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Astroland's Last Summer

The Long Goodbye

For 45 years, the weekend after Labor Day has closed out the season for Astroland Park. This year, with the fate of Coney Island in the balance, the weekend passed without resolution.

Coney Island knows how to go out with a bang: an incinerated Dreamland (it took 12 hours to burn), an electrocuted elephant (10 seconds), and a beloved mascot rendered toothless and black-eyed in pieces on the boardwalk (one brick and too long in the company of Fred Trump)—these are just a few of Coney’s most spectacular swan songs. But the park hasn’t seen a good cataclysmic finish since Rudy Giuliani razed the derelict Thunderbolt under cover of dawn. This summer the playground took its endgame in a radical new direction… into bromidic anti-climax.

The drama began some time ago, with the sale of a whole lotta Coney to a guy called Sitt who wanted to build condos. At first, it was not much more than a small, local story—a banal question of personal decisions and family priorities; a debate about enervation and obsolescence; a reminder that for most Coney Island carnies, amusements long ago quit being an industry and became an addictive way of life.

But then came Memorial Day. And the press. And the headlines: “Endless Summers no More,” “Last Ride,” and (from Malaysia’s leading daily), “Mermaids Crying for Coney Island.” Thus began a three-month-long vigil marked by rumors, false alarms, missed deadlines, and record-breaking crowds come to see the endangered honky-tonk phenom.

It should have been the stuff of great drama. You had a villain who called himself “Joey,” like a guy from the neighborhood, but whose corporate entity, Thor Equities, found nothing inappropriate about brandishing mallets during the annual Mermaid Parade. In the other corner was Astroland Park owner Carol Hill Albert, a 70-year-old former professor who wore pink visors before the television cameras and confessed to heartbreak over having to close her Grassy Knoll-era collection of rides to make room for Joey’s condos.

And what ensued? A chicken fight. A three-month-long, closed-door, boardroom chicken fight, in which city officials, it appears, clambered alternately onto Joe Sitt’s and then Albert’s shoulders, only to emerge with the same announcement: We’re trying to work it all out. At season’s end nothing is resolved—not the timetable for zoning hearings that will decided the park’s fate; not the status of the city proposal to buy back Thor’s land; not the request for an extended lease from the developer to let Astroland stay put until something—anything—is resolved.

There will be no High Noon for Coney Island—no 11th-hour, once-and-for-all boardwalk resolution to be witnessed by wide-eyed beach bums and trigger-happy carnies. Only the languid exhortation from the barker next to Cha-Cha’s bar: Shoot the freak in the freakin’ head. It’s like therapy.

 

The Sunday after Labor Day is traditionally closing day for Astroland, and so it was this year. (Sort of.) Only permanently. (Maybe.) At noon, a few dozen demonstrators gather at Astroland’s Surf Avenue entrance to holler at Joe Sitt one last time. They’re almost outnumbered by the press.

Albert tells the TV crews that she’s waiting till the absolute last minute to sell off her rides. Which is what she was saying in May. The local historian Charlie Denson is taunting Sitt for taking a page from Fred Trump’s handbook, just as he has all summer. Dick Zigun, Coney’s cultural boss and self-appointed mayor encourages everybody to write to their elected officials, and then an elected official steps up to say there will be a deal worked out in the next two weeks. This too, has been promised before. Afterwards, the reporters ask all these players to say these things again for their cameras, which holds up the protest long enough to lose another half-dozen would be marchers.

Meanwhile, stragglers wander up to hear what came of the rally. One of them is a Long Island man, Paul Brigandi, with an extraordinary collection of Coney Island artifacts. “I have all the blueprints to Steeplechase,” he boasts—referring to one of the beach’s now-razed theme parks—and wipes the sweat off his brow. He is ready and willing to step into the present development morass with a silver bullet. “It’s been designed and ready to build since 1983. I’ve taken it to a whole new level. I could cover this place from 10th Street all the way down—fill it with unique attractions I’ve designed myself. I’ve got the whole package—attractions, rides, museum. I took it to Thor, I took it to the city—they were blown away.” Brigandi wears the Steeplechase Funny Face on a chain around his neck and freely offers his analysis of the famously maniacal grin. “What else would put a smile on a man’s face but sex?” he says. The Funny Face, apparently, is getting a blowjob. This revelation is the only news of the day.

The Funny Face, apparently, is getting a blowjob. This revelation is the only news of the day.

Another latecomer is Wally Roberts, who’s been running a derby game on Jones Walk for fifty-five years and would really appreciate a straight answer from somebody. “So we gotta keep waiting,” he concludes after a long-winded tirade from another old-timer. “You gotta just sit tight and say I’M NOT GOING,” come the instructions.

But it’s the weekend after Labor Day—this is pretty much when everyone from Coney Island goes anyway.

 

Most of the rides and games at Coney Island will open on weekends for another three weeks or more. Few of the game operators go on the road after Labor Day like they used to, and the long season of uncertainty seems to keep them in a grip from which only a slow extraction is feasible. Even the hoopla over Astroland’s last day is only half accurate. The boardwalk end of the park with the kiddie rides will stay for a few more weekends too, till Sitt throws them out, says Albert.

Next door to Astroland, Deno’s Wonder Wheel has a sign on the ticket booth promising to stay open through Columbus Day (and of course reopening in 2008). The Wonder Wheel is on its 10th rotation of the day. A 200-pound dog has one of the cars to herself. She spends all her summer afternoons on the Wheel, where the breeze keeps her cool and the flies don’t bother her. “We have to haul her out at 7 p.m.,” says a guy working the turnstile. “She don’t want to come out. She sleeps all day, going around and around.”

It’s a funny thing about that Ferris wheel. If you spend enough time down at Coney Island, it starts to play tricks on you. It will appear to be still in the middle of a busy Saturday and spinning at 9:30 on a weekday morning full of fog. It may just be because the wheel is letting passengers on and off when you take the time to look. Or because the off-duty watchdog needs a break from the humidity. Or it may be all in your head—a momentary check on that human expectation that finality be visible and closure be scheduled.

As the Wheel lifts a new crew 250 feet in the air, the small band of Astroland champions pass by on West 12th Street yelling, “ONE MORE YEAR!” and the ticket taker wonders “Why? So they can do it all again next summer?”

biopic

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