island has seen many changes, from a playground of Tammany Hall elite to one for immigrants and later as a cheap escape dubbed the “Nickel Empire” during the Great Depression. It’s the prototype of amusement parks everywhere. But the latest change, in the words of one critic, is “planned nostalgia.” It’s not about development; it’s about inflating property values. According to one report, the price on 2,000 sq. ft. vacant lots has gone from $250,000 to $450,000 in just one year.
If the plans go through, Coney Island will be just like everyplace else – an aquatic-themed hotel, retail chain stores, “family-friendly” entertainment, corporate music venues, all the cultural and architectural clichés. The public areas will be carved into zones of private consumption. The poor will be welcome only in low-wage, dead-end jobs servicing the tourists. And the uniqueness of the area will be reduced to marketing slogans and tacky t-shirts.
At least the grander schemes – for an Olympic-facility pool, a 19,000-seat basketball arena – appear to be crashing and burning with the rest of Bloomberg’s bid for the 2012 Olympics. With the demise of the West Side Stadium, there is hope that a galvanized opposition can put up enough obstacles to stem the development tide before Coney Island’s seedy charm gets scrubbed away.