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The Cold and Lonely Side of Summer's Playland

February 20, 2006
New York Times

She danced rather well for someone her age, never mind the faint cracks on her cheeks or the vacant look in her eyes. Her hips swayed stiffly, the tassels on her vest moving in rhythm.

The Cold and Lonely Side of Coney Island Then Benjamin Harrison pulled the plug, and she went dead.

"They debuted her at the 1935 Danbury State Fair, on the Barnum Pavilion," he said, patting the nameless motorized mannequin on the shoulder. By spring, she will be the featured tenant in a new window display, "something inexpensive for people to see on the strip" when they wander down this alley off Coney Island's Boardwalk, Mr. Harrison said. He heaved a heavy plastic sheet over the display. Spring is a long way off, and Coney Island is a cold and damp place in the winter.

Besides, no one else is around to watch. Like other beach towns but unlike just about any other neighborhood in the five boroughs, Coney Island is really alive only when the weather is warm. Come summer, crowds will overwhelm the streets, and visitors will be marching down Surf Avenue wearing suntan lotion and looking for cotton candy. But at this time of year, the tourists mostly stay home, and large swaths of the area struggle for life.

"Summertime's when the action is," groused Frank Johnson, 80 and a former Cyclone operator, dejectedly holding court at a convenience store on Surf.

On Stillwell Avenue, bumper cars were arranged in neat rows, unridden. Near the Boardwalk, skeletal plastic frames and a few shreds of tarp were all that remained of the tents and tables that sell toys and trinkets during the summer. The crack of baseball bats in the cages is months away, and a ghostly whistle — the wind rushing through the trusses and cables of Deno's Wonder Wheel a block away — seemed to emanate from everywhere at once. A man bundled against the cold stabbed a wire coat hanger into the guts of the soda machines lining the street, hoping to pry change loose.

At least there was plenty of parking.

"Winter is dead," said Sabir Quassimi, 37, manager of the Shore Hotel just off Surf, leaning out a second-floor window. The welcome sign flapped loudly in the wind. The hotel was less than half occupied. "No people are coming to the water. No one comes."

Surf Avenue, which runs through most of Coney Island a block from the Boardwalk, showed it. The storefronts built into the renovated $240 million subway terminal at the corner of Surf and Stillwell were papered over. Most of the rest of the stores on Surf were closed or shuttered. On the Boardwalk, some restaurants, like the Ocean Grill House or Gregory and Paul's, will open up on a warm Saturday. But of the area's main attractions, only three are reliably open during the off-season: the New York Aquarium, Nathan's hot dogs, and — on weekends — the Coney Island USA museum.

Most ride operators "work seven days a week, as much as 12 hours a day" in the summer, said Dick Zigun, who runs the museum. (The building lacks heat, and he keeps warm playing checkers near a wood-burning stove, he said.) Some operators make enough to take the winter off and go to Florida, he said, but most struggle to get by. "Everyone who is in the cast of the sideshows is collecting unemployment right now," he added.

Down the block at Nathan's, the storm shutters were locked down against the wind, and the courtyard tables were bare. Inside, a cook listlessly sprinkled salt on a fresh batch of fries as a family of tourists gazed sourly at the prices. One man tipped over his 24-ounce beer, frowned at the fizzy pool accumulating under his chair, then shrugged and ate his chili dog.

"It's not what it was. It's part of a conglomerate now. It's like a McDonald's," said Stanley Fox, 61, standing outside. "But they have good chicken noodle soup."

Mr. Fox's family used to own penny arcades here and now sells coin-operated games. He came down to the Boardwalk to show an old Skee-Ball machine to Josh Goldberg, 19, a New York University student who wanted to buy it for his father, who lives in Stamford, Conn. They walked down a side alley, ignoring the growling Rottweilers lurking behind the fence at Deno's, and into an unmarked warehouse, where a row of Skee-Ball machines awaited.

"This is where my parents had their second date," Mr. Goldberg said, after tossing a few balls at the target rings. "Basically, my dad played like 100 games of Skee-Ball. So I had to get one for him." The price: $206.

Mr. Fox, himself a Coney Island local, decided to visit the Major Prime Meat Market, run by his friend Jimmy Prince. The store is on Mermaid Avenue, the neighborhood's main drag in wintertime. Year-rounders buy groceries there or go for Chinese. Mr. Prince, who is 80, is the sort of guy everyone calls Jimmy, even the folks he has a few decades on. He started at Major Prime as a delivery boy in 1949 and now owns the place, keeping sawdust on the floor and a large band saw against the wall for cutting beef carcasses.

"Business is about the same. They just buy different things," said Mr. Prince, who wore a purple shirt and paisley tie under his apron. "It goes from barbecuing to steaks, soups, and roasts," he said. Out with the hamburgers and hot dogs, in other words, and in with the shoulder and neck cuts.

Mr. Prince is a longtime booster of development in Coney Island; give him a few minutes and he will wax cheerfully about the prospects for better and newer rides, a museum, a cleaned-up Coney Island Creek fit for canoes, and the prospect of year-round crowds. "Coney Island is a diamond; it just needs the right setting," he likes to say.

Conversation soon turned to a real estate developer, Joseph Sitt, another local and Coney Island booster. In recent years, Mr. Sitt's company, Thor Equities, has bought up $100 million worth of property along the Boardwalk. Sometime in the next decade, he hopes, his 12-acre patch — running from 12th Street to 21st — will have a billion-dollar hotel and condominium complex, anchored by an indoor water park and maybe a House of Blues.

The idea, Mr. Sitt said over the telephone, was to make Coney Island a "24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week attraction." The hotel would bring in guests during the winter, he said, and the glassed-in water park would provide a taste of the beach even when snow blanketed the ground outside.

"I utilize the Boardwalk all year round," said Mr. Sitt, who lives in the neighborhood and likes to go jogging by the sea early every morning. "And it's a terrible, terrible shame that that place goes to sleep for six months a year."

Mr. Prince, among others, is not sure how he feels about Mr. Sitt's plans. Like a lot of Coney Islanders, he likes the idea of a hotel bringing in new and decent-paying jobs. (The health care industry is now the neighborhood's leading employer, anchored by Coney Island Hospital on Ocean Parkway.) But he also worries that a big new development would vacuum away the Boardwalk's seedy charms and render the place indistinguishable from any resort destination. "We'd like to see Coney Island reserved as an amusement park area," he said.

Besides, noted Mr. Fox, Coney Island doesn't go completely quiet in the winter. Behind closed doors, he said, the ride operators were already getting ready for the traditional Easter opening, repainting bumper cars, oiling drive chains, and patching up their tents. Soon warm weather would arrive, and with it the crowds.

"It's cold and it's quiet," he said. "But people are around."


Whatsamatta? You gotta problem with Tom & Marcia Hole?

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