A Coney Constant
Emily Geminder March 15, 2010, 7:15 a.m.
On Palm Sunday, the Coney Island Cyclone will clank, sputter and tilt into motion, careening its shrieking cargo around clattering curves and ushering in the new season. The whole neighborhood, rusty gears and all, will churn into motion, the same way it has for years. And like every other season in recent memory, the death of Coney Island—foretold for decades by disgruntled developers, reporters and Mermaid Paraders alike—will be deferred to a later date.
But this year the quiet sigh of recognition that comes each spring, that, yes, the place is still there, after all, is different. This summer, the first new rides will appear since the dismantling of Astroland, and with them, many have declared the coming of a new Coney Island, a Coney Island risen, reborn. A few have even called off the decades-old ritual of promising the near and certain end.
New Yorkers forecast the deaths of neighborhoods, scenes, avenues, authenticity. But the Coney Island doomsday prophecy has become a rite all its own. Coney Island, it long seemed, was always just a season away from swift and utter extinction. Carny barkers and snake charmers were a dart toss from the unemployment line. Bold new development plans were perpetually spelling apocalyptic doom. And through it all, Coney Island groaned on.
Because as much as New Yorkers like to eulogize its corners, the city won’t stay still long enough. The unchanging law of eight million is relentless, unceasing change itself. On Coney Island, history is not a tale of reinvention so much as absolute obliteration and genesis. A pronouncement from The New York Times: “Coney Island is regenerated, and almost every trace of Old Coney Island has been wiped out. Frankfurters, peanuts, and popcorn were among the few things left to represent the place as it was in the old days.” That was 1904.
But even Coney Island’s convulsive trajectory, its shriek-inducing drops and hairpin turns, has left behind a few embalmed bits of history, which every now and then kick up the dust of dime museums come and gone. Among them is the Grashorn Building, a largely unremarkable structure on Surf Avenue. Once home to Grashorn’s Hardware, the building stands as the oldest remaining relic of early Coney Island’s slapdash wonderland. In its heyday, the hardware store churned out bolts, nails, rivets and enough timber to prop up legions of gaudily painted sham worlds.
More recently, Joe Sitt acquired the site, a small speck on the acres of Coney Island he bought up over the last decade for a glittering development called Dreamland, a proposed Vegas-style playground—part resort, part retail extravaganza—that never actually materialized. Though after a prolonged and lengthy battle, he sold most of his land to the city in late 2009, Mr. Sitt still retains some properties, including the Grashorn Building, vacant up until now.
Last month, Texan showman John Strong III announced plans to relocate his freak show to the former hardware shop, which he will lease from Mr. Sitt. This season will be the showman’s second on Coney Island, and like last year, he has been vocal in his challenge to sideshow rival and unofficial Coney Island mayor Dick Zigun, who was critical of Mr. Sitt in his long standoff with the official New York mayor. Though the standoff is over, the carny fighting words perhaps hint at the uncertainty that persists over the island’s future and the tension between public and private enterprise that has hung over its history.
This summer’s heralded Luna Park, contracted out by the city to multinational park operator Zamperla, is a temporary stand-in for the city’s ultimate revitalization, which could take years, even decades to be realized. In the meantime, it’s not so much a new Coney Island, a regenerated Coney Island, or a Coney Island back from the dead. It’s a Coney Island with a few things new and many things the same. The frankfurters, peanuts, and popcorn are still there.
BY THE MID-19TH CENTURY, Coney Island was a sanctuary for fugitives fleeing Manhattan -high-class fugitives seeking an exclusive enclave as well as fugitives of a more illicit sort. Manhattan elites set up a refined resort on the peninsula’s east end, drawn to its isolated swaths of nature where the only population density was a profusion of rabbits. Meanwhile, on the west end, a criminal element gathered to escape the oversight and regulation of the city. From the start, the island oscillated between extremes—at once a “Sodom by the Sea” and a highbrow “City of Light”—with moral and class-based tensions not always easy to disentangle.
The completion of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883 obscured Coney Island’s original function as an enclave, though that aim never departed entirely. With the arrival of mass transit, bathhouses and an early version of the hot dog, the masses of a new industrial age descended on Coney Island and filled it with pleasure-seeking thrills: vaudeville houses, saloons and mechanical rides. The enclave was forced to transform, as Rem Koolhaas put it, from an exclusive “provision of Nature to the citizens of the Artificial” to—still offering contrast—its own world of the “Super-Natural.”
Serving up the pasteboard and nails of this transformation was Grashorn’s Hardware, founded in 1898. Its wood-framed building dates back to the 1880s, and according to the Municipal Art Society, its original clapboards are likely salvageable, secreted away beneath synthetic siding. Beneath all the accrued layers of time, the early mansard roof with dormer windows is still intact.
The owner of the hardware shop, German-born Henry Grashorn, was a prominent presence among the island’s growing business community. A group of largely German business leaders, according to Charles Denson’s Coney Island: Lost and Found, banded together at the turn of the century in an effort to shift the enclave away from its “Sodom by the Sea” reputation. They were also eager to protect their interests, as state intervention was threatening to do away with the horse-racing tracks and thereby, it was feared, the rich visitors who patronized them. Even more worrying, the state was making repeated overtures regarding its right to the waterfront property, where it hoped to open a public beach. (At the time, only patrons of various waterfront establishments could visit the seaside.)
Grashorn became a founding member of the Coney Island Taxpayers Alliance, a group comprised of business leaders that sought to, in its own words, “raise the moral tone of Coney Island and try to do away with low dives and places where rowdyism prevails.” They were aided in this endeavor by the great Bowery fire of 1903, which consumed much of Coney Island’s ramshackle center. The blaze of reconstruction that followed, which Grashorn played no small role in, was billed as a “New Coney Island.”
On the far western end of the island, where, as Munsey’s magazine put it in 1905, things were “most vulgar and squalid,” George Tilyou built his enclosed Steeplechase Park, a den of family-friendly amusements named for its mechanical horse tracks. Saddled atop metal horses, riders raced around an undulating track, traversing rivers and all manner of synthetic landscapes. “If Paris is France,” Tilyou said, “Coney Island, between June and September, is the world.” To enter this world, visitors passed over mechanical flooring that simulated an earthquake, toppling its patrons to the floor.
Another popular Steeplechase attraction, a ride called Trip to the Moon, was created by the young duo Fred Thompson and Skip Dundy. When they decided they weren’t being compensated fairly by Tilyou, Thompson and Dundy used elephants to haul their contraption to the site of another park, then bankrupt. (Later, one of the elephant herd’s more spirited members, Topsy, was electrocuted by Thomas Edison.) The two opened Luna Park in 1903, an “Electric Eden” of minarets, domes, turrets, “architecture of every known and many unknown species,” as a Times reporter observed in 1908. The towers multiplied by the year, sprouting into an early incandescent skyline and presaging Manhattan’s vertical density. In 1907, there were 1,326 towers by Thompson’s count, all lit up by more than a million bulbs.
After four years, the total number of visitors to the park exceeded 60 million. “Capitalists, catching the point of the Luna Park experiment, piled in their money to get a share of the profits,” said Munsey’s. One such capitalist was the former state senator and real estate speculator W.H. Reynolds, who envisioned a park on an even grander scale called Dreamland. Within the park’s pristine white walls, Reynolds assembled finite worlds within worlds. There was Lilliputia, a small-scale village populated by 300 little people built with exacting detail—even, The Times reported, “to its midget Chinese laundrymen.” An early incubator housed premature babies from nearby hospitals, and sham fires were continually put out by sham firemen.
For all the worlds built and destroyed on Coney Island, the hardware shop that churned out the requisite slats and scaffolding remained standing, impervious to the real blazes that consumed Dreamland in 1911 and later Luna Park, too. Despite objections from the Taxpayers Alliance, city officials built Coney Island’s first public bathhouse adjacent to the scorched Dreamland site, a collection of tumbledown shacks still selling beer and popcorn. The success of the public bathhouse coupled with Dreamland’s mess of debris fueled the city’s determination to create a public shoreline. The years that followed brought a series of protracted battles between public and private interests, though, of course, Coney Island never stopped for those, either.
LATELY, OLD CONEY Island rivalries—Dreamland, Luna Park, municipal interests—have taken on new meanings. In some ways it’s just a matter of old names yanked up again, revived, but they’re also names that speak to still potent tensions and their ideological inheritance. Coney Island has always been a place of reinvention, though in talking about its future, we can’t seem to get away from the “old Coney Island,” whatever that may be. It’s more a question of which old Coney Island we’d like it to be. A private Coney Island or a public one? Sodom by the Sea or City of Light?
Amid all the noise and the mad swirl of change, there has been a recent push for the city to landmark a number of early Coney Island structures, the Grashorn Building among them. Joe Sitt has not typically been amenable to the landmarking of his buildings, though if there’s ever a testament to Coney Island as an incubator of developers’ dreams, that strange urge to manufacture worlds within worlds, it’s the Grashorn Building.
It may be, though, that the world we seek now in Coney Island is not the space-age world of Astroland or the supernatural spheres of Luna Park and Dreamland, not the vague new Coney Island promised by mayor after mayor at all. That old drive to experience new and condensed worlds is still there, it’s just that technology has refracted us all into different ones—the gears and lever of mechanical simulations replaced by pixels and screens, freak shows upstaged by reality TV.
Maybe we citizens of the artificial aren’t looking for an enclave of nature or even the supernatural anymore, but just an enclave of the real. It’s not a Trip to the Moon we want so much as the return trip, the boomerang of centripetal force, connecting us to the dingy, crackling familiar. It hasn’t exactly hurt Coney Island that the place, like a tireless stuntman, a perpetual trickster, always seems close to vanishing. Sometimes that makes it all the more real.
Steeplechase had its earthquake, Luna Park a volcano, and Dreamland a perpetual blaze. All these years later, we keep taking the train out to the city’s most outward limits, the absolute end of the line, to experience, however briefly, something close to destruction, to see just how real things become before they disappear. The show’s always just about to start.