Coney Island Wintertide

By Lucas Wetzel

Ahhh, but remember the city is a funny place / Something like a circus or a sewer

Lou Reed, Coney Island Baby

Last December, on the last day of an aimless five-day visit to New York, Jennifer and I decided to go to Coney Island. Never mind that the rides would be closed and the forecast called for rain. After four days in the city, the boardwalk would be a welcome reprieve from shops, museums, and the Christmas Tree vortex of Rockefeller Center.

Visiting Coney Island in the off-season, in what has been something of an off-century, felt like a bad-faith intrusion into someone else’s happy memories. But that’s the kind of thing I look for in an abandoned amusement park. You find great photo ops and an eerie sensation of soaking up the carnival atmosphere long after the crowds have gone home.

Most columns or blog posts I found about Coney Island recount its colorful history and speculate about its contested future. What’s much harder to figure out is what Coney Island is right now. A mural on the aquarium wall displays this quote from Coney Island visionary George Cornelius Tilyou: “If Paris is France, then Coney Island, between June and September, is the world.” But that was back in 1886. What is Coney Island on a bleak December day in 2011?

As a first-time visitor, I had a hard time discerning how much of the emptiness and decay was due to the off season and what had been decades in the works. When we arrived at 11:30 that morning, we found no theme park maps or postcard stands at Endstation Coney. For some reason the gray but grandiose Stillwell Avenue station reminded me of the station in Brasov, Romania — cold and utilitarian if not entirely unpleasant.

On Surf Avenue, the buildings were covered in fading murals, with freakshow figures and the names of games painted on the booths and storefronts. None of them were open, making the whole street look like a school carnival company that had been foreclosed upon but not yet fully repossessed 

The Coney Island museum would have been the natural place to start, but it was only open on weekends, leaving us to explore the grounds without any clear direction. Not that you necessarily need one.

The newest attraction is the Luna Park, a modern, modest assembly of rides that opened in 2010. We walked around the rides and took photos for about half an hour, but when we got back to the gates we saw that they had been shut. We were let out a few minutes later by some plainclothes park operators who had been hanging out and smoking cigs near the entrance.

The Park’s closed,” one of them said.

When does it open?” I asked as innocently as I could, as if we had just been waiting around like idiots for the rides to start moving five months later.

We walked the boardwalk, past the colorfully painted aquarium walls and painted trash cans, then back toward the parachute jump and the Eastern Bloc-style housing buildings on the horizon. I squinted and tried to conjure the mirage of the Elephantine Colossus — a seven-story hotel and brothel that burned down over a hundred years ago. For many immigrants, the Elephant Hotel had been the original statue of liberty, but on that Tuesday in December, Coney’s deserted beaches might as well have been the end of the world.

Further down the boardwalk was a magnificent, sun-baked terra cotta ruin decorated with mermaids and paintings and a still-visible sign that said Dreamland Roller Rink. Behind the roller rink is a parking lot full of hundreds of school buses, making Dreamland look like a field trip no one ever came home from.

On the side of a building was a giant sign for Grandpa Chacha’s, a winery founded on the heels of prohibition after an enterprising young Chacha traded in a lifetime supply of skeeball tickets for a liquor license. I couldn’t verify that information anywhere else, but that’s probably because I made the whole thing up.

We walked along a series of murals on Stillwell Street, examining them more closely than the Monet water lilies we’d seen the day before at the MoMA. I posed for a photo at a broken pay phone while one of Grandpa Chacha’s most loyal customers pushed an empty shopping cart down the street, waving and shouting for us to have a blessed Christmas.

Our mildly apocalyptic journey ended at Nathan’s Famous Frankfurters, opened in 1916 and marching toward its centennial in spite of its surroundings. The food was decent, if a far cry from the boutique cafe in Williamsburg our host had suggested. Anywhere else, Nathan’s might have been depressing, but here it had all the warmth of a cantina in a wasteland.

On the whole, Coney Island felt like any neighborhood caught between the erosion of its original purpose and an uncertain future. The people in Nathan’s all seemed as if they were waiting for a brighter day, either for Coney or themselves. You could tell by looking around that it wouldn’t come soon enough.

Then again, who knows? Maybe it would be here by summer.