Astroland's Last Summer

Captain Bob

Coney Island is under siege, and for Astroland lovers it’s hard to tell if the pirates are friend or foe.

Captain Bob stands about 6'2" in his flip-flops. He’s garrulous and weathered and appears, on conversation-level inspection, to be missing about five and a half teeth. He’s a member of the National Carousel Association, and his website claims he sailed the seven seas and combed most of Belize before settling down on Coney Island. He’s quick to rise from his beach chair and greet anyone tarrying on the legendary boardwalk.

“I’m the tour guide around here,” he says and he pushes his sailor’s cap further back on his head.

It takes no effort to navigate the dozen square blocks of honky-tonk and fried food that is “America’s Playground.” Nor is there a trick to pacing a crowd through its history, for every decade at Coney has marked its boom or bust with either fireworks or fire. It’s easy enough to string together an hour’s worth of anecdotes from the park’s storied past. Read Kevin Baker’s atmospheric novel, Dreamland, watch a little of Ric Burns’s PBS documentary, surf your way onto turn-of-the-century memorabilia sites, and presto, you’ve extracted the essence of Coney Island.

For many, Coney Island becomes an obsession, and obsessions refuse to sit quietly as stories. They shriek superimpositions at you, unarmed against the blueprints of past heydays. They throw sepia postcards in your face at every corner. They cling disingenuously at the rounded curves of hand-painted awnings. They turn empty lots into shrines. During the summer of 2007, amid the specter of demolition and grand-scale renovation that looms larger than the Wonder Wheel itself, any tour of Coney Island is bound to be a particularly obsessive proposition.

It’s the Friday before Memorial Day and mellow preparations reign. The paintball freak is having a cigarette while restaurant owners set up umbrellas on the boardwalk. On a back lot at Surf Avenue and 12th Street a guy yells over the piped music to give zeppole lessons to a cute Slavic girl in an apron. John Travolta is singing, swear to God, “We start believing now that we can be who we are/Grease is the word,” and the $2.50 rides at Astroland Park are warming up for their final season.

In an office overlooking the luna park, Carol Hill Albert is puzzling out what to do with the remnants of her family’s 45-year-old business. Last year she sold the three acres Astroland Park sits on to Thor Equities, the developer that has already bought much of Stillwell Avenue, and which is now trying to purchase the faith of locals, preservationists, and the city to develop the boardwalk as it wishes. If you tell the woman behind the sliding glass window that you’d like to talk to Ms. Albert about Astroland’s fate, she’ll say, “You and everyone else in the world.”

Born a spectacular winged creature, Coney has overshot the expected cycles of metamorphosis to stand today a fat, ugly worm with few aspirations. Controversy over the Astroland sale reigns in community meetings and message boards. In the blogosphere, wiseacres lambaste Albert as a sell-out, razzing her protestations that Astroland could never weather three years of construction and a year-round business cycle. Others conflate Joseph Sitt, owner of Thor Equities, with last century’s deadbeat landlord, Horace Bullard, the owner of 22 acres that have stood empty for 40 years. Coney, they snipe, will be turned into “Bullsitt Park.”

Adding to the speculative mix, Thor Equities has just announced intentions to bring the Cole Brothers Circus to the boardwalk this summer. Though such a proposition would seem to be right up Coney devotees’ alleys, it too has been greeted with skepticism (“promises, promises”), disbelief (the circus hasn’t posted Coney as a venue in their booked-up summer schedule), and even opposition (“Boy, won’t all that elephant shit stink in the high summer sun”).

Still, many Coney devotees—if not the obsessives—remain levelheaded. They know that the area needs revitalization. Coney Island sprang to life with the express purpose of dying slowly, and then re-animating regularly by the defibrillator of working-class summers. The pleasure palaces are long gone, along with the steeplechase, the Insanitarium, and the Sunday best once sported by the visiting public. Born a spectacular winged creature, Coney has, over the course of a century, overshot the expected cycles of metamorphosis to stand today a fat, ugly worm with few aspirations, squeaking rodent-like, generating trash, and drawing filmographers and historians like the forgotten flame it is.

Mixed metaphors aside, there is righteousness in addressing urban blight. There is a tradition supporting the development of a poor man’s seaside resort with new shops and eateries. In the words of Dick Zigun, founder of the non-profit Coney Island U.S.A, the place is “broken.” “I too love the seedy charm but I do not wish to maintain the empty lots and furniture stores,” he writes in a message to the faithful. Zigun has extended a wary hand to Sitt and has accepted a seat on the Coney Island Development Commission. He wants to steer gentrification away from condominiums and Pottery Barns and toward the attractions and kitsch for which Coney is legendary.

Back out on the boardwalk, Captain Bob sits among a half-dozen men in varying shades of solar overexposure. One, an old, old man, wears a bright yellow T-shirt with neon goggles to match. On the front of his shirt is the image of the grinning Steeplechase funny face. On the back is the old man’s claim to rival Zigun’s unofficial title. “Coney Island Mayor,” it said. “Louie!” the old man shouts as clarification.

The physical remnants of Coney Island have been duly landmarked. Captain Bob will probably be able to keep the Cyclone, the Wonder Wheel, the Parachute Drop, and Nathan’s safely on his tour for decades. The others gamely proffer their posts in Louie’s cabinet: secretary, treasurer, fishing-pole-bearer. The “commissioner” is an unsmiling, cigar-smoking, deeply tanned opinion of a man with blue-black hair striped white at the temples and eyes hidden behind aviator glasses. The “bouncer,” on the other hand, is an amiable fellow in a muscle shirt, who appears to have missed his port call in Key West.

“Twelve and two on weekends, but I’ll take a down payment during the week,” Captain Bob is saying. “Mostly for the foreigners, you know, who get off the subway up there from Sweden and they’ve read all about it.” He wore the same T-shirt as Louie, but there was a fleck of ketchup smearing Tillie’s perfect teeth.

The physical remnants of Coney Island—the living ruins of Luna Park, Steeplechase Park, and Dreamland—have been duly landmarked, which means that Captain Bob will probably be able to keep the Cyclone, the Wonder Wheel, the Parachute Drop, and Nathan’s all safely on his tour for decades. But just in case, Captain Bob is developing new tours, beyond the uncertain future.

He recently purchased a sturdy six-person inflatable kayak from an unintelligible homeless guy who once worked as a gardener for a family in Gravesend. Apparently this guy’s employer made the fatal mistake of trying to inflate the rubber boat with lungpower. The now unemployed gardener of the deceased inherited the kayak, in a fashion, and passed it on to Captain Bob for cheap.

“I start with lobster salad, and everyone gets a drink out of a coconut shell,” he explains with delight. Captain Bob is often delighted. Like the mayor’s bouncer, he wears shades of Margaritaville on his minimally clad body. If you mention to him that this is the last summer for the boardwalk as we know it, or that it is the 80th anniversary of the Cyclone, which may rattle the windows of a Hilton in summers to come—if you wax nostalgic or morose in any fashion, Captain Bob will remind you that its also the anniversary of the Summer of Love. And then he’ll quote Zigun, the Coney Island sage and acting mayor:

“Don’t be angry … get a tan.”

Elizabeth Kiem is collecting Astroland stories. Send some her way.


TMN Contributing Writer Elizabeth Kiem is the author of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy. More by Elizabeth Kiem