Coney Island: What Goes Up . . .

(By Stephen Chernin -- Getty Images)
By Tommy Nguyen
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 27, 2007

A kiosk at the foot of the Cyclone, patriarch of roller coasters and the main event at Coney Island's Astroland, sells snapshots of patrons while they're giving it a whirl. The photos are displayed on several monitors, and the facial expressions of the riders usually come in two varieties: They're happily screaming at the 85-foot drop they see before them, or praying for the life they may have just left behind.

I couldn't determine much from my friend Neil's expression because he had buried his head somewhere beneath the guardrail as we entered the first drop. It looked as if I were sitting next to an empty seat. Or a ghost.

"It was mind-numbing," said Neil, who is 28 and a Bronx native. He'd been to Astroland a few times as a kid but never felt the urge to take on the Cyclone until now. As we made our way through the rest of Astroland -- which, after 45 years of holding up the fading postcard of boardwalk Americana, will close after Labor Day -- Neil looked back at the wooden relic just as some clouds darkened its summit.

"It looks like some rickety piece of junk!" he said loudly, as if testing the Cyclone's patience for derision. But he told me later, "When you go down that first drop, it sends shock waves through your body."

The big kick of the Cyclone, which celebrated its 80th birthday yesterday, comes from its great deception: that something so old and old-fashioned could pack so much energy, variety and surprise for the modern senses.

But it seemed, on one Saturday afternoon, that the same equation could describe all of Coney Island -- from a huddled group of kids I saw at the aquarium, their eyes glued to the science-fiction matinee of a large jellyfish tank; to the 32-year-old woman I met at Nathan's Famous, having her first Nathan's hot dog despite being raised in New York City ("Even better than what I expected"); to the rolling gasps and squeals I heard at the circus sideshow over on Surf Street, where a young woman somehow slipped a three-foot metal sword down her throat.

"Oh, hell, no! Hell, no!" a woman sitting behind me kept yelling.

"Oh, hell, yes," her companion said in a hushed tone.

Neil and I walked on the boardwalk, with a somewhat cloudy Atlantic Ocean to our left and our paper plates of fried, batter-dipped shrimp in our hands. Neil said we should get some funnel cake; having just had a Nathan's hot dog myself, I mentioned I was using all the arteries I could spare for now.

It was my first time at Coney Island, and I was surprised by how well it was keeping my interest, on a type of afternoon that people have been enjoying for ages. Nathan's Famous, for example, has been open since 1916 and still organizes its raucous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest. And Sideshows by the Seashore, which calls itself the country's last 10-in-1 circus sideshow, was established in 1985 on the site where the legendary Sealo the Seal Boy performed a half-century ago. Today, you'll see a werewolf (a man from Mexico with a hairy face) walk on a tightrope.

But the idea that something retro can be startling and new just doesn't make sense to some people, particularly those working with dollar signs, and so the fate of Coney Island-style amusement on Coney Island is largely uncertain. What is certain is that the Cyclone will remain in business after Astroland's closing. (New York owns the land where the Cyclone stands, and the city deemed the ride a historic landmark in 1988.) But the rest of Astroland's three acres -- which includes rides such as Dante's Inferno and the Astrotower -- were sold to a developer whose initial plans were to create another entertainment area, complete with hotels and shopping.

Whatever the outcome, it's clear that Coney Island's ocean-view property -- enjoying a family-safe bounce-back after going through the dark years of the '70s and '80s -- is catching the eye of those with money to spend and money to make.

"I don't think the [developers] respect or understand the history and importance of this area as an amusement area," said Marie Roberts, a lifelong Coney Island resident who works at the Coney Island Museum. "It's like a safety valve for the city. People can come here after being cooped up at their jobs for hours, and it's available and accessible, and no one looks at you. You can be armless and legless down here, and no one cares."

Though the two-room museum looked a little makeshift with its old carousel carts, rolling chairs and vintage posters, it wasn't difficult to feel a little romance for Coney Island's heyday as a resort town. Amusement parks such as Dreamland (1904-1911), Luna Park (1903-1944) and Steeplechase Park (1897-1964) -- along with the famous luxury hotels, restaurants and the bawdier attractions of the post-Victorian age -- demonstrated the remarkable leisure imagination of the new American era.

"A lot of kids ask me, 'Why is it closing,' and I say, 'I don't know, baby,' " said Peggy Arroyo, who runs the Inferno. "When I was a little girl I would go to the beach, come over here, but back then there were a lot more rides."

As the midway light bulbs started flickering on, and as Neil was passing out on a boardwalk bench from all the grease and sugar, I ran into Mark Blumenthal, general manager of Astroland for more than 25 years. Having seen Coney Island through the rough times, which basically coincided with New York's crime-ridden years, Blumenthal said he was thrilled to see more families visiting the beach, the boardwalk and Astroland.

"But it's going to be very difficult to duplicate Astroland, and the area is going to lose its charm," he said. "Coney Island is not Disney, and people are not looking for Disney when they come here."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company