We’re marking the year’s end with a look back at Coney Island news reported by ATZ in 2013, including wins, losses, entrances, exits and silver linings. In past years, we’ve focused on Top 10 lists, but this year’s top news included multiple posts about successful efforts to rebuild and reopen after Superstorm Sandy, as well as new construction and last goodbyes. We’ve also selected the most overlooked news story and our favorite post of 2013.
Ever since The Parachute Jump’s dazzling new 8,000 LEDs debuted in June, the landmark tower’s light show has continued nightly except for a few computer glitches. Although there’s been no official announcement from the Parks Department or Luna Park, the unofficial word on the Boardwalk is the Jump is going to be lit year-round. The Christmas lighting scheme spells “Happy Holidays!” [Update: Check the Coney Island webcam before you go.] Another bright spot in 2013 was Luna Park’s Boardwalk gate, where pinwheels and crescent moons similar to the design that graces the Surf Avenue entryway debuted in March.
The lead horse on the beautifully restored B&B Carousell, which reopened in May in the new Steeplechase Plaza, is a rare steed. Sumptuous detailing on its trappings includes a relief of Abe Lincoln and the Coney Island carver‘s signature “Built by MC Illions.” According to carousel historian Marianne Stevens, the horse was one of four carved in 1909 in honor of the Centennial of Lincoln’s birth and the only one remaining on a working carousel. Now if only the B&B were open year-round as it used to be, we would once again go for a spin on New Year’s Day!
The silver lining to Sandy was that some of the public amenities and amusement park icons ravaged by the storm were not only rebuilt but have also undergone a dramatic improvement from the way they looked before (“Photo Album: Four Transformations, One Year After Sandy,” ATZ, October 30, 2013). Steeplechase Pier, a popular spot for strolling, sunbathing, fishing and watching the fireworks, finally reopened on October 2nd after several months of reconstruction by T.B. Penick and Triton Structural.
New features include a wave-shaped communal lounger and a shade structure with letters spelling out CONEY ISLAND. LTL Architects redesign for the reconstruction of the pier won Special Recognition at the 31st Annual Awards for Excellence in Design by the New York City Design Commission.
The Coney Island Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library has also made a remarkable comeback from Sandy. Built in 1956, the library not only has new books and DVDs, the interior was beautifully redesigned to reflect the history of the neighborhood and meet the 21st century needs of the community.
Spook-A-Rama, Coney Island’s oldest dark ride, which dates back to the 1950s and is part of Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park, was severely damaged due to flooding during Superstorm Sandy. When the park opened in March, new ghouls mingled with old inside the carefully rehabbed ride, winning high marks from ride aficionados. The eye-popping exterior artwork and restored Pretzel cars and tracks survived. Grandma’s Predictions, a rare 1920s fortunetelling machine under the Wonder Wheel, was rejuvenated by “eye surgery,” new wax hands cast from the original mold and a handcrafted cabinet based on the original design.
During the Coney Island rezoning hearings, the Municipal Art Society said the 1964 Astrotower was eligible for the State and National Registers. This year, over the July 4th holiday, the last vestige of Astroland on the Coney Island skyline met a spectacularly sad end. Reports that the tower was swaying more than usual caused the City’s Office of Emergency Management to shut down Coney Island’s amusement parks. The top of the tower was removed, a more than 12-hour operation that enabled the surrounding rides to reopen at 3 PM on the 4th of July. Over the next two days, the rest of the tower was chopped down and hauled off to the Cropsey Avenue junkyard.
In August, Jimmy McCullough, 84, whose family has operated amusements in Coney Island for four generations, passed away at his home. ATZ wrote about the McCullough family’s history in Coney when their 50-year-old kiddie park at the Bowery and 12th Street closed at the end of the 2012 season after a lease renewal with Thor Equities fell through. The lot has stood vacant ever since. Jimmy McCullough also owned and operated three historic carousels in Coney Island, including the B&B Carousell, which are now in City parks and are the family’s lasting legacy to the people of New York City.
On Valentine’s Day, the Playland Arcade building, which had been vacant for the past thirty years, was finally demolished. Charles Denson of the Coney Island History Project managed to save the remaining letters on the facade– L, N and D– and several of the whimsical yet deteriorating murals, which were featured in the exhibit “The Curious Playland Arcade Art of Larry Millard.”
EXITS and ENTRANCES
Among the stores that closed forever due to damage after Sandy were Cha Cha’s of Coney Island, which had relocated to Surf Avenue in 2012 after losing their lease on the Boardwalk. Denny’s Ice Cream, the beloved ice cream shop established in 1978 was replaced by a rare 1940s Mangels Shooting Gallery on loan from Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park and restored and operated by Coney Island USA.
Shooting galleries enjoyed a revival this past season in post-Sandy Coney Island. At Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park, a haunted parlor-themed shooting gallery with animated targets made by ScareFactory replaced the flood-damaged Scarface gallery. Shoot the Freak was reborn on the Bowery as Shoot the Clown. Luna Park brought loo-nacy to Jones Walk with Stinky Feet, a multi-target water-race game with guns that are replicas of bathtub faucets and seats that look like toilets!
The opening of Place to Beach Bar and other CAI Food LLC eateries marked Luna Park operator Central Amusement International’s first foray into the food business in Coney Island. French food service giant Sodexo had been their partner for “On Site Service Solutions” since 2010 and their departure was something to cheer about.
In December 2012, ATZ asked “Will Coney Island’s Surf Ave Become a Mecca for Franchises?” A few more chain stores have opened on Surf and Stillwell since we wrote about three national franchises– Applebee’s, Johnny Rockets and Red Mango–signing leases for the north side of Surf Avenue.
After eight years of real estate speculation and the rezoning of Coney Island, Thor Equities CEO Joe Sitt’s “Retail Ride of a Lifetime” (ugh) finally began in 2013. In February, ATZ learned from sources that candy retailer It’Sugar would be the first tenant at Thor’s new retail building at Surf and Stillwell. The glitzy candy emporium is open year-round unlike the Rainbow Shop and Brooklyn Nets Store, which were seasonal. The transformation of Surf Avenue into a mecca for chains and franchises is well underway, with Johnny Rockets and Subway Cafe currently under construction on the north side of Surf (on properties which are not owned by Thor) and slated to open in 2014.
While franchises and chains are expected to attract more of the same to Surf Avenue, a dwindling number of independent operators struggle to keep a foothold in the amusement area. In 2013, Jimmy Balloons built a new booth on Jones Walk under the Wonder Wheel’s neon sign. The lease on his longtime location on the Bowery was held by Manny Cohen of Coney Island Arcade, who was evicted after 22 years and moved his business to Vegas taking Target the Coney Island Cat with him.
We’re thankful to all the blogs and dailies who have linked to ATZ over the past year. But there’s one story that we wish had gotten picked up by other media outlets. ATZ’s vote for our most under-appreciated or overlooked Coney Island news story of 2013 goes to our posts about Thor Equities dummy arcades. All season long, flashy signs for an ARCADE fronting empty space with “Retail Space Available” signs have made a mockery of the City’s 2009 rezoning requiring a percentage of amusements on the property. (“The New Coney Island: Thor Equities Vacant Lots, Dummy Arcades,” ATZ, October 17, 2013); “Thor’s Coney Island: Retail Ride of a Lifetime’s Phantom Arcade,” ATZ, June 12, 2013).
The fact that Thor CEO Joe Sitt can’t be bothered to install the minimum amusements required by the new zoning — a couple of tiny arcades – in his first new construction in Coney Island does not bode well for the future of any type of amusement on his long-vacant property, from which he has previously evicted all amusement operators. Will Sitt try to win a zoning variance to get rid of the amusement requirement from the City’s Board of Standards and Appeals in the next administration?
Finally, our fave post of 2013 – ta da da da!– is “Sea Rabbits Swim Ashore in Coney Island, Up For Adoption,” posted on April 1st. It is quite possibly yours too, since this post is among ATZ’s Top 5 posts of 2013. Greetings and Happy New Year from Coney Island!