A few days ago I received news that the famed Coney Island amusement park Astroland would be closed forever on September 7th 2008. This time it was true.
Carol Albert the co-owner of the park released a statement saying;
"I am making this statement today to set the record straight. I have not “given up on Coney Island” as Thor Equities has stated. I have given up on trying to get Thor to negotiate which I have attempted to do every month since June, and numerous times in August.
Each time their response was, “We have no answer.” The safety of our customers and our commitment to employees means our time has run out. Ride parts must be ordered a minimum of eight to 10 months in advance. My employees cannot live in a state of limbo any longer. It takes six months to pack up a three-acre amusement park that has been in operation for 46 years, so a January 31st deadline means start packing yesterday. We are out of time.
Today I notified Astroland’s employees that the amusement park will cease operations permanently at the end of the day on Sunday, September 7th.
Many in the community had hoped along with us that Astroland could remain open to keep the lights on in Coney Island until the rezoning issue had been resolved, because carnival rides, as the “Summer of Hope” sadly proved, are no substitute for a permanent amusement park. However, when even our good friend, Councilman Domenic Recchia could do nothing to persuade Thor to negotiate, it became clear we had no choice but to close the business permanently on Sunday night, September 7th.
Coney Island's future as a tourism and amusement destination is clearly in peril. Thor equities, which now owns most of Coney Island, came onto the development scene showing beautiful renderings of this great 21st century amusement park they were promising to build. All indications however, are that their real priority is retail and high end housing. There is a real question as to whether Coney Island will ever have amusements, other than the Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel in its future. Instead it appears to be that a series of shopping malls and condos will replace amusement parks as the centerpiece of the Coney Island that has been here for over 100 years. This is a tragic loss for the City of New York and visitors around the world. "
When I read this, I cried.
I knew that this time it was for real and that no amount of letter writing, protesting, city meetings and phone calls to pubic officials could stop what was happening.
I've only been involved with Coney Island since February 17th 2007, it seems ridiculous that I could be so emotionally invested in a place that I've been going to for less than two years, but I am. Coney feels like home to me and the people at Sideshows By The Seashore feel like my family. Naturally I'd become attached to Astroland and it's history and how it continued to make Coney Island The People's Playground.
Yesterday I went to attend the funeral of New York City's largest amusement park. I arrived at Coney Island USA a little after 4pm, the place was packed mostly with people coming to pay their respects to the 46 year old institution that was about to breathe it's last breath.
Everyone working at the Sideshow was swamped, so I quietly sat in the newly expanded bar and observed the people. I did run into a few familiar faces, Adam Rinn, Joe Coleman, Bambi The Mermaid and Bunny Love.
I watched and listened to people tell stories about when they were children and would go to Astroland, spend all day and still not have enough of it. A few of them became teary eyed talking about the past.
All afternoon I heard people cursing Thor's name, enraged about how a real estate giant could crush a family owned amusement park and build high rises in it's place.
I've got to admit though, the closing of the park was good for business at CI USA, they didn't have a single show that wasn't standing room only.
After people watching, I decided to walk through Astroland, to see if there was anything I could take as a souvenir but everything that I had my eye on was very securely bolted down, although I did manage to get some light bulbs from a few rides.
I don't know how many times I walked through the park, but every time I did I saw more and more smiling faces, families having a good time, children laughing and the occasional face with a strange sad sort of smile. I realized that I had that very same sad smile on my face, it came from knowing what was about to happen and seeing these people have such great fun for the last time.
I walked back to the Sideshow to meet up with Marie Robberts (the resident banner painter) who has a wonderful back story of growing up with carny parents in Coney Island. I ended up sitting with her, Dick Zigun, David Gratt and Frank Goldblatt, I listened to them talk about what the future would hold.
David got the call that the funeral was about to begin, so we walked over to the park. Once we got in, we ended up standing around for about half an hour before security brutishly kicked out the patrons, Carol wrangled us up in a corner with about 60 other folks that were allowed to stay in the park. While security and the NYPD were escorting people out a fight broke out, but was quickly stopped, all the rides and lights were shut off at this point.
All the employees, the group that I was with and press were then taken to the back of the park in Kiddieland just by the board walk (the lights were turned back on for all of this). Everyone was assembled on the steps and photos were taken, the ride jocks then started chanting "Hell No! We Won't Go!!", I looked over at Carol and she had one of those sad smiles on her face. The chant then changed to "Down With Thor!", I looked back at Carol and her sad smile turned into an uncomfortable frown, after all she did accept a reported 33million dollars from Thor.
The procession began.
A parade of people formed behind Carol and a few other ranking people at Astroland. We all began walking to the front gates and as Carol walked past each ride, it turned off. I was in the very back with the Coney Island USA people so it looked very surreal, being in total darkness in an amusement park but every time you get close to the light it just goes away.
Once we were all in the front all the lights were out, every ride was dark, all but one, the oldest and tallest in the park.
The Astroland Tower was the only ride that was lit up.
Slowly the viewing box began to descend the tower, The lights went through all it's different patterns and as the box fell the employees were shouting "Happy New Year!" and counting back from 10 to 1 when clearly the box was far from the bottom, they were making jokes and having fun. But as the box got lower the jokes began to cease. Finally the viewing box hit its mark, stopped moving, the lights changed a few more times and then it went black. The time was two minutes after twelve.
There was no noise in the crowd.
We all just stood there staring at it. The silence lasted for about 10 seconds and the reality of what happened sank in. All the ride jocks knew that their jobs were gone, that Astroland was no more and in a day or so, deconstruction would begin, along with a new chapter in Coney's colorful history. A history that is slowly becoming gray.
Everyone began to go home, there were many people with tears in their eyes, including myself. Marie and I walked together with Norman Blake (CI USA's in house photographer), we had lost the rest of our group.
On the way to the train station on Stillwell Ave. we passed the Sideshow, and inside was Dick, sitting there in the dark, by himself, staring off into space, a light in the bar was reflecting off the tear streams on his cheeks.
As of just a few moments into September 8th 2008, Astroland Park is gone.
This was the last time I'll see Coney Island this year. I can only hope a miracle occurs in the next few months or the Isle of Rabbits may be lost forever.