We’re standing on Stillwell Avenue, Brooklyn, on the approach to the Coney Island boardwalk. My questioner’s a middle-aged black man with white lips cracked as badly as the sidewalk under our feet. I’m on holidays, he’s holding a cheap flagon of hooch in his left hand. Without waiting for a response he scratches his chest and sniffs.
“Yeah, well, she still crummier than breaded steak.”
Poor old Coney Island. As the Big Apple itself rotted in the 1970s and 80s, so too did Coney Island. Once the global synonym for fun, for decades it mouldered through slow decline, a byword for urban decay. Fairy floss and hoopla gave way to hoods, graffiti and gang-banging.
Then, recovery. By the mid-2000s big plans were in place: blueprints for an air-conditioned pleasuredome and a revamped boardwalk reinvigorated with high-end residential and retail development. The city administration established a dedicated Coney Island development corporation. In 2005 Mayor Bloomberg declared he’d ‘transform’ Coney Island into a thriving year-round destination.
Some work was done — the boardwalk renovated, a baseball stadium erected and a new fun park opened. Then came the GFC, Coney’s convalescence arrested by the collapsing real estate market. Like the Thunderbolt roller coaster, ripped down in 2007, renewal was stopped dead in its tracks.
Thus Coney Island today is stuck somewhere between decrepit past and ambiguous future. Hints of nascent renewal are drowned out by an optical dirge of clapped-out concessions, flaking paint and shuttered stalls. Where fun houses and music halls once stood, empty lots now gape forlornly, drawing nothing but deadnettle and dog shit.
Still, the “Poor Man’s Riviera” endures, trading on reputation and off the blessings of geography — four miles of beachfront offering salvation for thousands during searing summer months. There’s a new train station, and the fairground still offers its customary stock-in-trade: foot-long wieners and a little cheap fun.
Coney Island had been part of my New York plans for months, but the morning of the trip I baulked. There’d been a shooting, and I’d read about the local cutthroats, the Latin Kings. My four-year-old wasn’t having it. I’d promised her something even bigger than the Toowoomba Show, I had to deliver.
Context, I reassured myself, context. The gunplay was at midnight a month ago. The Latin Kings ran game a generation back. New York as a whole is possibly the safest it’s ever been.
An hour later and we’re at the end of the ‘N’ line and the start of the Atlantic.
It’s hot. Missy wants to swim. Changing time. New York’s neither big on parents’ rooms nor adult males in Ladies’ restrooms, so we’re forced into the Men’s. We skate through a cold soup of pee, sea and cigarette butts and slide into a tiny cubicle. I contort around the grubby pan, wrangling 20 kilos of uncooperative flesh into bathers, all the while cursing elastic, the myth of American exceptionalism, and my wife, back in Manhattan enjoying Romeo and Juliet in a scale replica of the Globe Theatre. Especially her.
Eventually we reach the sand. Missy’s keen to find a crab. We toddle off, side-stepping toe-high swell and brand-name trash, eyes peeled for crustacea.
Creatures of another kind catch my eye. The Latino honeydip sprawling for a Vaseline-lens “glamour” shoot. An old woman in a puce bikini, dedicating her torso and time in retirement to running a drop-in centre for homeless melanoma. An Italian man in lobster-print swim trunks sweeping a metal detector, hustling for nickels and dimes.
We come across a group of Puerto Rican kids. They’re crowded around an impressively deep pit dug in the sand, shaded with beach umbrellas and furnished with boom boxes. “Look darling”, I enthuse, knowing how much Miss Four loves sandcastles, “look at that big … hole.”
My voice fails as it dawns the dugout’s a sunken bong lounge. Glazed faces huff away at a giant hookah, hard at work putting the cones into Coney Island. I steer daughter away, desperate to avoid having to explain an octobong.
Time to explore the fairground. Coney’s not a centrally-managed theme park, but a gumbo of separate and competing concessions. There’s no one entry gate, just a host of separate ticket booths with carnie barkers plugging attractions and sideshow-style amusements.
Rolling with a pre-schooler means height restrictions, which rules out the interesting rides — The Brooklyn Flyer, The Tickler, the timber Cyclone roller coaster — and limits us to attractions packing the thrill of an afternoon’s photocopying. Mind I still stagger from Dizzy Dragons moderately nauseated. To be fair, this may have had more do with lunch — a borough-sized serve of Nathan’s Famous slow-release suicide — than the ride.
To the Wonder Wheel. Built in 1920 from steel forged on site, this towering Ferris wheel has turned through the Depression, recessions and wars (both World and turf) pausing only once, when the great blackout of July 1977 left it powerless. The doo-ragged attendant flips me two tickets without breaking out of his nap, and we’re soon climbing into the Brooklyn sky.
The view at the top could be sensational — natural immensity of the Atlantic spread out on one side, vast conurbation of Greater New York smeared across the other. For us it isn’t, a fuzzy rug of low cloud and heavy smog smothering the colour and detail.
Back on earth, daddy calls it a day. The night crowds are building and my paranoia rising; for all the young families and doughy daytrippers, I’m seeing only Latin Kings. Lost in a bag of saltwater taffy, Missy puts up no protest.
Coney Island’s 2012 season runs from Easter to Halloween. Take the D, Q, N or F trains to Stilwell Avenue Station, Brooklyn.