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Saturday, August 18, 2007 12:28:30 AM
Last ride for Coney's kitsch

By David May
August 15, 2007 11:30pm
THIS year marks the 80th anniversary of New York's great Cyclone. No, it wasn't a freak of nature, but the world's most famous roller coaster, which opened at Coney Island on June 26, 1927.

And although it is still twisting around its old timber tracks, this could be Coney's last summer season as the quirky old Queen of Kitsch.

One hour from midtown Manhattan, where New York City meets the Atlantic Ocean, Coney Island has been a seaside resort since the end of the Civil War, steadily growing into a beachfront wonderland of carousels, Ferris wheels, fairy floss, amusement parks and roller coasters.

Coney Island still pulls around five million visitors a year but it is only a shadow of its former glamorous self.

That may change, however, as developers fine tune a controversial US$1.5 billion (A$1.77 billion) redevelopment that will bring a Las Vegas style mega-hotel, a gigantic entertainment complex, an indoor water park, swank restaurants and nightclubs and masses of retail stores to inundate the old seaside gem – by 2011, they hope.

Although some of the nostalgic old amusements will remain and be augmented by a new crop of glitzy attractions, many residents are already nervous about Coney Island losing forever its kitsch, quirky and unique character.

As early as the 1870s, New Yorkers were journeying east every summer to "America's Playground" to temper the big city blues, ride the carousels, get a dose of sun and sea air and swim and disport on Brighton Beach, wearing clothes that covered most of their bodies.

In 1884 the world's first roller coaster brought the beginnings of a carnival atmosphere, followed by amusement parks, such as the Sea Lion, Steeplechase, Luna Park with 1221 red and white towers, minarets and domes – and the enormous Dreamland, illuminated by a million lights and with so many vast attractions it made the Gold Coast's Dreamworld look like sideshow alley.

In 1916, Nathan's Famous opened on the corner of Surf and Stillwell Aves, a restaurant specialising in a new craze called hot dogs, spawning a legend that grew into a bizarre and, some would say, disgusting annual event. But more of that later.

The New York subway arrived in 1920, the boardwalk opened three years later with dozens of colourful arcades, ice cream and fairy floss – and the Parachute Jump began in 1941, when Coney Island was in its heyday.

It was springtime when I took the subway from Manhattan to Coney Island but it was a freezing Saturday and the skies were leaden. The wind howled across an empty Brighton Beach as I tramped along the old boardwalk, past boarded-up shops and the skeletal 80m tower of what was once the Parachute Jump.

I passed Astroland – a big, still functioning amusement park built in 1962 around the Cyclone roller coaster, with countless rides, a haunted house, bumper cars and the towering Wonder Wheel. But for Astroland, one of Coney's most popular and enduring attractions, this season looks like the last hurrah. Unless the developers have a change of heart, Astroland will be closed for good in September. Only the Cyclone will remain.

On the boardwalk I met a procession of flamboyant, eccentric and outrageous characters, including an enormous man in shorts and singlet with scarlet hair and a statuesque middle-aged woman, who should have known better, with a large pretend python wrapped around her expensive dress.

On Stillwell Avenue, I stumbled across "Shoot The Freak", a silly paintball game in which the "freak" (wannabe actor Matthew Behan) ran around a shooting gallery in a Mad Max outfit dodging paint bullets fired by the public.

Getting into the spirit, I slipped into the Circus Sideshow on Surf Avenue to catch an old-style freak show with about a dozen wacky live acts including an obligatory bearded lady and the Human Blockhead, cleverly hammering nails into his own skull.

Amusements came and amusements went. Most of them went and over the past few decades Coney Island fell on hard times. Businesses closed.

Weeds took over more and more vacant lots and cheap housing projects replaced such landmarks as the long-defunct Steeplechase and Luna Park.

But some things never change. I paused at Nathan's Famous to sample their historic hot dogs and discovered that I would miss the historic Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Championship, held every July 4 since 1916.

Marty handed over two skinny frankfurters in two skinny bread rolls along with the news that 29-year-old Japanese world champion glutton, Takeru Kobayashi, would soon challenge the record he set last year – demolishing 53.75 Nathan's hot dogs in 12 minutes to win a year's supply.

Kobayashi had apparently struggled through the first half of the marathon until a fortuitous belch at the seven-minute mark got him back on track. I had to admire his doggedness: just two of them gave me heartburn.

But this July 4 it all fell in a heap for six-time champion Kobayashi, with 63 dogs under the belt, when 23-year-old San Jose challenger, Joey Chestnut, squeezed in 66.

For now, the eccentric Queen of Kitsch continues to attract its devotees. If you're in New York this northern summer, don't miss what's left of the wonderful old Coney Island.
Saturday, August 18, 2007 1:38:48 PM
80 years is a god life. I hope I can squeeze another 10 years out of this old body. I guess the world has changed and the parks aren't what they used to be. People don't go to them like they did 50-60 years ago. It used to be a family thing to have a reunion or a birthday gathering at amusement parks. The parks are like the Drive-in movies, thy also are falling by the wayside.
<h5>"If you cant run with the BIG dogs stay on the porch"</h5>

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Saturday, August 18, 2007 1:58:17 PM
Yes hate to see all of these seaside parks closing. Its happening all up and down the east coast.
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