17 July 2011

Mayor Who Doesn't Understand Coney Island Hires Italian Who Doesn't Understand Coney Island

Anyone who understands this City better than Michael Bloomberg—and that's just about everybody with a New York address—could instantly comprehend why hiring an Italian company to reinvent Coney Island was a boneheaded idea. You don't bring in a foreigner, with no intrinsic feeling for the nature Coney Island—an iconic, ur-American place if there ever was one—to fix it. It's just common sense. You get a New Yorker. Someone with horsesense and a heart. (Of course, this is the same City Hall that hired a Spanish company to design our newsstands and bus shelters.)

If anybody needed proof that the company, which goes by the nauseating name of Central Amusement International, was going to get it wrong, the New York Times has very helpfully provided solid proof. CAI is going to shut down Ruby's Bar & Grill and six other Coney boardwalk attractions this summer. Why?

"We will never make Disney here," said Valerio Ferrari, the president of CAI, seeming to indicate that Disney is a desirable goal. "But it will be something more...refined, cleaner. A little more year-round, if it’s possible, with sit-down restaurants and sports bars."

Refined. Cleaner. Sit-down restaurants. Sports bars.

Need I say more? He grasps the essence of Coney Island just about as well as cats grasp the game of fetch. What places in the the United States have a clean collection of sit-down restaurants and sports bars? Oh, right—every place!! What places have bars like Ruby's? None. Ruby's is one of a kind. So are the other businesses. They're Coney boardwalk businesses. They're irreplaceable. A sports bar isn't. Applebee's isn't. 

Ferrari said he would keep Nathan's Hot Dogs. Genius! What a great mind at work. (Actually, I bet the City strong-armed him into that one.)

And there's more. "We don’t have the same vision," Ferrari said of the vendors he was shutting down. "They like the way it is, and we don’t." That's clear enough. Of course, his assumption is that his vision is the correct one. He's mistaken. 


Ed said...

I'm a native New Yorker who knows almost nothing about Coney Island, despite being down there yesterday. But I have a few questions.

First, if the article is correct, the city owns part of the Boardwalk, which was composed mainly of tacky stores and a bar. They hired a company to close the tacky stores and the bar and open a few amusement parks. What is wrong with that? Weren't there more amusement parks there long ago, before the tacky stores.

Coney Island seems pretty big, but much of the area seems taken up with vacant lot, parking lots, and housing projects. If you took over the vacant lots, wouldn't there be enough room for both the less refined stuff and more refined stuff?

And why not hand part of the place over to Disney itself? For all the complaints of Disneyfication, what the actual company has done here amounts to running a couple of theaters. Though its hard to believe, the more Bloombergfied parts of New York are now blander than Disney World itself, which as it happens includes a boardwalk.

Ed said...

I've been reading up on Coney Island. Apparently this isn't the first "close these businesses down and put in something less tawdry") thing has been tried. In the nineteenth century there were complaints that the area was being developed at all, with people proposing that it be made a nature preserve! I'm sympathetic to that idea, though I think its too late.

There were several attempts to kill the amusement parks, before Dreamland was finally destroyed by fire during World War II. At least the amusement parks seem to be be back. Robert Moses made the most comprehesive attempt to kill Coney Island, filling the area with low income housing projects, and building the acquarium over Dreamland. He wanted to make the entire area housing projects but was blocked.

The Trumps also got involved, trying to replace the amusement parks with luxury housing. Guiliani shut down a roller coaster but at least brought in the Cyclones.

Gothamist also has a much commented piece on this:


Most of the comments are what you expect, though I agree with the last commentator that the outer borough location, too close to be a proper beach resort but too far away to be an easy trip from the center of the city, dooms most redevelopment schemes.

I think for this reason the place will be battered but survive doing what it has been doing, providing cheap entertainment to poor and working class New Yorkers. The distance from Manhattan will mean something more upscale will go flat. I think it would be worthwhile to replace some of the vacant lots and parking lots with commercial development. Long term, it would be a good idea to relocate the low income housing projects elsewhere, though that is easier said than done.