23 September 2011

A Story to Break Your Heart

From Grub Street. File Under: The Long, Sad, Death of Coney Island:
Summer officially ended yesterday, and soon the unofficial season at Coney Island will end as well. When it does, seven mom-and-pops on the boardwalk will shut forever — including Paul’s Daughter, the one my family owns.
Central Amusement International, which the city hired to manage its property at Coney Island, wants what company president Valerio Ferrari calls a "more refined, cleaner" feel for the boardwalk. And the shops the company is shuttering "don’t fit into [CAI’s] vision."
There have been "Last Summers" before, including 2009, when my father watched as the Astroland rocket was torn off his shop's roof. But this past summer, Central Amusement asked the mom-and-pops to submit nine-year business plans in order to see if we could make our shop fit into Ferrari’s vision. My sister, Tina, submitted ours and offered to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to modernize our shop. It didn't matter; I believe the decision to evict had been made long before the plans were submitted. After being a part of Coney Island for the last six decades, we now have to close the store next month. My father says losing the store is "like a death in the family."
My dad, Chief as he's known on the Island, has been out there for 63 years, almost since the day he arrived in the United States from Greece. Chief started at a milk bar under the BMT depot when he was 21 years old. There, he met Gregory Bitetzakis, a fellow Greek. The two would go on to become partners for half a century. They worked for another Greek, known by everyone as Pineapple, until 1962, when they opened their first Gregory & Paul's on the boardwalk at West 8th.
They eventually opened three more. They lost one in 1968, when Nelson Rockefeller bought the land and donated it to the Aquarium. A fire destroyed another in 1980. Gregory closed the second-to-last location when he retired in 2009.
As a kid, I loved visiting the shop. I'd get a grape drink from the dispensers and thick crinkle-cut fries as they came out of the fryer, something I still do.
As teenagers, my sister and I worked on holidays. I have never spent the Fourth of July anywhere else. When the weather was good, the crowds were so deep you couldn't see the boardwalk or the ocean, just lines of hot hungry people, for hours on end.
In 2009, after the rocket had been taken down, Chief decided to give up his last remaining store. My sister offered to take it over; she's the one who renamed it Paul's Daughter.
It's always seemed to me that both my father and the store would go on forever — there has always been a store, and my father's always been there. I have no memories of him anywhere else when I was a kid (other than two blurry images of him on line at Radio City's Christmas show).
But now, we must pack up the store and vacate no later than November 4, even though our hearts are still in Coney Island — and business is still great. "Maybe I'll start over on the Bowery," Chief says, referring to the alley in Coney Island, not the now-hot stretch in Manhattan. Whatever happens, the store will continue for me, with the rocket on its roof, Chief behind the grill, and lines of people stretching out to the sand.


Jill said...

Heartbreaking. Just horrible. Every single thing about this story is wrong.

Ed said...

As it happens, I've only been out to Coney Island two or three times in my life, so I usually refrain on commenting on these sorts of stories. But I really don't understand some things about the lastest transformation and hope that people more knowledgeable can clear things up.

First of all, I heard that Robert Moses hated Coney Island and attempted to kill it off by concentrating housing projects there. And the projects do see to have half-killed the atmosphere, confining the carneval stuff to a few square blocks and raising the crime rate. Is this impression correct, and if it is, if you really wanted to supergentrify the place how do you deal with the housing projects, which don't seem to be going away?

Second, wasn't the point of Coney Island was that it was the place where the million or so people in Brooklyn south of Prospect Park could get to the seaside for a holiday? Coney Island was somewhat grander in the past but its customer base was larger. For people living in the rest of the city, the place is not really easier to get to than better beaches in New Jersey and Long Island, and many of Coney Island's original patrons eventually moved to New Jersey, Long Island, and Staten Island as well. Again, doesn't the geography make it a non-candidate for supergentrification.

Also, if someone gave me a bunch of seaside properties my first instinct would be to try to retain places that seemed to be making money, and if I had a "vision" use it to guide my choices of what replaces businesses that fall by the wayside due to normal attrition. So what do these owners think they are doing?

Roy Tomeij said...

That's just sad. Too bad I didn't go to Coney Island the two times I was in NYC. The next trip will probably in 2013, and by then all of this will be gone forever.

TinaL said...

That is the best picture you have ever posted. I'm very sorry for your family and for Coney Island. This is the true meaning of the end of an era.

upstate Johnny G said...

This is a sad story, the kind that stays with you a long time. It does sound like the management company was just going through the motions asking for 9-year business plans from stores that wanted to stay open. The company had already decided they wanted all the old-time stores out. The plan most likely is to gentrify Coney Island - instead of franks and fries, frog legs (FROG LEGS, by god!) places like Paul's Daughter will be replaced by Danny Meyer's Shake Shack, and so it will go all along the boardwalk. This will prove to be just the first phase of a plan to transform the entire beachfront. Once the boardwalk and beach gentrification is finished then the redevelopment of the housing stock can start. They'll use eminent domain (assuming NY's state laws on such are the same as the Connecticut's as detailed in the famous case "Kelso v. New London", and the existing housing stock will be taken by the city who will then turn it over in sweetheart deals to their favorite developers who will in turn put up luxury condo towers on which they can both make obscene profits and form a visual barrier for everyone who lives inland.

It's getting time for a trip to Liberty Island to update the words at the base of the statue:

"Give me your millionaires, your billionaires, the very wealthiest you have, yearning to live like kings, and I'll trample the masses underfoot for them. Send these, the global plutocrats, to me. I lift my lamp beside the diamond door that bears the sign "members only."

Tinderbox said...

I don't understand what New York City has been doing to itself in recent years.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

You and me both.